“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Review: Like Being a Wife

Like Being a Wife
By Catherine Harris

Catherine Harris’s debut collection of interconnected short stories, Like Being a Wife, is a book in which characters deal with what are, by and large, typical bourgeois problems: failed or failing relationships, working at dead-end jobs, dysfunctional family relationships, difficult neighbours, gaining weight, getting older and the difficulties of parenthood. But despite the quotidian nature of these problems, there’s absolutely nothing pedestrian about Harris’s collection, which infuses the everyday with the bizarre, and looks at middle-class Australian social values with a satirical eye and a deadpan wit.
Consider ‘The First Ten Minutes Are Free’, a story in which the narrator calls a psychic hotline for guidance about her future; while the call begins innocently enough, the psychic’s predictions become increasingly unusual as she says ‘Despite what you have been taught to believe, your children will not fulfil you. They won’t complete you or make you content . . . your afternoons will be spent ironing in front of the television. You will prefer The Bold and the Beautiful to Days of Our Lives, yet both programs hold some sentimental appeal.
The story ‘Phoenix’ comprises a ‘Dear John’ letter written by a wife to the husband she has just left. Whereas most short stories would play off the natural pathos of such an incident, Harris turns the story to the absurd, as the wife discusses eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and gives her husband explicit instructions on how to look after the kids and make dinner, as though she has just gone away for a weekend jaunt (this story, itself, is a sort of continuation of the narrative in ‘Mick, Agapanthus, the Unfinished TV stand’). Oh, and the wife has left her husband for the actor Ralph Fiennes, of course.
Also refreshing is the fact that the characters in Harris’s stories actually think about their jobs, and—shock and surprise—are actually described at work. Unlike so much Australian fiction, which ignores the portion of our days that we spend earning a living, Harris’s stories often engage directly with these basic issues. In ‘Our Breakfast Hostess or How I Gained 15 Kilos – A Memoir,’ the narrator deals with demanding work at a radio station, and her hatred of the new Breakfast show host, Shirley de Young. In ‘Like Being a Wife’, Daisy has just been fired from her job as a food taster at FoodTech, which is described in hysterically funny detail. Daisy reappears in the last story as well, where she has to deal with her hypochondriac father who’s been scheduled for minor surgery.
This is a brilliant collection of short fiction, which tackles contemporary Australian issues with wit and humour. Like much of the new Australian fiction that was published in the 1970s and 1980s, Like Being a Wife wrestles with everyday problems, but realises that portraying the diurnal doesn’t mean succumbing to a bland and reductionist realism. In what is already shaping up to be an unusually strong year for published collections of Australian short fiction, Like Being a Wife stands out as among the best.

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