“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 7, 2010

Book Review: Other Stories by Wayne Macauley

Other Stories
By Wayne Macauley
Black Pepper Publishing

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories collects a variety of short fiction that he has published in literary magazines over the last eighteen (!!!) years.  Despite the work’s lengthy gestation, these stories demonstrate an impressive unity of vision, as well as an extraordinary—if uniquely Australian—voice. Macauley is also the author of two excellent novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, but, as good as his novels are, Other Stories reveals that he is an even better short story writer.
   Macauley’s prose is absolutely beautiful, as the very first sentence of his collection proves: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ Here readers can already see Macauley’s humour, and how his stories twist everyday situations into strange, otherworldly experiences.
   In this sense, Other Stories is an appropriate title for this eclectic, often experimental collection, but Macauley’s rigorous innovation is always inflected with mordant satire, resulting in work that is both affecting and hysterically funny. Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent. Many of his stories have similarly absurdist conceits; in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a man named Henry Walter invents the television set in Melbourne in 1855, and, in an even more unlikely turn of events, his TV broadcasts current programs, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show. In my favourite story, ‘The Bridge’, a soldier is stranded in a remote outpost and his claustrophobic circumstances recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
   And this is what is interesting about Macauley’s work: although his formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories. And Other Stories ultimately is a book that is uniquely and particularly Australian. Not only does the book possess a wry, laconic tone, but also figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work: Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams all play a key role in these stories. In this sense, Other Stories presents an excellent model for a truly Australian literature. While its aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.
   Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture. This is one of the best books by an Australian I’ve read all year. Do yourself a favour and go buy it now.


ryaneoneill said...

Great review, Emmett. I couldn't agree more about how under-rated Wayne Macauley is, and I'm saying that just on the basis of his novel "Blueprints for a Barbed Wire Canoe" and one excellent short story of his I read in New Australian Stories. At the time I hadn't really hit on many Australian writers that struck a chord with me, but upon reading "Blueprints" I thought "Aha! This is what I've been looking for!" I've been meaning to read "Caravan Story" for a while, and I'm very much looking forward to reading "Other Stories" and seeing how he experiments with the form. It'll be interesting to see if "Other Stories" brings him the critical attention he deserves.

Emmett Stinson said...

Yes, Blueprints is great, too (and a good place to start with Macauley). Another thing that amazes me about Blueprints (and the story 'Bohemians' here) is how Macauley is basically the only Australian writer to chronicle the inner-city housing crisis; this is an issue affecting almost everyone I know, and yet it barely rates a mention in most 'realist' fiction. His work (like most truly excellent fiction) manages to be 'experimental' and 'political' at the same time. I also hope this book gets him the recognition he deserves...

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