I was particularly excited to discover new speculative fiction, with two anthologies dedicated to the genre. This All Come Back Now (ed. Mykaela Saunders), collects First Nations fiction by emerging and established writers, including stories by Evelyn Araluen, Karen Wyld, Alison Whittaker and Adam Thompson which range from magic realism to satire, each an essential track in what Saunders describes as ‘a burnt CD from me to you, a way for you to sample new worlds’. Unlimited Futures (eds. Rafeif Ismail and Ellen van Neerven), features First Nations and Black writers, with stories by Claire G. Coleman, Sisonke Msimang, Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi and more. The pieces shift in form, voice, genre and language, and the collection ends with a brilliant story by SJ Minniecon written over seventy years ago, bringing writers and their work together across time.
When it comes to individual authors, ‘darkly funny’ is a phrase that seems to have been (fairly) applied to many of the collections I enjoyed. In An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, Paul Dalla Rosa presents sharp tales of modern alienation, following characters including a pancake restaurant worker, an aspiring life coach and an MFA student as they make small, spiralling decisions influenced by precarity or obsession. The stories in Katerina Gibson’s Women I Know range from realist to fabulist, occasionally playing with form—such as lists, monologues, and alternative layouts—but always building complex characters and worlds. In Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls, Anne Casey-Hardy takes the reader through narratives of baby theft, murder and other real and unreal dangers, showcasing an incredible ability to control tone and tension.
Weighted by climate change, Else Fitzgerald’s Everything Feels Like the End of the World constructs alternate presents and possible futures. Stories range in length and scope, each keeping a tight focus on human connection as characters deal with realities arising from climate disaster through to futuristic genetic engineering. The Burnished Sun by Mirandi Riwoe, which includes several beautifully-crafted stories drawing attention to questions of agency and disenfranchisement, is also bookended by two excellent novellas—one the previously Stella Prize-shortlisted The Fish Girl.
With the range and quality of story collections, it’s a shame 2022 coincided with a slight reduction in opportunities for their recognition (such as the Readings Prize, which in the past has highlighted short fiction but no longer considers the form eligible). I would hope more avenues for this open back up as Australian writers demonstrate their abilities.
When I finally read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo in 2018, I had just one thought: historical fan-fiction will surely become the new trend of avant-garde fiction writing! I was wrong. As I’ve discovered recently, what we describe as ‘predictions’ are just wayward hopes transcribed into a different language. That thought entered my mind again at my local bookstore, as the bookseller—the original algorithm—recommended This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham after a short quiz as to my overall tastes. To be evaluated by a real person felt intimate, pleasantly vulnerable, which came as a surprise given I had so continuously felt unlike that when assessed by machines. Alice, the book’s protagonist, does not think she is in communion with computers, actually, but Leonard Woolf. Cunningham draws parallels between the discontents of Alice’s time and of the Woolfs so successfully you cannot help but be unaware of the actual difference.
Losing Face by George Haddad deals with a similar kind of dual storytelling. With each chapter, we move between Joey, a bi-curious man ‘of Western Sydney experience’ and his grandmother, Elaine. For the first time, I feel ‘represented’ in the pantheon of queer texts that has grown to acknowledge the not-always-explicit tie between a queer man and their grandmother, one which could be explained by a 2008 study which found the ‘[…] impact of kin on child survival found a clear indication maternal grandmothers improve survival rates—more than the role of the fathers.’ When Joey’s father shows up in the book, disappointing and vaguely sincere, it serves to confirm this belief. When it comes to other friends, peers, even love interests, Joey senses that what sets him uncomfortably apart from other men isn’t that the attraction to them is homosexual—homosocial bonding being the most common, most predictable patriarchal lodestone—but that he is not homosexual (or homological) enough. Ergo, as a queer man, he sympathises with, maybe even loves women, where the straight men in his life do not.
Speaking of relatability—possibly the worst metric of evaluating art—The Diplomat by Chris Womersley feels least relatable of all. Yet it opens appropriately: ‘Hopefully the worst behind me: detox, collecting Gertrude’s ashes, London, the twenty-four hour flight, aeroplane food, customs, sniffer dogs. All I had to do now was survive the rest of my life. Which is no small order, of course.’ Womersley accurately portrays what it’s like to be a mess in your 30s, to be coming off of heroin, and be the receptacle for everyone else’s fears around landing in the same position. Edward, the main character, understands that to survive under our crude version of capitalism is to grift, to be a winner is to get away with being a grifter, and to fail is to be identified as one.
There is a bias to any list, and mine is influenced by personal relationships and the fact that my reading habits are neither as local nor contemporary as one may hope. Nevertheless, Root & Branch: Essays on Inheritance by Eda Gunaydin was my read of 2022. Gunaydin is a friend, but also a brilliant essayist, who weaves the supposedly separate realms of personal and the political into one, seamless braid. So, too, does Anwen Crawford in Decorum Serves the Rich: a zine about author income. Both authors, in differing ways, use their personal insights to foreground the deep fissures that disrupt our relationships—to self, to others, to the world around us. Gunaydin has called Root & Branch her manifesto, and while that word may be bandied about a little too much in recent times, it’s accurate. The book calls to the reader to question, unravel and be present, in solidarity with all the things we have inherited: family trauma, class hierarchies, casual and precarious employment, self-cannibalisation/commodification, and the material realities of the places we inhabit.
Gunaydin writes that she is not so much interested in the roses—the ‘exceptional’ aspects of our lives—but the soil, the dirt in which we toil and from which we grow. Crawford also inspects the dirt, or that ‘dirty’ aspect of writing usually kept under wraps in what she reckons originated from a well-worn, respectable ‘gentleman’s agreement’: money, or more specifically, who is paid what. Crawford uses the details of the payment she received for No Document (also a favourite read of 2022, although it was published in 2021) and Live Through This (2014) to talk more generally about author advances and royalties, and the work-obsessed culture we find ourselves trying to exist within. Both cultural critics make me wonder: how do we prioritise deep, focused thinking in a world that demands us to labour, or else recover from our labour, in every moment? Neither text seeks to provide an answer, but in meditating on what goes on beneath, they allow us to till the earth until potential solutions can germinate.
In spite of a lingering belief that novels are somehow superior to non-fiction, the two books that remain with me from 2022 are essay collections: Eda Gunaydin’s Root & Branch, in which the author considers the familial, cultural and financial inheritances that have shaped her life until now, and Sally Olds’ People Who Lunch, which is concerned with how ‘now’ might be different—better, even. The essays that make up both collections comprise a blend of personal experience, theory and social commentary Olds sardonically describes as being on ‘high rotation’ in literary scenes across the Western world. And yet I would be dissimulating if I claimed to have experienced these texts as anything less than radical. With something like the apocalypse lurking just around the corner, when it so often feels like the only available options are to laugh or cry, I was struck by what Lur Alghurabi, in her review of Root & Branch, refers to as Gunaydin’s ‘refusal to laugh’, and what I came to value above all else is the seriousness with which both Gunaydin and Olds handle themselves, their loved ones and the question of how to live under capitalism.
This is not to say that they are not attentive to the absurd in a manner fundamental to the readability and fidelity of each text to the ‘vast confusion’ that characterises our times. It’s just that for all of Gunaydin’s self-deprecation and Olds’ doneness with the hybrid essay, neither of them seem to have completely given up on the idea that writing, books, ideas, can make a difference; that is, both essayists write with purpose. In an effort to halt a ‘descent into discourse’, Gunaydin uses her personal experience to weld Marxist ideology back onto the material reality of class, race and gender, and in this way calls the reader to action. Each of Olds’ essays studies a different mode of transgression as a means to freedom and draws on personal experience to explore the complexities of attempting to enact this freedom in and around capitalism. When I read novels, I often feel held, pulled forward by an undertow of emotion that I typically associate with fiction. These books prodded me, agitated me, pushed me to consider the way I inhabit and interact with the world and how else I might do so.