For me, The Big Issue is like a tub of Neapolitan ice-cream. It’s reliable. It’s unpretentious and doesn’t pretend to be anything except exactly what it is. You buy it every fortnight, just when you feel that craving slowly creeping on. Each time you marvel at the value for money. It’s to everyone’s tastes, whether you’ve a penchant for light-hearted strawberry-sweet writing, unadorned and honest vanilla-esque insights, or fiendish and indulgent chocolatey pieces. And it’s always soul-affirming stuff, both for its dependably excellent content and the underlying motives behind its publication.
This year’s special fiction edition (the sixth) not only satisfies your fortnightly craving, but exceeds it. Imagine finding your preferred brand of Neapolitan is on special, and is 25% larger (this edition is 8 pages longer than normal) and then you open it and discover that the recipe of each flavour has been improved. Co-editors Jo Case and Melissa Cranenburgh have whipped up a 54-page bumper edition that will keep any reader (over 154,000 Australia-wide) company during these long winter hours. The stories included are varied, from the abrasive and the realistic to the surprising and the magical.
Michael Faber’s terrifically titled ‘Down the Up-Escalator in a Race Against Science’ instantly plonks us into the viewpoint of Zephaniah, a simpleminded ticket inspector in the London Underground on the hunt for a lost child. Zephaniah’s straightforward manner is reminiscent of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, with thoughts like: ‘Other people on the escalators looked at him as though he was waving his willy at them.’ Faber has created a recognisable and believable character who, by negotiating his surroundings and the people in them, shows what it means to be both human and humane.
‘The Vaulting Maid’ by Linda Jaivin lays bare a world that feels instantly familiar, though it’s doubtful many readers have sat around a living room in China and discussed their ‘aiyi’ – a maid – who is rumoured to have been an Olympic gymnast. Without hurry or hustle Jaivin’s characters reveal themselves, bit by bit, and the ending, while not entirely unforeseen, still manages to have an effect.
Christos Tsiolkas has a massive reputation, and his story ‘Salt’ demonstrates why he is revered. It really is a cut above, somehow blending the gritty and violent nature of a coal mining town with some elements that might be labelled ‘magical realism’. For mine, ‘Salt’ is the best story in the edition, mainly because of the mounting air of menace that looms as ominous as the black coal clouds; a feeling of approaching threat that plays against its unpredictability.
Samuel Rutter’s ‘Your Father is Disappointed in You’ evokes Roberto Bolano’s writing – a little bit metafictional, a little bit humdrum, and a little bit remarkable – with its tale of a son, a father, a last will and testament, and a South American town. The second-person viewpoint works too: ‘You order a whiskey. You don’t like whisky, but you feel that if you were a character in a story, now would be the time to order a whisky. Double whisky, on the rocks.’ Rutter has recently and repeatedly been identified as ‘one to watch’, and his short fiction is certainly causing people to sit up and take notice. It’ll be interesting to see in which direction he heads – hopefully he continues to combine his fondness for all things Latin-American with his ability to make the everyday extraordinary.
‘They Were Beaching Themselves Again’ by Romy Ash refuses to sugar coat anything – not the attempted rescue of whales, not the notion of travel, not the core of people. Every line is real, grounded, alive, and is a lesson in understatement. You know you’re in the hands of a great writer when character names are unnecessary and each paragraph stirs up a new and deep-rooted emotion.
The other stories in the collection deserve remark: Emmett Stinson’s painfully neurotic narrator would belong in the film Death at a Funeral; Karen Hitchcock’s ‘Blackbirds Singing’ weaves cakes, cattiness and closeted secrets in the men’s clothing section of a department store; Toni Jordan reveals small town scandals in Anytown, Anystate, Australia; and Patrick Allington’s ‘Trumpet’ goes back in time to 1884 Adelaide to give voice to a failed old explorer. Not to forget everywhereman Oslo Davis’ graphic story ‘You, Me & My Grey Hairs’, which manages to express as much as any written piece.
Talking visuals, mention must be made of the artworks accompanying the stories. It’s so easy for such artworks to either distract or diminish, but these carefully strewn illustrations, photographs and collages are complementary in every instance. Of particular note are the pieces by Shaun Gladwell and Stormie Mills. The Big Issue is to be commended for providing, alongside its writers, the opportunity to some of Australia’s best and up-and-coming visual artists.
The editors of this The Big Issue clearly have an eye for quality (although probably unnecessary are the subtitles provided for each story, as they are a tad gimmicky and read like hastily-written blurbs, reducing some of the stories to two-line summaries). Every story within the magazine is a standalone piece of deftly crafted fiction, and each demonstrates, in subtly different ways, the author’s ability to hold back, to not give everything over, but instead allow enough room for the reader to enter each distinct setting, to enter each narrator or protagonist’s mind. In their editorial, Case and Cranenburgh, referring to the 300-plus fiction submissions, say that ‘the quality of this edition can be determined as much by what you don’t see on its pages, as what you do.’ But all we have to go on are the ten stories, so it’s fortunate that they are of the highest quality indeed.
Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.