Semi-finals are where it’s at. Ask any tennis purist watching the Australian Open. The intensity is there, there’s no distracting pomp and ceremony, the tickets are cheaper and nobody’s making up the numbers.
This semi-final sees a wildcard and a dark horse go head-to-head. (Will it drive you wild if I keep these tennis metaphors going for a little bit longer? This is a tournament after all and—well, it’s just that I get so few opportunities to make any use of my sporting knowledge in the bookish company I keep…) Both have knocked out top seeds on their way to the final four: Tom Cho has had decisive victories over Prichard and Jolley; Josephine Rowe’s wins have been harder fought but arguably more impressive, overcoming Bail and Carey—really good Bail and Carey, I want to emphasise, the heretical, vivid, ‘out there’ stuff they published before they got grumpy and grey and had earned enough career prize money to command choice inner-city real estate.
Like a Federer-Nadal match, this semi-final is a study in contrasts. Rowe’s story is nostalgic, lyrical, earnest, an evocation of a particular time and place—St Kilda before its fairly recent gentrification. It is a story that puts setting but also telling first—it offers a virtuosic rendition of that rare and somewhat challenging narrative point of view, the first person plural; it drops in arresting adjectives and verbs with discernment.
Cho’s story is contemporary, colloquial, playful, a flight of fantasy about identity. Doing his best Carrie Bradshaw impression, Cho wonders about the relationship between gender and affect by inserting himself, like a Marty Stu, into a Dr Phil episode.
Rowe writes sentences the way baseliners construct their points: the clauses, like groundstrokes, produce their effects by accumulation. Cho, on the other hand, prefers the drop shot and the lob, surprising us with the variety his allusions and the strangeness of his events.
These differences aside, both writers are intensely interested in exploring this one idea: the power of art, and that includes literature, to bend or stop time. Rowe’s story notices, some time after the fact, how a man’s spontaneous and unself-conscious singing had given its hearers literal pause and transformed the threadbare world in which it resounded. Art, represented by the man’s singing, can cause fissures in clock-time like this, but art, that is the short story Rowe writes, also saves the singing from it’s own native transience—as well as a short-lived household and a bygone suburb—by preserving it in literature.
Cho, for his part, tests which of our cultural artefacts are ephemeral and which are enduring, and does this in the short story, always a marginal form of literature, which he pushes to the limits of disposability by embracing genres such as comics and fanfiction. In slipping easily from classical to pop culture reference—in this story from Euripides’ Medea to Dr Phil—Cho reminds us, among other things, that at base these people are just interested in the precisely the same thing —the problems of housewives—and that their value is best judged by whether they can live inside a fiction.
On the rebound ace of my mind’s eye Cho and Rowe are doing titanic battle. Whose story made me laugh? Cho’s. Whose story moved me? Rowe’s. Who asks the bigger questions? Cho. Who answers them better? Rowe. Which story has a greater lightness of touch? Cho’s. Which story has the richer language? Rowe’s. Who is more likely to shake up the Australian short story? Cho. Who is more likely to end up in my Book Depository basket? Rowe. We’re into the fifth and deciding set. Spectator heads are swinging from side to side like laughing clowns at a fairground: Cho. Rowe. Cho. Rowe…The call is challenged and it’s over to Hawk-Eye. Game, set, match: Cho.
© Melinda Harvey
WINNER: ‘Today on Dr Phil’ by Tom Cho
Melinda Harvey’s love affair with the short story began—like a lot of people’s—with Edgar Allan Poe and Roald Dahl, and these days continues on the commute to work when she listens to the New Yorker short story podcasts. As a critic she’s reviewed numerous short story collections—most recently Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and Tessa Hadley’s Married Love for The Age. In February she’s off to Wellington to present a paper on Katherine Mansfield and Chekhov. She was a 2012 Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre and teaches at Monash University.