Jason Cotter and Michael Williams (eds)
With Readings and Writings: Forty Years in Books, there doesn’t appear to have been an overriding theme or subject limitation placed on the contributors. Instead, the writers involved, who have all had supportive associations with Readings Books & Music (Melbourne) over the years, are given free reign. The result is a genuinely impressive collection.
The slightly irascible tone in ‘The Age of Terror’ by Chris Womersley is a lovely touch and very funny, recalling the best and most acerbic writings of Amy Hempel. It has wonderful descriptions which caught me out for their unexpectedness and humour (an ambulance officer feeling for a pulse is likened to a ‘trout fisherman, feeling for tremble on his line’) . There was a delighted shock of recognition, which many readers of this anthology will share, of the ‘inner-city parties populated with the absurdly tasteful’. Devastating and brilliant, for my money this is the best story in the mix, and hard to forget.
That said, Kate Holden’s ‘The Sightseers’ rivalled ‘The Age of Terror’ for my vote. A father takes his wife and daughter around Rome in the role of pushy guide, until he unwisely steps off the tourist path. The writing evokes Katherine Mansfield (although much darker) for the way it tracks minutely the shifting sympathies of the characters, and builds small but telling detail toward a shocking conclusion which is nonetheless inevitable when you search back through for clues. An object lesson in clever, subtle and brilliant writing.
Another highlight was ‘The Woodcutter’ by David Cohen. The story works as mad allegory, with satire thrown in, on the subject of marketing. It was great to read a tale so far out of the realist mould, which the majority of this collection falls into. An absurdist romp and an utter delight.
‘The Nun’s story’ by Peter Goldsworthy replaces the usual predator, the priest, with a nun in a simple but elegant style, building in carefully controlled tension. The nun’s ‘enigmatic smile’ is at first just that – enigmatic – until it becomes a motif of unforced and effective creepiness.
I must mention Catherine Harris’ ‘A Grand Leap of Stupid Faith’, so interesting I suspect the narrator could easily be recycled to sustain a whole novel. Her tone is slightly bored, with nothing glamorised or touched up; the tale is seemingly tossed-off but delivered with tight control.
A game of ten-pin bowling between two brothers, in Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘After the Goths’ effortlessly and unostentatiously told, is a real treat. And what can one say of Christos Tsiolkas’ impeccable storytelling that has not already been said. ‘The Pornographic Scientist’, where a mother tries to understand her estranged, deceased son through the only means left to her – a porno he acted in – is suitably raw and confronting.
No less mentionable, Alex Miller’s musings on what defines home; Elliot Perlman’s slice of everyday tragedy; Amy Tsilemanis’ cool exposure of the covetous generation; and Cate Kennedy’s study of a man and woman’s alternative forms of resilience.
Likewise with Myfanwy Jones’ tale of a dog-walker who is surprised by a moment of tenderness; Barry Divola’s nostalgic warnings on parroting; Robbie Egan’s blistering summer; Miles Allinson’s dreamlike fun-park; and Michael McGirr’s lesson on how philosophy can’t give us concrete answers. There is not a single dud among this collection.
If a theme or feeling can be gleaned from the overriding mood of these stories, then it appears that we may be no wiser or happier. But as examples of contemporary creativity, we are in prolific and fascinating times.
Tom Conyers is the author of the novel Morse Code for Cats. He makes short films, some of which have been shortlisted for prizes overseas; written a dozen plays (Magpies opened Chapel off Chapel’s Emerging Playwrights Forum 2008); and is currently working on a feature-film project and his second novel.
[Angela: all proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Readings Foundation. More info here.]