I always struggle to enjoy New Year’s Eve. The prospect of welcoming 2017 was especially unappealing—I was still trying to get over some rather cruel feedback that my favourite writing teacher had sent me about my entire body of fiction. Nevertheless, I dragged myself out to a literary party at a bar in Northcote that used to be an abandoned warehouse. The group bonding activity at the party entailed assembling in a circle and patting each other on the back.
I’d brought along an illustrator friend, Jeff, who really tried to fit in. He said to the bartender-slash-writer, ‘Evelyn Waugh was a man, did you know?’ It was very sweet. As I scoped out the room, I realised no one at the party had published Jeff’s work, so I pretended not to know him. I left him in the corner to hum R.E.M. and draw sad faces in his journal.
The topic of conversation in the circle was what we were all reading. One must always have a ready answer to this question—an answer that is both carefully cultivated and impressive. Be reading the books you should be reading, not the books you actually want to be reading. In particular, make sure you’re up to date with the work of every writer who has a book out—just in case you bump into them at a literary event and find yourself ill-equipped to gush about their work with specificity.
While everyone in the circle was flooring each other with their vocabularies, another writer suddenly materialised—luminous, ethereal, and wrapped in faux fur. Evidently, Adelaide Hegarty was back in town. Jeff, entranced like the rest, started sketching her furiously—trying to capture her in a way that only words could. I took pity on his gross illiteracy, and wandered over to him with a glass of champagne.
‘You won’t charm Hegarty by drawing her,’ I explained. ‘Give her this champers and talk impressively about books you haven’t read, including her own.’
I told Jeff that the secret to staying abreast of Ozlit is to read the hype surrounding new books without actually opening them. Before he cornered Hegarty, I gave him a crash course on how to talk about her new book, as well as another February release everyone should be reading. I’ve decided to share that crash course in this blog post for the benefit of Meanjin readers, who might have seen early copies of both books at the top of my official #SummerReadingStack.
Hegarty’s new release is a finely wrought short-story collection, Mallarmé’s Pupil. The product of one of Australia’s most prestigious writing programs, Hegarty deftly avoids the usual tricksiness of a debut writer: nothing in the material works to grab your attention. Sophisticated, consistent and moving, the collection neatly sidesteps the trap of relying on humour.
Hegarty’s cosmopolitan reach is a particular strength. In the superb ‘Montmartre’, a young Australian woman in Paris explores her identity. The story is ostensibly informed by Hegarty’s gap years in London and Paris, where she dabbled in pastry making and shared an apartment with me in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Neither does twenty-eight-year-old Hegarty shy away from examining the raw underbelly of inner-city Melbourne. In ‘Teach Me Tonight’, a first-year university student competes with her best friend for the attention of their lecturer. Admiring the man from afar, she confides: ‘His voice—Mallarmé in the key of velvet. I am nymph to his ardent faun.’ In ‘Deleuze’, a young woman and her older lover—observed by the titular character, the woman’s erudite but ailing black cat—fail to broach the issue of whether to live in the bush or Manhattan. In a keenly realised moment, the lovers drink flat whites in silence at a recognisable Brunswick East cafe. Later, they wander along a beach symbolising their despair.
Hegarty’s measured style is characterised by lyrically spare sentences, so spare you could fit a tyre between each word: a tyre presumably larger than a bike tyre but smaller than a car tyre. Sparse but conceptually lush, gentle but unflinching, the book was unsurprisingly the subject of an international bidding war prior to publication, and is poised to sweep every accolade on the domestic front.
The second book on everyone’s lips this year will be J Fenwick Anderson’s rural masterpiece, Bush Tart. As many readers of this blog will know, Anderson is not only an acclaimed author—he is also widely recognised for running a writing program that has produced many of Australia’s rising literary stars. His highly anticipated third novel, rumoured to be heavily autobiographical, is a gripping narrative following a middle-aged Melbourne academic, John Andersohn, as he fantasises about his precocious and nubile creative-writing student, Adele. Fantasy becomes reality when he takes his muse and her ‘fulsome breasts’ to a Daylesford B&B for a dirty weekend and some dusty realism. One morning, several dirty Sundays later, she goes missing on Mount Franklin, the only clue to her whereabouts being a note on the sink reiterating that she is leaving to commence an MFA in New York.
Fearing the worst, Andersohn wanders, listless and dehydrated, through the unforgiving landscape. He begins to hallucinate, engaging in philosophical conversations with a grinning black cat and a rotting tarte tatin. The unlikely companions discuss sex as death; Aboriginality; and Andersohn’s boring wife, who has younger onset dementia. Great existential questions are at play here: one can’t help but wonder if the figure of Andersohn is a unified hegemonic Deleuzian piss-take of the metacritical analysis of absurdist aesthetic distance, or a solemn-faced restorative Faustian pact of multiple diacritical performativity.
There is no escape from the enormity of Anderson’s talent. His undeniable skill is at work in this tour de force, demonstrated in such vivid passages as: ‘John put the kettle on. He put a teabag in a mug, waited, then poured in the boiling water. He added two sugars and a drop of milk.’ Rarely has the act of making a cup of tea been so masterfully observed and so restrainedly eroticised.
Enthralling, weighty, and with muscular heft, Bush Tart is undoubtedly a work of extraordinary power from Australia’s modern-day Nabokov. Destined to join the Ozlit canon, the work calls to mind New Writing for the Real Australia. The reader is left haunted and aroused, her entire being overwhelmed with the image of ‘a lone gumtree casting its phallic shadow across the moistening dry’.
New Year’s Eve would be the last time I’d see the late Hegarty. I keep replaying the moment of her departure in my mind—watching her and her fur disappear happily into the night with a glass of what authorities would later conclude to be champers with a touch of cyanide. The author of what will surely be the most celebrated debut of 2017, Hegarty was ultimately deprived of the opportunity to live to see her career outstrip my own. I was the one who deserved to go to the B&B, and I will make it there yet.
It is shaping up to be a very good year in fiction.
Julie Koh is the author of two short-story collections: Portable Curiosities and Capital Misfits. Her fiction has appeared in the Best Australian Stories in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and Best Australian Comedy Writing in 2016. She is the editor of BooksActually’s Gold Standard and a founding member of Kanganoulipo.