I’m a short fiction tragic. I read for enjoyment and relaxation but also to learn how to write better. This year I discovered Jane Gardam’s ‘Stone Trees’, a story about loss which uses rhythm and repetition (in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories). The story begins, ‘So now that he is dead so now that he is dead I am to spend the day with them.’ The phrase is repeated and evolves into, ‘Now that you are dead’ ‘Oh my darling now that you are dead’ I like the way the information gradually unrolls; the situation perhaps becomes clear to the reader before the protagonist is consciously aware of it. The story ends, ‘Now that you are.’ I wish I had written it! I started to read other stories by Gardam looking for another as inspiring. I was browsing in Gleebooks with Hilary Hewitt, a friend and writing mate, when we found two new editions of Gardam’s short stories. Imagine our excitement and how it turned to mutual disappointment when no story was as good as ‘Stone Trees’, and many were predictable and formulaic.
For almost a year I’ve Skyped with Mark Vender, an Australian writer who lives in Columbia, South America. We critique each other’s short fiction in progress. We also discuss broad writing issues, especially what we’ve been reading. Our discussions have been returning to a collection of short stories by the American author, George Saunders, The Tenth of December.
Saunders seems to try ‘…to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace.’ (Joel Lovell, ‘Introduction’). In ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ Saunders uses journal entries to describe in detail worthy of Theodore Dreisser the attempts of an ordinary family to cope with current American social and financial pressures. A father, who has maxed out his credit cards, wants to give his daughter a birthday party which will impress her wealthy friends and prove that he is a good parent. When he wins ten thousand dollars from a Scratch-Off ticket, instead of paying off debts, he buys a lawn decoration. Exotic women hang by wires running through their skulls, enabling their long black hair and white smocks to sway in the breeze. So the Semplica Girls, this living installation, this decoration for the birthday party, becomes a metaphor for international slave trade, gender issues and prostitution. Moral concerns are jumping off the page like grasshoppers, but we hear the feelings of a guilty father who has failed to provide for his children what other families appear to provide with ease. Saunder’s strength is that the reader simultaneously empathises and is critical. Then Saunders further escalates the moral conflicts and economic pressures.
Joel Lovell stresses the importance for Saunders of persevering with the part of the draft story that isn’t working. Saunders says:
A story will appear to have a big unsolvable problem, but that’s because I am operating under a too-restrictive vision of what it is. It’s like if you had a kid who was destined to be a great shot-putter and you kept viewing her as a future sprinter. She would constantly seem to be failing. But if you could be quiet and listen to her, you’d see that her ‘failing” was just that she had other thoughts about the matter.
Mark and I agree that George Saunders gets deep into his protagonists’ heads. We like the combination of serious and funny.
I’m rarely curious about suspense or memoir. My interest in a subtle domestic epiphany has been satisfied. I want to grapple with contemporary moral ambiguities. I want to read writers who explore uneasy, unacceptable ideas.
Do we have great Australian stories about moral issues? Not many. One that stands out for me is Jennifer Mills’ ‘Look down with me’ (from her collection, The Rest Is Weight) which reminds me of James Baldwin’s story, ‘Going to See the Man.’ Another is Michael Giacometti’s ‘my abbr.d life’ and his compelling essay explaining why and how he wrote it, ‘The Madness or the Method’ from Cracking the Spine: Ten Australian Stories and How They Were Written. Giocometti comments on writing the first line of a story:
The first sentence is an act of strong magic. It is the seductive desire that lures you, the reader, lures you in like a crow to fresh roadkill. It is the director shouting ‘Action’ and action starts now. It is a boxer putting you on your arse with the first punch … It should intrigue. But mostly, it must unsettle. It is a cattleprod, a hard slap.
You are probably thinking, so intense! She must read something lighter. I read to my grandchildren. The Katoomba kids were full of sly excitement when they first asked me to read Mark Sommerset’s I Like Lemonade and Baa Baa Smart Sheep to them. Such unexpected cunning and deceit in these witty picture books from New Zealand! The kids held their breath waiting to see if, and when, I would get it. When I got it, I had to start reading again from the beginning, reading the parts in more suitable voices. I was so off track, trying to read that trickster girl lamb as a sweet innocent. I can’t resist reading her mischievous voice aloud. Then the kids and I took turns reading to each other. The rhythms leave the same delicious feeling in my mouth as reading the first page of Lolita aloud, or reading Ania Walwicz’s poem, ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ (‘Little Red Riding Hood’ A poem by Ania Walwicz).
Deluding myself that I’m about to travel to Italy must count as an escape! That makes my escape reading an Italian dictionary, Espresso I: Corso di Italiano and Italian for Dummies which linger on my coffee table with maps, course descriptions, CDs, travel brochures, and illustrated books about the Italian Renaissance, Andre Mantegna and Piero della Francesco.
While I am here in Sydney, I want to read and write tough. Thanks James Baldwin, Michael Giacometti, Jennifer Mills, Mark Sommerset, George Saunders and Ania Walwicz.
Julie Chevalier lives in the inner west of Sydney. She writes poetry (Linen Tough as History and Darger: his girls, Puncher & Wattmann) and short stories (Permission to Lie, Spineless Wonders). Recently she co-edited, Cracking the Spine: Ten Australian Stories and How They Were Written (Spineless Wonders).