Recently I ran my first short fiction workshop. Over the months leading up to the event most of my spare mental time—in the shower, walking to the train station, operating a spotlight at my job—was spent remembering and rewording advice I’d received from other writers in similar workshops. And, of course, some of that time was spent trying to quash, or allowing myself to wallow in, imposter syndrome.
So often a writer’s self-doubt—or self-flagellation—is not only linked to the quality of her own work, but to the quality of what she has or hasn’t read (as so many writers have reflected on in this blog series). We all have our lists, ones we’re proud of and ones of which we’re ashamed. My lists often look like two sides of one coin, with writers whose work I love alongside very similar writers whose work I’ve never read. For instance, my absolute favourite writer is American short story legend Lorrie Moore, and yet somehow I made it through two Creative Writing degrees, years of devouring short fiction, and ten of my own fiction publications, without ever having read an Alice Munro story.
Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013 and is generally regarded as the master of the contemporary short story. I knew it was unlikely any participant in my workshop would ask me a detailed question about Munro. Moreover, I knew that any student who was simple-mindedly pretentious enough to deem a writer’s lack of knowledge of one seminal writer as proof of illegitimacy, is not someone with the complexity of thought to be a writer. Nonetheless, I went to my favourite second-hand bookshop, Already Read in Fitzroy North where a sizeable stack of Munro’s collections sat high on a shelf. I started at the beginning with Dance of the Happy Shades.
The first story in Munro’s first collection ‘Walker Brothers Cowboy’ is about a family living in small town Canada through the Depression. We get a detailed portrait: the father whose business went bust, trying to keep chipper for his family in the face of open hostility from his wife. She is cutting an old woollen suit to repurpose into a school uniform for the narrator. The narrator is isolated at home minding her younger brother—the innocent add on, not yet old enough to understand his family’s unhappiness—their mother’s shame keeps them hidden away. Paragraphs are devoted to the detailed imagery of the town to which their poverty has flung them. Long sentences peppered with delightful sentence fragments. You can almost see the tracked changes that would slash them were they written today: ‘The street is shaded, in some places, by maple trees whose roots have cracked and heaved the sidewalk and spread out like crocodiles into the bare yards.’
After three pages of world-building, section two of the story begins; ‘My father has a job selling for Walker Brothers.’ And then we are on the road, the narrator and her brother in the back of the car as their father takes them along with him on his new job, of which his wife is so ashamed, as a door-to-door salesman. I imagined myself sitting across Munro in a Creative Writing workshop saying—This is the beginning of the story, throw us into the action.
I was suspecting a lurid twist, akin to Roald Dahl, having mistaken the detailed depiction of family life as a luring of the reader into familiarity that would soon be ripped away. After a few door-to-door sales observed from the backseat of the car, including one where a chamber pot of urine is dumped from a window onto the father’s head, we are taken to another home. Here the father does not sell anything, but is greeted enthusiastically by a woman, clearly an old friend. They laugh about their shared past. Their affection for one another is clear, but just like their past the details are lacking. The father dances with this woman in her lounge. Their relationship, although we can’t discern what it is, is incongruous with everything we understand of his life.
The appearance of an old friend seems a mundane plot point compared to a Dahl-esque twist, but this had the impact of one with ten times the emotional weight. I was eagerly turning the page. How did we get here? Where the f**k is this story going? I would learn this kind of delightful bewilderment in a story about two thirds in is signature of Munro.
I devoured this collection and two others—The Moons of Jupiter and Open Secrets. I adored almost every story and yet couldn’t help thinking how I couldn’t see them surviving a Creative Writing workshop or a journal’s slush pile today. Munro’s third person voice is almost mildly pompous, but with a kind of ironic undertone, similar to that of Lorrie Moore. And of course, there’s the length. It’s not just that Munro’s stories are long—it’s the entry and exit points she chooses. We get far more establishing detail than any editor and I bet most readers would indulge today. Plot twists aren’t placed at the end of stories, leaving the reader to extrapolate beyond the page for their own meaning. Munro carries us through hundreds, sometimes thousands of words beyond the point that a story hinges on, to another ending.
I’m not meaning to suggest Munro’s style is better than today’s fashions (or ‘rules’ which they more often feel like in publishing). Do I sound like a traditionalist? I hope not. One contemporary collection I loved this year was Chris Womersley’s A Lovely and Terrible Thing. I was gifted Womersley’s Cairo in 2014 and adored it. In 2016 I got around to reading his more acclaimed novel Bereft and it didn’t do anything for me. In most cases this would make Womerlsey a writer I had neutral feelings for. I held a fondness for him only because I once spotted him in what at the time was my favourite bakery—Loafer Bread in Fitzroy North. If you’re in the area at Already Read it’s still worth it. Opt for the plain croissant, though, as sadly they recently replaced the classic cheese and tomato croissant with cheese and kimchi.
Womerlsey and I were published alongside one another in Black Inc’s Best Summer Stories collection last year. His story ‘Petrichor’ (originally published in Island) is about a young boy lusting after his neighbour in the summer holidays. Patrick has a hunchback and people like to tell him how he is ‘like that chap from the fairytale’. Kids in his town rub his hump for luck. In addition to highlighting Patrick’s pain and humiliation, I wonder if Womerlsey was playfully hinting to an essence of the story that is fairy-tale like. The boy locked away by his physical difference. A young beauty also isolated, but in an entirely different sense. A menacing father figure. An absent-minded mother with her ‘maudlin fretting’ and drunken weeping. The gothic image of Patrick’s ‘hateful brace hung like a torture device from a hook’. And yet the story is equal parts grounded in a familiar hot Australian summer with screaming cicadas, a backyard pool, Pink Floyd playing on a tape deck and ‘Claire Dixon running a thumb idly beneath her red bikini top…My God.’
When I read in his contributor bio that Womersley had a collection forthcoming this year, I decided then and there I would read it. Six months later on the day it was published I went straight to the bookstore to buy a copy, making a point to tell the bookseller how desperately I’d been waiting for the collection (as though maybe I could single-handedly improve statistics for sales of short stories). There are 20 stories in the collection, more than the three Munro collections I read combined. I suspect this is a publisher’s way of trying to promise bang for one’s buck, but the length didn’t excite me. Moreover, I looked at it and thought, surely there has to be some filler in here. I’m purchasing at least three duds.
There was only one story that didn’t do it for me. I’m not going to go into detail of which one because I don’t remember and I would far rather gush over the stories I loved. My favourite in the collection is the title story. It has a touch of the delightfully absurd. The narrator works for the company called Ripley’s Believe it Or Not and is on his way to investigate a parrot who is said to be able to count to 150; and while it does by the end dip its toes into magical realism, the heartbreaking beauty of the story is in the narrator’s struggle watching his daughter suffer from a brain injury. The essence of the otherworldly balanced with the heart of real human struggle is present in many of the stories. A boy rows over the lake he remembers watching his disappeared mother swim in and finds a shanty town on the other side. Another boy observes his father’s descent into madness after his grandfather’s disappearance. When his own father disappears in the same place he is left contemplating, along with the reader, the nature of madness.
Written over a span of thirteen years (according to the publication details—it’s likely Womersley started drafting some of these stories even further back) you can recognise Womersley’s recurring preoccupations. Young, sensitive boys are baffled or hurt by the adults around them. Grief is constant and unrelenting.
A Lovely and (not at all) Terrible Thing is counted as one of the best books I’ve read this year. Alongside it are the Munro and Josephine Rowe’s collection Here Until August, which at the time of my writing this blog post is not yet published. When it is I will be running to the bookstore, exclaiming at a bookseller who most likely won’t care, how desperately I’ve been waiting for it.
Allee Richards’s short fiction has been published widely in Australian journals and anthologies. She currently has a story in the anthology New Australian Fiction, out now by Kill Your Darlings.