Friday, March 5, 2010

The Australian Long Story edited by Mandy Sayer

Mandy Sayer, a Sydney writer, has edited a new collection, The Australian Long Story (ISBN 978-1-926428-00-0), for Penguin imprint, Hamish Hamilton. The concept is good; a package of longer fiction works by familiar and some not so familiar authors. As always with anthologies, the editor's choice is open to debate.
Sayer sets out her reasons for the need for such an anthology and her choice of works in her introduction, and there she offers some grounding points for those who might use a collection such as this for study of both literature and writing practice. She first speaks of her inspiration for a collection of longer fiction, being The Granta Book of the American Long Story and recent collections by Tim Winton and David Malouf. The success of Nam Le's The Boat (also published by Penguin) must also have been on her and her publisher's minds. The works of all three of these Australian writers are included in the collection, and they are certainly among the better stories here.
Sayers gives a potted history of the short story in Australia and some of its practitioners and sets out to define what she means by "the long story". I'm not convinced by her arguments, but at least she explains her reasons for making a distinction between works because of their number of words. I couldn't accept that she refused any Christina Stead as the long stories "were all set overseas". That smacked a little too much of the idiosyncrasies of the terms of Miles Franklin Award. As it is, the Peter Carey piece she includes is set in an unidentified location that could easily be New York, Cape Town or Sydney, so why could we not have Christina?
And while I'm being niggardly, I'm tired too of Kings Cross writers sneering at Patrick White. To say he "commits the cardinal sin of patronising his characters" when you include your own husband's work in your anthology pushes the boundaries a bit too far for me. Finally, I find it baffling for an anthologist to claim that she would have included a piece by Frank Hardy but "it was too different in terms of tone, style and setting (the 1930s) to keep company with what would become the final selection" -- does this mean she seeks homogeneity?
These quibbles aside, the collection offers not only solid stories from Malouf ("The valley of lagoons", an evocative, restrained, fully realised story from childhood), Winton ("Boner McFarlin's Moll", vivid in the description of small-town life, though not entirely convincing in its conclusion) and Le ("Halflead Bay", where family bonds and obligations are covert levers for a deceptively simple narrative), it also provides an opportunity for the genius of Elizabeth Jolley to shine again. Her "Grasshoppers" is to my mind the strongest work in this book. While it seems to be conventional, closer examination reveals some magic realism at work. It's a delight.
Interestingly, none of these are urban stories. All are set in small towns or rural areas, "Grasshoppers" also crossing over to India.
Two other works are also non-urban. Gillian Mears' story is set in Grafton. Unfortunately, over the years I have found myself unable to engage with Mears' work since it brings a sense of suffocation on me. I know this is my fault, not hers, and I think it is largely due to my gender. Female readers may well have a very different perspective on "The childhood gland". The work by Sayers' husband, Louis Nowra, "Ten anecdotes about Lord Howe Island", is exactly that. As a piece of writing, I suspect it sat better in its original showcase publication for the Sydney Olympic Games. I enjoyed reading it, but I wondered whether there were other "longer stories" that might have had stronger claims to be in an anthology such as this one.
Set in Adelaide, Peter Goldsworthy's "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam" is a strong story about choice. If I were using this book in a writing course, I'd ask students to read this work first. The fact that a father chooses to accompany a dying child in death, leaving his wife and son alive, raises a spectrum of ethical and life issues. Death (or almost death) and reactions to it are central in a number of the other works in this collection. I would ask that students read the Jolley work next, then the Le work, then the Mears work (despite my personal reaction, I can see what the work is doing), then the Malouf work, with Carey's work, "The chance", which deals with loss and transformation, as the final piece. Carey's work is urban "speculative fiction" set in a world where people can take part in a lottery and change their bodies for other ones. It is a perfect counterpart to "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam".
The other story included in the collection is Helen Garner's "Honour". It has an urban setting yet, partly because of political references, it seems oddly dated. It is still a strong story, but the tone, style and setting vary significantly from the rest of the works selected. Should it not be here? I think it should, but so should Stead and White and Hardy.
This collection has its faults, but its strength are sufficient to outweigh them. I'm pleased Sayers took the time to assemble this collection.

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