All bad stories are alike, but each wonderful story is great in its own way. The main ground shared by these stories is a preference for abolition—the bad need to build people from words and the worse need to destroy them. But where the target in ‘Love and Honor’ is either Nam or his dad, everyone in Astley’s world is ‘tumid’, ready for the scalpel’s slice. Meanwhile, “Love and Honor” is a personal story (or a convincing fake); the narrator makes his drinking problem our business on page four. But ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ is casually anti-human; a near-stranger who asks ‘How do I get to express my total self?’ is remembered with scorn.
Don’t laugh, but fruit is an occasion for violence in both stories—one author takes her people hunting for possible pineapple, the other force-feeds his narrator durian to induce public throwing-up. Both get characters drunk as an impetus to revelation, but where Nam’s drunk dad only teases with the chance of inner realness, the workings of Astley’s characters are all helplessly see-through.
Where Thea Astley was famously underappreciated in her time, Nam Le is (more famously) the right author for right now. ‘Love and Honor’ cuts very deep for enthusiastic fiction-readers because it invokes the fearsomely competent, ‘polished’ writing current writing schools produce. It’s gutsy of Le to have a friend comment that ‘You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn’t have the vocab’. By contrast, Astley’s Mr Pasmore is observed to be ‘just sufficiently not quite like a well-known actor to appear not valid’, shortly after he’s seen bending ‘spousily’ over his wife. ‘Love and Honor’ speaks volumes with a careful, balanced structure, while Astley’s linguistic jazz-hands preclude a similar risk.
Early in ‘Love and Honor’, the piece literally departs from the poetic geography of stories like ‘Wild Pineapple’. ‘The fields are glass,’ Nam recalls, waking from a dream in which he’s written his life’s best poem; but the next line recedes as his father clumps in with real-life weather news. Sections of the story begin with returns to this locale—an Iowa that ‘is beautiful in the way that any place is beautiful: if you treat it as the answer to a question you’re asking yourself every day’. But life (particularly his dad’s life) endemically push this space away.
‘Love and Honor’, in other words, assaults a particular mode of short-storiness from the inside: when a room smells of peppermint, it’s a throwback to the (valuable) Creative Writing class trope that smell is the only unmediated route to memory. Le does the impossible and makes the result break your heart, but Astley’s story by comparison feels dangerous, unruly, and charged. She pursues ‘lakes, craters, dams, limestone caves, ghost towns, abandoned mining camps, mission settlements, crocodile farms, hippie communes, sugar mills’—loading you up on sensory data and keeping it that way. One of her women is researching ‘the human geography of the north for a nonsense thesis.’ ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ is the nonsensical result, and the weirder work is the one deserving of the imaginary prize.
© Ronnie Scott
WINNER: ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ by Thea Astley
Ronnie Scott is art editor of The Lifted Brow and comics critic for ABC Radio National. Visit him at www.ronalddavidscott.com.
Ben: Thea Astley had thitherto crept through the competition like a thief in the night, flying under the radar like a duck carrying a dambuster; but this is no longer possible. In the semi-final she butts heads with Nam Le, the brutal fifty-ton cyborg gorilla of the tournament so far, and all eyes are on her. Previously Le had torn his opponents to shreds with almost poetic savagery, pounding them remorselessly in the face with his subtle evocation of the pains and joys of family, and some had feared that Astley would suffer a similar fate. After all, her story ‘Hunting the Wild Pineapple’ is not only based on the discredited scientific theory that pineapples are sentient beings, but as Ronnie Scott observes, is ‘casually anti-human’. In the past, anti-human stories have fared badly in literary tournaments, possibly due to the continuing chauvinism that has seen every literary tournament judge in Australian history so far be a human, and therefore (possibly unconsciously) biased against stories that are anti-them. What’s more, to be casually anti-human is to commit the gravest sin of all: if you’re going to hate us, goes the well-worn human cry, at least put a bit of effort into it. And yet early on in this match Astley quickly began demonstrating signs of a brewing upset. Lulling Le into a false sense of security with her see-through characters, she was soon sending her crocodile farms and sugar mills on scything raids deep behind Le’s defensive lines, and in the end, Le was unable to withstand the assault: his famed balanced structure came up short on the day, and attempts to counter-attack through aggressively teasing with the chance of inner realness came to naught. At the end of the day, Nam Le just didn’t seem to have anything left in the tank, while Astley looked full of running, and against all odds, looks well-set to charge towards the title with her wild pineapple. Jess?
Jess: Wow, Ben. I feel like I need to lie down after reading that, your commentary was full on. What more can I add, huh? That I agree? Because I do, sir. I agree with everything you said. Not only that, I agree with everything you ever have said in the past, and everything you ever will say in the future. I am wearing a tshirt right now that says ‘TEAM POBJIE’. Soon I will update my Facebook status to ‘Jess agrees with Ben Pobjie 4eva’ and then Instagram a photograph of me, pouting and tilting forward in order to show just a little bit of cleavage, holding up a sign that says ‘Benjamin Pobjie Is Never Wrong’. Then I’ll Tweet a link to that photo, and then I’ll created 70 fake Twitter accounts to retweet myself, and then the hashtag #iagreewithpobjie will begin trending, and then everyone else in Australia will start Tweeting about you being right, and then one of those Tweets will end up being mentioned on Q&A. And then a visiting foreign female writer on the panel will attempt to address the topic of Ben Pobjie always being right, and she’ll be stopped by Tony Jones who would rather hear what a cackling Christopher Pyne has to say about it. And then you, sitting at home on the couch wearing a fluffy dressing gown with ‘BENNYPOO’ embroidered on the back (a gift from your wife!), will be watching all of this unfold on your television. And you will write a pithy Twitter update about it, and that quip will go viral, and I will see it in my feed and smile and nod and mutter quietly to myself ‘That Pobjie’s done it again – he is just never wrong.’ and then the whole goddamn cycle will begin again.
In conclusion: Well bloody done, Thea Astley
Wait, where am I?