Reviewed: Ben Walter, What Fear Was, Puncher & Wattmann
A scintillating collection of short fiction, Ben Walter’s What Fear Was is as textured and elemental as the rocks that act as the namesake of his debut novella Conglomerate (which reappears in this collection). I grew familiar with conglomerates when I was living in remote western Tasmania—conglomerates are a geological rock formation made up of many different kinds of stone, each one rolled like a snowball from different sediments deposited by glaciers. On some streets in Queenstown, you can see them jutting from creek beds and valleys where glacial paths once trammelled the earth.
There is a sense of colliding temporalities that surface in this part of Tasmania, where many of Walter’s stories take place. Some visitors say that visiting Queenstown is like stepping several decades into the past. Weathered doilies adorn flaking windowpanes; rusted mineshafts and gravel football fields lend a hollow antiquity to the same places where minerals are extracted and circulated to fuel globalised technologies. This sense of anachronism, pitted against the clashing domesticity and wilderness, is something Walter captures with playful humour and absurdity. It imbues this collection of stories with a feeling of finding something remarkably (and often delightfully) odd, in places you don’t expect.
One of the conglomerate-esque highlights of What Fear Was is the story ‘Landscape within Landscapes’. It begins with a nod to Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape, a short-story collection first published by Norstrilia Press, a small publishing company named after the novel by science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. A former intelligence agent for the CIA, Smith also wrote Psychological Warfare, a nonfiction book he published under his birth name, Paul Linebarger (he published most of his science fiction works under a pseudonym). Though hugely influential, Smith’s science fiction paperbacks are mostly out of print, including story collections and combinations of texts that never quite became a finished novel—a conglomerate, if you will. In Smith’s Norstrilia, ‘Old North Australia’ is a hyper-colonial fantasy remarkably evocative of the continent’s recent history. Norstrilians are the richest people in the galaxy; they consume an immortalising drug called ‘stroon’, an elixir extracted from gigantic, blighted sheep that weigh more than a hundred tons. The illusion of endless youth afforded to the Norstrilians reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay ‘Thinking about Cordwainer Smith’ (1994), where Le Guin observes: ‘By their endless dying they furnish untold wealth and eternal life to their human owners.’
In a similar way, the unearthed geologies of western Tasmania sustain an industry that sees minerals tapped then circulated throughout the ‘Young Country’, with local mining towns and button grass plains submerged beneath lakes that spin water into electricity. This sense of colonial erasure undermines the pastoral milieu of What Fear Was. Walter leans into this discordance intentionally, bringing out the way Tasmania is represented from afar and how, by the same token, the island rejects easy conclusions. To show the tension between otherworldliness and pastoral veneer, Walter quotes from Norstrilia at the beginning, while weaving references to Murnane: ‘Around him stretched the rolling plains of his own land.’ Here, the conglomerate resurfaces:
as though the landscape itself had bowed, presenting an invitation, soliciting him through the mud and button grass to sit under the judgment of three souls hunched on stiff seats of quartz; stones grazed smooth by the river’s song […]
There is a lyricism to ‘Landscape within Landscapes’ (and which runs through the collection), but with particular musicality in its reference to the Pleistocene era, when glaciers shaped many of western Tasmania’s distinctive features: ‘Had it been so many as fifteen thousand years since the glaciers startled that landscape with deep groans?’ The story turns in upon itself to reveal a narrator who is referred to throughout as ‘the useless man’, whose self-deprecating tone emerges (somewhat irritatingly) from a chorus of birdsong:
For all his late-night gazing at the choir of stars that hymned across the sky […] He had no right to the forests; he was a deluded mule, a bastard offspring of town and bush that could give birth to nothing at all.
Throughout Walter’s collection there is a sense of dead ends and a blistering emptiness in the face of ever-changing landscapes. In ‘Atlantis Minor’, the sunken township of Crotty surfaces from the watery depths of Lake Burbury as the hydroelectric dam that has been built over the town is drained. Walter revives Crotty as Tasmania’s own Atlantis, an absurdist portrait painted by an overenthusiastic local, who narrates with a sense of conspiratorial defeat—if the reader goes looking, they will find that the map of Crotty on the Tasmanian government’s Department of Parks and Natural Resources website shows up as a broken link. This brings to mind Ulysses, where Crotty and Queenstown also appear—Queenstown was the name of the harbour now known as Cobh, which is referenced in Joyce’s novel, and where the town of Crosshaven is mistakenly referred to as Crotty. Further entangling the buried links is the town’s namesake: James Crotty was an Irish prospector who founded the North Mount Lyell Copper Company, which went under (literally) when its factories collapsed and the dam was built over the Tasmanian town.
Interestingly, the lake where Crotty is submerged has also been found to include an astrobleme called Darwin Glass, the name for the fragments of earth melted by asteroids that struck the Darwin Crater basin below Lake Burbury. The stones are riddled with a bubbly texture—they come in rare shapes of teardrops and disc-like formations. These meteoric rocks are found alongside conglomerates, fossilising records of sudden change. These underlying rock beds arise to sabotage the characters in What Fear Was.
As I mentioned above, conglomerates are made by glaciers. And true enough they appear in the second-last story, ‘An Anti-Glacier Book’. Walter opens the story with dialogue from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:
You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?
No, what do you say, Harrison Starr?
I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’
Here, the futility of anti-war books is poised against the earth-shifting might of glaciers. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. A similar slipperiness emerges in ‘An Anti-Glacier Book’ as it negotiates between materiality, inevitability and the passing of time: ‘All mountains were once seashores […] Undulations in landscapes—in time, not in space.’ Footnotes abound in this story, undercutting the narrator as an unknown sarcastic voice interjects. Between the self-effacing interlocutor and the abundance of imagery that sees the narrator shrink before an ambivalent landscape, there is a sense of inevitability that echoes the previous stories about disappearing townships. As townships disappear, stories can too, as is captured in the final paragraph:
A strange image I’m left with: an exhibition, photographs of Mawson’s Antarctic huts, the ice pressing in on the door and filling up the rooms, old mugs, papers … and two books caught and frozen solid, unmoving and unread.
Books freeze, townships are flooded; anxiety about irrelevance engenders a sense of futility, especially as esoteric histories are lost to the onslaught of uncontrollable elements. And we know glaciers are going extinct anyway. In these stories, Walter combines a sense of realist domesticity with speculative climate fiction, highlighting the unknowability of a landscape that has always resisted claims of settlement. Earlier, in ‘Beast Evolving’, Walter depicts the ‘feral’ wildfires—intensified by climate change—as a chimeric creature that begins as a pet and transforms into a dragon. Its rhythm is set to a childlike refrain, ‘can we keep him?’, with the ending, ‘always, he bites’. Throughout the collection, interactions between Walter’s self-doubting narrators and the landscapes they inhabit are contrasted with a playful anthropomorphism, which underscores that sense of ‘losing control’ as unpredictable elements collide against human aggrandisements.
Land and water become interlocutors in ‘The Eradication Program’, where the townships of Wynyard and Howrah (both coastal areas) become masculine figures competing to become islands in a self-made narrative alongside references to Gulliver’s Travels, which endow it with a surrealist eccentricity. Tasmania is simultaneously a dollhouse and somehow larger than life in Walter’s elastic depictions. ‘The Lake’ revolves around a dam at Lake Pedder that is quietly drained; yet this wilderness whose image brought Tasmania’s wilderness to the world stage fails to be restored to its former glory.
However, not all of Walter’s stories are steeped in ‘Tasmaniana’—the imagining of Tasmania as a place of rugged isolation or pastoral nostalgia reproduced for cultural export: ‘The Slide’ and ‘We Are All Superman’ are detached from localised references. The latter reminded me of Tom Cho’s short story ‘Suitmation’, in its untethered setting of saturated Western pop culture. Regardless, what continues to run through these less setting-oriented stories is a sharp, satirical voice that combines a childlike sentiment with the unsettling dynamics of power, control and ownership.
There is also a sense of inaccessibility to the characters, who often seem more like sketches against the lush foreground. The landscape is heavily described, in a manner that tends to obscure rather than illustrate the characters or narrators in the stories, and their characterisation suffers as a result. Rather than evoking the characters’ feelings, for example, the grieving widow in ‘Conglomerate’ wonders what she should feel—in this way, characters are hollowed into shells, their depictions evacuated and listless beside the attention-grabbing landscape. I have no doubt this is an intentional feature; an inevitable consequence of the settings these characters inhabit.
It is setting rather than character that drives many of Walter’s stories—the natural world is animated by a lively lyricism that often jumps off the page. In ‘Wrapped in Ice, Speaking’, the dead bodies of mountain climbers assail a hiking party, and falling snow takes on a sociable verve: ‘The flakes dodge and titter, then rush to the safety of their army of companions laid out on the ground.’ Later, trees stare at the narrator in ‘Below Tree Level’: ‘They’re huddled together and whispering.’ Here, the unease of being watched is unsettling despite its beauty, as is ‘The Lake’, where a canoeing trip is undertaken with ‘fluttering oars that could never settle into watercolours’.
Walter describes everyday objects with a lyrical bent: dim sims are ‘fried batter embracing limp hints of cabbage and beef’ and a bowl of pasta is described as having ‘turned lazy and sick’. These metaphors are beautiful turns of phrase, yet at times they can feel stretched, such as when clothes and sleeping bags are ‘slumped in the back like bored children’, and a hiking pack waits ‘like a crying baby’. Walter has gone to such great pains in ‘showing’ and not ‘telling’ that the prose feels overtly descriptive, its imagery at times unconvincing. But such unlikely symbolism also demands attention; it becomes as firmly embedded in the narrative texture as the characters themselves. As the landscape becomes the foreground, the bedrock rises to the surface—solid and compelling, and like humans trying to make sense of the natural world they inhabit, a sense of disorientation pervades. •
Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn lives on unceded Wurundjeri land. Her recent work has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, Overland, The Big Issue and others. She is the editor of Voiceworks.