Saturday, December 5, 2009

Not really a blogger

So my last post turns out to have been three months ago. Not much of a blog is it? I'm not sure which is cause and which is effect: the pathetic lack of readership, or the pathetic lack of posts. Well, just to keep you all up-to-date, oh great and mighty readership of mine, I am aiming to write 6000 words by February in order to make a submission to publish a collection of my short stories next year. This post is my attempt to procrastinate on making a start...

I had the horrible experience of being forced to jerk an editor around last week. Island Magazine accepted my story "Different Kinds of Heaven" for publication literally the day I was composing a letter to them to withdraw it from consideration. Unfortunately, much as I would have loved to have a story with them, if I let them to publish it, my required word target would have gone from 6000 to 14000 by February, and I doubt I could manage that. Needless to say they weren't entirely thrilled with me, and I can't say I blame them. In this case, inconveniencing an editor was the lesser of two evils.

Just to prove I'm still writing, here's an excerpt from my latest story "Shock", which I'm including in the unpublished portion of my submission:

And Smithy is hungry. Smithy is ravenous. Because two years ago—can it really be two years?—his wife left him, and he hasn’t had a woman since. Not a kiss even, barely a glance, when once they couldn’t get enough of him. What? Does his loneliness stink? Melissa took his best years, sucked the juice, the marrow out of his life and then left him while he was away on a day-trip to the Gold Coast for business. He came back and the house was a shell, doors banging open, that was how fast she’d run, and even the furniture gone. Nothing, just his clothes on the rack, the CDs of his she’d hated. Kids’ rooms empty. In the kitchen on the floor he found a butter knife with a bent-tipped blade that she must have dropped when she was packing, in the bedroom a bra, and in one room the wooden bee on a string that Ryan used to drag about when he was two. With the wings that spun and went clacketty clack.

Those three things she left by mistake haunted him. In the end he was convinced there was no mistake after all. He was sure she planned each one as carefully as the escape itself. Either she plotted it or God did, not that he believed in God. The bee, that was for the kids of course. The cruellest sting. And what could you do about it? Throw it out? How could you? Smash it? No, you sat on the floor and you drank and you pulled the string, over and over, and the wings turned and went clacketty clack. Then the bra. Well figure that one out, Einstein. No prizes. It smelled clean, like a bed freshly made before you roll in it. No trace of her scent on it, just the empty cups, the what-do-you-call, negative space.

And then the knife. That was a good one. That was the punch line. Stick it in and twist. He’d hold it in the venetian striped streetlight shine in the long pissed hours, turning the blade to catch the flash of neon strip and laugh. Thumb the blunt serration where the tip bent from someone’s long-ago effort to prise open a jar of pickles and think, I gotta hand it to you. God damn butter knife. She might have left something sharper.

His brother sometimes visited, Jack the do-gooder psychologist who thought you could make everything better by talking about it. He bought Smithy some chairs, and cutlery, which he threw out, because what Jack didn’t understand was that he wanted it like this. To live in an empty shell was absolutely fucking apt and he didn’t want any stuff around to give the lie to his desolation. ‘It rhymes, geddit?’ he yelled drunkenly at Jack. ‘Inside and out!’ Was this a nervous breakdown? Jack said there was no such thing—a meaningless lay term he said—but he might meet the criteria for a major depressive episode. ‘Meet the criteria’: that was how he put it, like it was something he’d applied for at Centrelink.

Two years later he was working again, back in a retail salesroom selling cameras, and he’d allowed himself furniture again, moved out of the old house into a one bedroom shoebox. He’d gone back to the gym, even signed up on an internet dating site, but whatever it was he stank of, they seemed to smell it via email too. He couldn’t bear the way they all stopped replying to him. He tried a few times, but the only women who showed any interest in him were old and used up, and had their own stink of desperation. The worst time was three a.m., when the waters receded from the reefs of his pain—rage and despair and hunger standing out bare and jagged and completely unchanged from the last time. The immutable bedrock of his life.

Ok, back to work now. I'm hoping to knock over those 6000 words in the one story...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Comrade Vasilii Goes to War

(This story was published in Wet Ink in 2008)

Strike a match out here at night and it’s the only light in a hundred miles at least. That’s if you don’t count the stars, which is a good idea, because if you did, your head would start to spin before you got to ten. You’d drown in stars out here if you were tall enough. Our generator died four months ago and we’ve been without lights or heating ever since. We thank God it’s summer and pray that Captain Sviatoslavich comes good on his promise to send out a repairman before the snow starts to fall. But frankly we don’t hold out much hope. We never believe a word he tells us.

There’s about fifty metres between our outpost and theirs, just a bare patch of dust. No barbed wire or boom gates mark the border. To tell the truth, we’ve no idea where it is. Sometimes, when we’re particularly bored, we play this stupid game, drawing a line through the dust with our rifle butts and taunting each other – step over that line, Comrade, and you’re a dead man! This here is Uzekhstan! And Vasilii – he’s the one that started this shit – he’ll step right over and draw another line ten metres further back and declare that that is the true border, and that we are in fact invaders on the sovereign territory of Ozakhstan! And so it goes, until we get bored with it all and decide to go inside and get pissed on Vasilii’s vodka.

To avoid confusion, I should point out that I, too, am Vasilii. Well, it’s a common name. Not that he is anything like me. He is intelligent, handsome and tall and reads Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He even reads some English writer called Shakespeare. When he’s drunk enough he stands in front of the window looking as tall and desperate as Rasputin and booms out sad English words that make all our hairs stand up, even though we don’t understand a bit of it. I, on the other hand, am stupid, ugly and short, and the only things I read are letters from Raisa, the girl who for reasons I cannot justify, loves me. I’ve been reading the same letters for months, because that’s how often the mail truck bothers to come by.

Vlad isn’t a much better specimen. He’s fat as a pig and has flat feet which stink, so I never let him take his boots off, even at night. Every now and then I tell him to wash them, and then I cross the border to play poker with Vasilii and Anton so I don’t have to be there when he does. Actually I shouldn’t order poor Vlad around like that. Technically he’s my superior officer, but even though I am stupid, he is really stupider. Vlad has no Raisa, or any other girl. He reads letters from his Mama and cries. He is such a baby.

We got sent out here to the border because we were the very worst soldiers in the academy. We weren’t cut out to be soldiers, but everyone has to be a soldier in Uzekhstan. Vlad should have been a pig farmer or a panel beater. As for me, I wouldn’t have minded working in a bar selling beer to western girls in tank tops and short denim skirts who want to ficky-fick with an Uzekhstani boy. Sorry Raisa! I am having dirty thoughts again. It’s this cold, lonely steppe. After a while it starts to turn a man into a wolf.

Captain Sviatoslavich told us the situation was this: we don’t want their bastards coming over here, and your job is to stop them if they try. This was stupid. Ozakhstan is exactly the same as Uzekhstan. Everybody knows this. Escaping from one to the other is like slapping your left cheek because you’re tired of slapping your right. But because we built a border post, they had to build one too. To stop our bastards going over there. Which is Vasilii and Anton’s job.

I don’t know about Anton, but I don’t think they sent Vasilii out here for being a bad soldier. It is obvious to everyone he should probably be a general and lead the whole Ozakhstan army. I think he was sent here for being overheard calling the Ozakhstan president a vodka-pickled, nepotistic, barnyard-animal-fucking, corrupt licker of fat western arses. When a nice secret policeman visited him to ask him about this indiscretion, Vasilii swore he was referring to the president of Uzekhstan (which is incidentally quite plausible) but a week later they sent him here anyway.

When they first arrived, we were such prigs. Refusing to say good morning when we happened to be out having a piss at the same time, spitting at the Ozakhstan flag and all that nonsense. But Vasilii wore us down with his charm and his stupid pranks. He was forever wandering around in the abandoned space between the outposts smoking a cigarette and gazing into the sky like he was working out some problem of astronomical measurement. It drove me crazy that he acted like there was no border there at all, so one day I went out and drew a line in the dirt and told him never to cross it. You can guess what he did. It made me laugh, but I was too angry to show it so I turned my back on him. And then I heard his voice purring right behind my shoulder. Are you laughing comrade? That was how he won.

Sometimes I think he only did it to supplement his miserable wages by luring us into those dreadful all-night poker games. I don’t know how he does it, but it always goes the same. Every time I pick up my cards and there’s a sweet row of queens or something, he folds. In the end you get so sick of it you bluff him, and he pushes you all the way over the edge and rakes in the pot with a pair of tens or something. Vlad gets so furious his face goes purple and he throws his cards and storms out. Then five minutes later, he’ll stick his big sheepish head back in and beg to be let into the game again. Vasilii is always willing to forgive him.

This morning our radio suddenly blared. It was Captain Sviatoslavich. The crisis has escalated! he shouted at us.

What crisis would that be, Captain Shitoslavich? I asked, winking at Vlad.

The political crisis, you idiot! screamed the captain. We are at war with Ozakhstan!

Vlad and I looked at one another, our mouths gaping dumbly. You must act swiftly to engage the enemy!

I breathed a sigh of relief. We were off the hook. I’d thought for a moment we were getting a recall. But for once Vlad was actually smarter than me. What do you mean by ‘engage the enemy’, sir? he asked.

What do you think I mean, you lard-arsed dolt? Shoot them! Now! Over and out.

Then I understood, and the dawning realisation of our situation hit me like a fist to the guts. I went to the window and looked out over the dusty no-man’s-land of the border. I could see Vasilii and Anton playing cards as usual. Obviously they didn’t know we were at war yet, but it would only be a matter of time. We had to act swiftly.

I threw Vlad his gun, which he held at arm’s length like it was a poisonous snake. I could see he was about to cry so I knew I had to take control. Why they promoted him above me I will never understand. We’re not going to shoot them alright? I said. We’re just going to take them prisoner. I looked him in the eye. Okay? He nodded, wide-eyed like a child.

It was only fifty metres from one door to the other, but that lugubrious march seemed longer than any of the exhausting forced marches from our academy days.

When we stepped into the room, Vasilii looked up from his card game and gave me his easy handsome grin. So Vasilii, have you come to shoot me now? he asked, raising an eyebrow.

In such stupid situations as this, it is impossible to be a real human being, so you read from a script, like a moron robot.

Comrade Vasilii, I am taking you prisoner of the state of Uzekhstan, I said, pointing the barrel at his chest. Vasilii’s smile stayed on his face, but I saw his eyes change as the reality of the situation dawned on him. He looked cool as my grandmother’s cucumbers but a drop of sweat ran down his brow and into one of his eyes.

He stood up slowly and as I stood there shaking, he unholstered his pistol and pointed it straight at my heart.

Comrade Vasilii, he said, I am taking you prisoner of the state of Ozakhstan. I don’t know if he thought this was funny. He might have been smiling about anything.

Anton was now pointing his gun at Vlad, and Vlad was pointing his gun at Anton.

Things were getting over my head, so I turned to my superior officer. What do we do now? I asked.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

This Old Man

(This story was my winning entry in the 2008 Alan Marshall Short Story Award, published in Award Winning Australian Writing 2008)

My son is singing in the back seat as the car winds along the road between Cairns and Port Douglas. Every turn along the crumpled boundary of sea and land reveals something I have not seen before, the blank map in my mind flooding with colour and detail. Ben’s happy, I know. I can hear it in his voice: adventure and safety together in the warm sea wind blowing in his face through the half open window.

This old man
He played ... zero!
He played knickknack on my ... hero!

Dad, he calls out.

Yes Ben.

He played knickknack on my hero!

Yes Ben.

Is that funny Dad?

Umm … not unless you’re six years old.

Why not?

Well, once you got to zero — I shrug — he was either going to be playing knickknack on your hero, or on Robert De Niro.

Blessed silence for a time. There are smudges of smoke from the cane fires, and coconut palms and macadamias, and waves nibbling the black rocky shore, and great fibrous fruit in the trees, but the sky is a featureless grey glare. Here and there a wan stain of blue. My eyes blur, my back aches. It’s been a long drive.

This old man
He played five...


Yes Dad?

Can you stop singing that song for a bit please?

Okay Dad.

Then he sees something: Look!

He’s pointing in the direction of the sea, but I see nothing except the hard, flat light from the water.


Look! Look!

He’s about jumping out of his seatbelt.

I can’t Ben, I’m driving!

Oh you missed it! He’s furious now, his seraphic face instantly souring to something far less pleasant.

I’m sorry Ben. I’m trying to drive. What was it?

A tree, Dad! It was an amazing tree. Can we go back?

I get cunning. I’ve learned to negotiate the shape of his mind, the catching points of his personality, as one steps around furniture at home in the dark.

Oh the tree! Yes I saw that! It was amazing, wasn’t it?

For a moment in the rear view mirror I see him struggle to change emotional direction. Then the shadow passes from his face. Happiness is restored now he’s shared his wonder. He leans into that slice of wind that’s coming in through the window, his blue eyes flickering in the gusts, and his hair dancing free. Rapturous and forgetful he starts to sing:

This old man...


The moment when I learned of Ben’s existence is preserved in my memory with the miraculous detail of a fossil in amber. Maddy had just stepped through the front door. She was wearing a white angora jumper, the summer light that spilled down the hall making a fine soft haze around the fertile swell of her breasts. The sweet smell of wattle pollen followed her, the hum of bees and lawnmowers. She brushed past me. I’m pregnant. Even though we’d only been together for six months, three living together, even though she would never have planned it, I could tell she was happy. She kept moving, her back to me so I wouldn’t see the excitement just beneath the adult grimness she was officially wearing for the occasion. I made an ineffectual gesture with my open palms. I’d been knocked out of gear and my thoughts and emotions spun without engaging. I was empty of anything real, anything remotely adequate. Out of this general vapidity, a smile arose to take possession of my features, the involuntary smile that the immature sometimes wear on hearing of a death.

It wasn’t real: the news, the smile, anything. I instinctively knew there had to be a way out. Other than the obvious. There seemed to be a certain obscenity lurking in the word abortion which the now preferred term termination only went part way towards eradicating. If abortion was awful, blood-stained by right-to-life images of foetuses dismembered with boning scissors, termination had a sinister, newspeak ring to it. Didn’t the mafia, the CIA terminate? There had to be some other way, some escape clause between the binary alternatives, between back and white, yes and no. There always had been before.

Some time in the coming days, as the uncompromising nature of the situation began to dawn on me, I arrived at a position. I gallantly declared: Whatever you decide, I’ll support you. A politician’s line, of course, fooling nobody. Whatever you decide. A masterstroke of abnegation. I hated this new found emptiness that seemed to speak for me, this puppetry of understanding: nods caresses murmurs. I searched for the man, the father, but finding him absent jerked and muttered and marionetted my way through visits to clinics and counsellors. We started taking phone calls in the other room. We closed the door.


I’m carrying heavy suitcases up the stairs to our room at the resort, while Ben lugs his own little bag. At the top of the first flight of concrete stairs I stop to rest a moment. Ben is thrilled to spot a translucent gecko inhabiting the concrete seam between the wall and the ceiling of the corridor, a ghostly comic creature. The stairwell is open to the air at the back, allowing a view of tropical foliage, tangled liana and fat heavy leaves trailing spider webs.

Look Dad, says Ben.

Yes, I say, once again uncertain what I should be seeing.

It looks exciting doesn’t it?

It sure does, I say, and pick up the suitcases again to tackle the second flight of steps.

When I paid for it in Melbourne, I had imagined luxury, but the room is disappointing: a functional, anonymous ‘unit’ with a sliding door onto a tiny balcony that overlooks the swimming pool. In the aggressive overcast glare of the afternoon, some kids are playing pool volleyball. I stand there a while watching them while Ben plays with the little packets of soap deposited on the ends of the beds. Pretty girls with small, new breasts, a fat pasty kid and a taller, good looking one whose every lunge for the ball is alpha-male choreography. The girls giggle and tease and retreat, reserving the right to exploit the ambiguity that suspends the game between child’s play and courtship ritual. Not far away the thirtysomethings are arranged like shish kebabs on the plastic deckchairs, creased brown flesh exposed for the benefit of whatever UV makes it through the cloud. A bull-shouldered man in tiny speedos drinks on an underwater stool beside the pool bar, his pale eyes sliding and swivelling over his gin as the women go by.

Later we go into town for the first time, looking for something to eat. I hold Ben’s hand to cross the sandy streets of the tourist precinct, restaurant touts hail me, and even though I am hungry, the shouting garish shops, the steel chairs of the restaurant forecourts repel me and soon we have reached the place where the street meets the beach, boats jostling in the marina and twilight falling over the palm trees, but nowhere to eat. We have to backtrack. Ben is hungry and getting difficult, dragging his feet, so it’s eenie-meenie-minie-mo and whatever restaurant; we order pizzas and Ben colours in a pirate picture with crayons that the harried waitress brings—they’re a family-friendly restaurant.

But we’re not a family, objects Ben, who has recently discovered the joys of pedantry.

Yes we are.

But Mum isn’t here.

Two people can be a family.

No they can’t.

Look here’s your pizza.

There’s a woman eating alone across the way, her table an island of concentration and composure amid the hubbub. Middle aged, I think. Then: no, my age. The candle in front of her flickers in a subdued way, shimmering through the chardonnay she sips between carefully excised nibbles. She is not a family; I’m prepared to concede that.


We’re going to have fun. I take Ben up to Kuranda on the cable car, wobbling high over the treetops. Ulysses butterflies floating like little shreds of sky or flying fish between the swells of rainforest. At Kuranda we eat Golden Gaytimes and hot dogs for lunch, what the hell we’re on holiday, and Ben’s face is a mess of melted chocolate bits and tomato sauce. The heat saps us. He needs to go the toilet. Now. We have to run in the end, and some leaks out, wetting his trousers. He’s ashamed and won’t leave the toilet block even though the train is coming in ten to take us back down the mountain. It wrenches to command him in his wretched condition, but what choice do I have?

He doesn’t know it, but I am six years old too, feeling every miserable half-choked sob as he goes through the crowd, head hung, not knowing nobody notices or cares about his little accident. On the train he presses his grubby, tear-streaked face to the window, so the rowdy boy next to him won’t see his eyes, and I know not to hug him. Some burdens I cannot share. Then he loses himself in the passing gorges and waterfalls and suddenly he’s pointing out a coloured bird to me, the smile on his face like sun breaking through a wet day.


When I was six my father and I turned over rocks in tidal pools near Anglesea, and discovered many miracles that seem to have disappeared over the years. Perhaps it was the effect of people like us, reckless wonderers, even though we always put the rocks back the way they were. I once found a mysterious crimson brain on the rocks, some protean creature like raspberry aeroplane jelly spilled from its mould before it was fully set. I took it home in a jar, and I guess it died, whatever it was. It stank in unexpected and incredible ways and completely liquefied; the atrocious slime I poured out into the sandy backyard of our holiday house had no relation to the extraordinary creature I had found on the beach. I felt bad but I never suspected that in killing one, I might have contributed to killing them all.

Five years after that, on the same beach, I stood at the top of a dune on an overcast day heavy with coming rain and watched my father running below, pursued by the dog. In his singlet and shorts he looked both skinny and paunchy— suddenly middle-aged — and he was wheezing and puffing even as he laughed like a child, the dog nipping at his heels. I was pierced by twin arrows of love and fear, afraid he might fall, that his heart might fail, afraid to see the old man in him, the first shadow of death. There is no one to save us, I saw. We are all children. And so I passed one of the unheralded markers on the road to adulthood.


Ben and I wander along a dun-coloured beach near Port Douglas. On the wide flat sand, the worms one never sees have left their little spiralled sand-turds by the million, evidence of the vast hidden industry of life. We walk into mangroves stinking and gnat-ridden, and find the remains of a bird: white knotted bones, ants in the sandy shrivel of flesh. Ben pauses to look, serious, his mind turning in some deep way, understanding something.

We push deeper into the smelly tidal swamp. I scare Ben just enough with crocodile stories to inject the right expeditionary frisson, and he digs joyfully with a stick among the jabbing mangrove roots. I sit higher up on the ground where some hardy beach succulent keeps my bum dry. My hand finds a rusty hook and a sinker, still tied to the sand by a line like a couch grass root, a thin unbreakable garrotte leading toward the sea.


At sixteen weeks the ultrasound — I guess I’d prevaricated long enough that the decision had made itself, or Maddy had made it without me. The doctor lifted Maddy’s shirt and smeared conductive gel over the tightening drum of her skin. On a screen, snow-storm static turned liquid and something began to take shape, some odd fish that rolled and transformed as the doctor slid her magic device around the shiny brown curves of Maddy’s belly. We heard an aquatic heart beat, a rapid pulsing boom like Morse from a far galaxy, life discovered in Andromeda. Then she found the right angle and the child appeared, sucking its minute thumb, its spine as fine and fragile as a sardine’s. For a span of unknown heartbeats my breath was stolen, ohmygodprotectit. How stupid had I been? Oh my god, protect it. And if god won’t, then let me try. Let me try.


I take Ben out to the reef. We are going to have fun. We go flying over the waves on a white ferry with engines strong as a jumbo jet’s, standing at the prow, drunk with wind and speed as the boat chops and sprays the sea. When we open our mouths to speak we swallow great gallons of air. The impatient ferry cleaves the horizon like an axe. I feel Ben tugging my sleeve. He points, and there below us are dolphins leaping alongside, improbably keeping pace, improbably joyous. In all wild nature they are our only friends, gregarious in spite of everything.

We reach the reef, and everyone begins the mad scramble for masks and snorkels. But even though he can swim and I promise to hold his hand, Ben is afraid. He says he doesn’t want to go in the water. But you wait, you wait, I tell him. You won’t believe what it’s like down there.

I don’t care, he says. I want to go back.

We can’t go back.

We can sit inside.

Then the phone in my pocket rings. It’s Maddy. I turn away from Ben, holding the phone in a little shelter made by my hand against the wind.

Hi, I say.


What is it? Have you found a place yet?

Yes I have. It’s only ten minutes away from the house. I’m moving most of my stuff tomorrow. Where are you?

I’m on the Great Barrier Reef.

You having fun?

Come on Maddy.

Have you told him yet?

I can’t. I just ... can’t.

Greg, you have to tell him before you come home on Saturday.

I know. I’m going to, okay? Tonight. I just ... I just don’t know how to say it that’s all.

But we agreed on what you’d say.

We should have told him before, Maddy. We should have told him together.



I know. We’ve fucked it up haven’t we?

For a while I’m standing there on the deck like a fool, knuckles gripping the silence. Then her voice again, broken: But it’s too late now. He has to know before he gets home.

Look I better go. We’re on the Barrier Reef, and I’m not leaving without seeing it.

Please tell him Greg.

I will, I promise. Bye Maddy.

I snap the phone shut.

Dad, says Ben.

Yes sweetie.

I think I want to go in now.

I crouch down in front of him.


Uh huh.

Good lad! Let’s go get some snorkels!

I fit the mask to his face, careful not to snag his hair, and arrange the snorkel, then we sit side by side on the platform, our legs dangling in the dark slapping water, in mystery. I hold his hand, small as a starfish.

You ready?

He nods.

And we slide down into the quiet blue.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I was bemoaning the ravages of writer's block to a friend the other day at the Supper Club, and she made the wise observation that in the creative sphere, rest is not a luxury, it is an imperative. The fields must be allowed to lie fallow in their season, gather their resources. This agricultural metaphor got me thinking about the imaginative and emotional nutrients which infuse our writing. Visceral description, humour, clever observation, emotional truth, unsettling metaphor: these are some of the food groups of fiction. Whatever richness we bring to our writing comes out of us; how can we expect to nourish the reader if we're run down, burnt-out, used up? The fields need time to gather themselves, and there is a natural process to creativity that cannot be forced.

So instead of "pushing the river", I've been nourishing myself on others' work. In the past few weeks I've gobbled up Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (always read the Booker winner), Coetzee's Disgrace, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Wells Towers' short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming and Jon Bauer's unpublished manuscript Rocks in the Belly. Jon is in my writing group, and I offered to critique the manuscript on the strength of the few chapters he'd read to us, which I'd found excellent. I understand that Rocks in the Belly is not necessarily the final title, but it works for me: this is a book that aims straight for the guts and pulls no punches. Despite the confronting, sometimes appalling behaviour of the protagonist, and the relentlessly downbeat emotional tone, this book truly gripped me. It covers some big, ambitious themes: the ineluctable grip of childhood, the fateful, unalterable moments that imprison us, and the physical frailty of identity - two of the three central characters have their selfhood disordered and eventually destroyed by insults to the brain. But perhaps its strongest theme is the intense relationship that can exist between mothers and sons, and the psychological scars that can be left when this relationship fails. Jon's protagonist is a man deeply damaged in his relationship both to himself and others by the perceived failings of his mother. As the reader, we are not quite so convinced that the responsibility for all of his pain really belongs at the mother's door; the chapters set in the character's boyhood show us a child whose profound psychological disturbance seems to have roots in nature as much as nurture. Yet the exploration of a boy's need for his mother's love and attention is very affecting, and the ways this "mother complex" plays out in his adult life through misogyny, seduction, the addictive need for sexual affirmation, are utterly believable. I haven't seen this theme explored in fiction before - perhaps there is even some taboo here.

I had my criticisms too, the most significant of which was the question of how many readers would have the stomach for the heavy rocks of truth Jon serves up. Or perhaps - probably a more serious criticism - whether the book doesn't at times slide from unflinching truthfulness into an indulgence in the awful that borders on the gothic. However, Jon is very much aware of these issues, and I must stress that the manuscript I read is still a work in progress. I sincerely hope he gets the balance right in the final work, because the core of this book is seriously good, and it deserves a wide audience. (I told Jon I would mention his book on my blog but I wouldn't review it, seeing as the version I read was not the final one. Sorry Jon, it just happened!)

The other book I wanted to talk about was Wells Towers' collection, recommended to me by Louise Swinn of Sleepers Publishing fame, and a great aficionado and patron of short stories. This is the kind of short story collection that makes you want to jump up and sharpen your pencil and write the best story you've ever written - if only it were that simple! They are relatively long stories by Australian standards - it's difficult to publish anything much over 3000 words here, whereas these must average at least twice that, though for US stories that is not unusual. They never ramble however - if more tangential detail goes into them than is customary for our pared-back stories none of it is dull or without impact. Tower just seems to have such a fullness of imagination that he can afford to pour all this extra material into the mix. Rather than feeling impatient with their length, I found myself flicking forward through the pages hoping there would be a whole lot more of them before the end. I can't wait to see what this guy does with a novel. Tower often begins his stories with events or details far removed from the crux of the narrative he will eventually unravel, then slowly narrows in on the quarry until the final line shows us what he's been chasing all along. In "On the Show", for example, the story starts with the literary equivalent of one of those "falling through the clouds" film openings: a wide angle view of a fairground, cast in disturbingly garish colours, rapidly closing in on a lizard on the side of a rusty gas canister. Before we know it, the lizard is trapped in a child's hand, and then, almost before our head has stopped spinning, the child is lured into a portable toilet by a paedophile. And yet even this is still not the real story, but just a thread in the tapestry Tower is weaving: a gripping portrait of the sordid, cruel world of life "on the show" and the characters whose stories converge in that surreal environment. It's not easy to write a short story without one central character narrative , yet Tower pulls it off masterfully, making it all appear effortless, almost throwaway. Yet once you start to take a closer look at the writing, the construction, you become aware that you are looking at a master's brushstrokes. As casual as it appears, everything is balanced, everything considered, and there's not a lazy metaphor or cliched treatment in sight. With the possible exception of Anne Enright's Taking Pictures, this is the finest short story collection I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I want to start a club of letter-writers! We will bring back the beautiful art of letter-writing in the age of the txt, when there's not even enough time for vowels, let alone poetical flourishes... We will sit at desks with red wine in front of us and write long, detailed, thoughtful letters to one another. These days the only exciting things that come by post are story acceptances. The rest is administrative drivel, never touched by human hand save in the very last moment when the postie lifts it from the bag and shoves it through the slot. Imagine receiving a letter from an old friend instead of an 'add' on Facebook. That little leap of the heart when you see your name in handwriting on the envelope, when you feel the thickness of the folded letter within.

It saddens me that most people can't write. They really, really can't. I mark psychology essays sometimes, and the standard is staggeringly abysmal. I read people's funding submissions, and they can't even say what they mean in simple clear sentences. It's turgid, ghastly, weasel-word-ridden drivel. I'd like us all to be poets, delighting one another with our wit and invention and sparking ever wilder, bolder leaps of fancy and whimsy and humour and insight. I guess there never was a time when we were all poets, but at least we could spell, and we had lovely handwriting, and we could recite a few lines of Blake or Wordsworth.

I have written one love letter in my life. Apart from the adolescent tragedies which, if they still exist, are sufficient reason for me never to stand for public office. Worse than Pauline Hanson. Far worse. I have written one real love letter in my life, and I did it in Microsoft Word. Printed it out, for Christ's sake, in Times New Roman or Garamond or something, and put it in her letterbox, along with the panties she'd inadvertently left in my bed. What was I thinking? I've lived forty years and in that time I've only really written one love letter and I fucking well did it on a word processor. Which meant of course that I got to keep a copy in My Documents, in the folder named 'love', I suppose. It would have been better to scribble it in shitty red biro on the back of a torn phone bill than do it in Word. A love letter is a physical object, like a feather, a pressed flower. It is not 'information'. You cannot 'keep a copy'. There is no 'copy'. There is the love letter and the love ketter is the love letter is the love letter. I kept a copy, because I thought it was a good love letter, but I missed the point that you have to give it away. Like love itself, you can't have your cake and eat it, give it and hold onto it at the same time. It destroys the very small, almost imperceptible magic that is in the letter. 

One decent love letter in my whole life and I did it on the computer! I wonder if she kept it anyway.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Excerpt from 'Different Kinds of Heaven' (formerly 'Zoe and May')

Mayflower, he called her, for the corolla of blonde hair that haloed her face. But this was not promising, since his pot plants never did well. He tried to guess if they wanted sun or water, and always seemed to jump the wrong way. As for May, he never knew what to cook for her. He found she’d eat bolognaise, so he made her that until one day she said, I don’t like bolognaise, and that was that. So he struck on the idea of fish-fingers—he felt absurdly pleased with the inspiration—and this kept him going for a while.

 Entertainment was a bigger problem. He bought a huge box of Lego for her after the first disastrous weekend, but she was always demanding his participation. He could not understand why something as seemingly easy as playing with Lego people could be so exhausting. Fifteen minutes and he’d be unable to sit upright anymore; he’d slump to the floor beside her, utterly drained. He was in a Lego gulag. His suffering passed May by. Her Lego people cheerfully conquered the mountains of his chest, danced on the pinnacle of his nose. He let it wash over him. It was all okay so long as he didn’t have to raise a muscle. And all this killed half an hour, then she would ask him, what now Dad? and he really couldn’t think of a thing. How on earth did Cathy make the hours pass?

 He took her to the Collingwood Children’s Farm, where for a time he thought he’d failed again, until he understood that this stillness, this sombre concentration, was her expression of rapture. She held the guinea pigs like a sacred responsibility. Then afterwards they walked along the Yarra in a fine wash of sunlight, past the serrated skyline of the old factories, the embankments of yellow sour subs. She picked the fattest ones and happily chomped their squeaky stems from the nub up, a childhood delicacy he remembered well, though the taste disgusted him when he had a nibble for old time’s sake.

 Dad, how does the river know which way to go? she asked him.

 It goes downhill.

 It’s not going downhill. It’s going flat.

 It’s very slightly downhill—this outrageous statement a cause for obvious consternation.

 They walked a while longer in silence, and he could see her mind ticking over, puzzling something out. Then she said: What if I don’t like heaven Dad? I mean, when I die?

 You will. Everyone likes heaven.

 Are there different kinds of heaven for different people? 

I don’t know sweetie. Maybe you get what you want. Maybe your heaven would be a garden with the hugest sour subs.

 She walked silently for a while, studying the river, the people quietly whirring by on their bicycles. Then she said, cheerfully, definitively: My heaven would just be a normal life!

 He knew what she meant: that this was enough, right here, right now, and she could foresee not a single shadow. Her innocence exposed the true love he had for her, a love that was almost an oppression. His own heart was armoured and weary, and protected because he considered himself disposable, not really so important. But loving her made a break in his defences through which pain could get in again, along with the light. Against this weakness there was no possible protection. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Excerpt from 'Zoe and May' - new and unpublished

And then every Saturday, his ex brought around May, his five-year-old daughter. He was getting to know her still, after two years when he and Cathy hadn’t spoken, and the only times he’d seen May were through a parked car window, coming out of Cathy’s place on a blustery winter afternoon in a duffle-coat that made her look like Paddingon Bear, or going into the supermarket and emerging again half an hour later, skipping beside her plastic bag-laden mother. He’d watch the house for hours, nothing changing whatsoever except dark drawing in—this was so unhealthy—while inside, his daughter’s childhood was taking place.

Now at last he had her, and didn’t know what to do with her at all, he’d never felt such an oaf. The car door would slam in the street, and there she’d be at the end of the drive, with her overnight case in one hand and Puss-puss, her stuffed toy, dangling from the other. He’d open his arms, and while she ran to him, his eye would be drawn to the dark head in the car, turned his way. The long pause before she turned the ignition and the car slid off.

This mistrust made him defiant, but still he had no idea. When he lifted her up and spun her round he half expected his big dumb hands to be seared by contact with such loveliness. Mayflower, he said, kissing her cheeks. According to the scales she weighed fourteen kilograms, but he could not believe it. She felt light as a kite, only the pulsing imbalance of her kicking legs indicating she had any weight to her at all. What do you do when a butterfly lands on your shoulder? You hold your breath and wait and try not to move so you won’t damage it.

But holding still, he knew, would not save him from harming her, this serious child whose eyes took in everything, like she was swallowing the world whole. If he was not to damage her he would need to act, to decide, to care and nurture, he knew this, but—fathering? He simply didn’t have a clue. He remembered the first day she came, standing in his empty living room—he’d cleaned and vacuumed for the occasion, thinking he was preparing for her, making an effort, but now as she stood there on the bare carpet, like a sad but polite traveller, he understood he’d got it all wrong again.
Furthering the theme of successive approximations from my last post, I heard someone on the Book Show today talking about the idea of working and working a poem until it stands up and says, "You have found me." The same idea, from a less mathematical perspective! I used to write poetry, was never all that good at it, but I think in my short stories I'm still driven by the poet's yearning for precision and highest refinement. Poetry is apprehended by all the senses: image and cadence of course, but to me the ultimate poetic sense is olfactory. You breathe in a poem, like the subtlest perfume, like a vapour arising between the lines. You could say that, literarily speaking, a novel offers meat: something to fill the belly, whereas a poem offers fragrance only, a very Buddhist sort of pleasure. I am not a poet because I am still too hungry, and then not quite a novelist, because I am too ascetic. So I keep on writing these damn short stories.

I have also reflected recently, like many writers before, on the failure of the realised to attain the perfection of the ideal. So those attracted to perfection, like myself, tend to cut back, to pare away the explicit in favour of the suggested. It truly is an ascetic's impusle, as if the cutting away, the negating of the material, somehow leaves a space in which the ideal can be reflected, can breathe. But the ultimate end of such an impulse, if left unchecked, is the negation of form entirely. It's J.D. Salinger's rumoured room full 0f stories too precious to ever be published, or John Cage's 4'33''. It's silence and anorexia. Poetic writing - by which I mean not just poetry, but all writing with a poetic sensibility, must play its music on a string drawn tight by the tension between the material and the formless, between sound and silence, being and emptiness.

And anyway - final thought - novels can have fragrance too. Some ideas, some images, some thoughts can only breathe in the space given by a whole novel. You have to build a cathedral if you want to make organ music. And yes, I'm mixing my sensory metaphors awfully, but you'll get the gist of the riff...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Eroticising the landscape, and the method of successive approximations

The method of successive approximations is the way to go, I decided last night, as I tried to beat my latest story into shape. Sometimes I think I'm just too much of a scientist to be a writer - always looking for some theory or clever trick to capture or explain the creative process. Well anyway, it's my latest way of thinking about writing. Start with a broad idea, write it out, however it comes out, and then gradually shape it closer and closer to the 'ideal' in one's mind. It's kind of obvious in a way, but I find it a more helpful way of thinking about writing than a linear write-it-from-beginning-to-end type of model, which tends to lead to me obsessively reworking paragraph one to the brink of perfection or extinction.

The other day, I came up with this:

In the clog of the river, the slow sick froth and stagnation she’s lain for three days, face down and slowly swelling with the stench of the crime. Gone the girl, the beautiful girl, she’s long fled among the reeds, the cicada song, the thrips and the swooping kingfishers, she’s rushed out like a gasp into the starry chill. That is her in the long, elegant step of the heron, her in the silky fall of dusk, her in the crushed breath of eucalypt, the sigh of night breeze.

The thing down there in the river bend is not her, is nothing, only the carcass, the bag: a corrupted sac of virescent meat. The river stings and itches with flies, and plops with gases, and gathers the scum of decay in its teeth of rotted trunks and boughs. The thing-that-was-once-a-girl goes to collect there too, to slowly bloat and stink and simulate life with its sighing and popping and subsiding, as if restless with sad thoughts. It forgets itself and farts and belches and lets itself go completely, gets fat with death, does not even care that the rats tear flakes from its soft, white edges, that the maggots swarm on the water line and fill its skin like a piƱata. It embraces decay unreservedly, loses unity and becomes a multitude, a human-shaped colony of crawling and microscopic things, her once fine, splendid flesh softening, loosening, dissolving away, so that soon all that once clothed her in loveliness will break up like suds and the bones will rise out, a reminder that a life cannot so easily be unmade. The bones will rise out, white as stones, severe and fragile, to sing in the twilight of lost and forgotten things, of love unmade and deeds undone.

Somehow it seems unlikely to become a short story, more likely the novel I write while I'm not writing the novel I'm supposed to be writing. Am I really considering some Wolf-Creek-Ivan-Milat-Joanne-Lees suspense thriller here? Hmm, we shall see...

I think I mentioned that I convened a writers' group last year, beginning with writers who have all been published in the Sleepers Almanac, but now expanded beyond that somewhat. I call us the Almaniacs in my mind, but I'm not sure anybody else knows that. Anyway, we are privileged to have some fine writers in our small tribe, and none finer than Jessica Au, whose story 'Leopards' is probably my favourite from last year's Almanac and who, at the age of twenty-very-little, writes absolutely Winton-esque prose. She's been presenting chapters from her novel in development for our delectation in recent meetings. I wish I could post some of the lines here, but that would be presumptuous. I can't however resist the one quote, something about "girls with salt in their hair and bodies struck with sunlight". "Bodies struck with sunlight" - how simple and gorgeous. I read this chapter with a feeling of sick excitement and jealousy. Trust me, you read it here first: this book will win prizes, and if it doesn't sell as well, then you're all crazy you hear me?

I heard David Malouf on the Book Show on Radio National talking about "eroticising the landscape" when he writes, and that is exactly what Jess does so beautifully: she manages to scoop some of the essential and the sensual out of whatever she describes, so that what comes off the page is somehow more vivid and sublime than the real thing.

I went back to my own half-finished offering after the group finished feeling curiously dispirited and inspired (impossible, I know, but true). I just had to get some of that same vividness into it. Writing about erotic love, I realised I was sentimentalising, vaselining my lens. I was missing the irregularity and uniqueness of my subject. Everything was getting emulsified, and in the process actually losing its eroticism. So - the method of successive approximations - I started trying to write in these unexpected, even jarring elements. My perfectionism can be a killer, but it also means I get better, I hope. I'm always seeing the David (Malouf?) in the marble and trying to chip him out.