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The Bleeding Edge: new short fiction

Accomplished short story writers conjure worlds with scant tools, in fictions which might take as their terrain the events of an hour – even a series of interwoven moments – or the sweep of a lifetime. Among several collections recently published by Australian writers, both emerging and established, are three volumes which between them cover a vast swathe of territory: from the intimate to the international, the quotidian and the extraordinary, the bizarre and the tragic. The short story is sometimes viewed as an apprentice form, yet the heterogeneity of the stories collected in these volumes attests to its adaptability in structure, style, voice and genre – and to the particular freedoms it offers as a site for experimentation. While all three move adeptly between humour and melancholy, cruelty and generosity, with confidence and keen insight, each author engages with the form in distinctive ways. Tara June Winch’s writing is largely realist in scope, illuminating the significance of encounters and epiphanies which take place within the everyday; Paddy O’Reilly ventures into less familiar territory, introducing elements of the surreal and the science-fictional; and the constraints of realism are entirely left behind in Julie Koh’s satiric fictions. Incisive and fresh, sensitive and clever, these collections exemplify the breadth and diversity of the short story form.

Ten years after Winch’s debut novel Swallow the Air was published to critical acclaim comes After the Carnage, a volume of thirteen short stories. Swallow the Air was a richly layered collection of vignettes which traced the journey of its adolescent protagonist as she sought connection with her Indigenous heritage in the wake of her mother’s death. Questions of cultural identity – and cultural collision – are also central to After the Carnage, which stretches far beyond Australia, from Nigeria to China, France to Pakistan and the United States. Winch’s writing is vivid, immediately engaging, lyrical but succinct. From the arresting opening line of the first story in the collection, ‘Wager’, our attention is caught:

By morning someone would die, but at that moment I couldn’t have known. The only thing I did know then was that I was feeling overwhelmingly out of place in her bathtub.

Tom is on a break from his studies and he is visiting his mother at the home she shares with her new partner and their child. It is just one more on a long list of different locations where he has visited her over the past several years. She led a peripatetic and untethered life when he went away first to boarding school and now university. His mother, it soon becomes clear, is an alcoholic, and she shares with her new partner an apparent disregard for their infant son’s safety. The precise circumstances of the tragedy which occurs are never made explicit. Winch lets inference, and the inexorable logic of the connections she has drawn, play themselves out.

The stories in this collection move between countries and cultures; many explore disaffection and inequality on a global scale, examining the postcolonial intersection of race and migration. Other stories dwell on the domestic and the interpersonal, whether the particular emotional connection forged between siblings who have shared dysfunction; the fierce love of a mother for her child in the face of abuse; or the tensions which bubble up in relationships when they are forced to adapt to changed circumstances. Through these brief narratives Winch considers how much the little exchanges we make day to day, the ways in which we respond both to those close to us and to strangers – the selfishness with which we sometimes avail ourselves of what they have to offer – reveal about us and our relationships to one another. She is particularly interested in the implications of privilege and its absence in these interactions; the assumptions, and the misapprehensions, which come with movement across cultural boundaries. ‘The Last Class’ depicts a group of new immigrants to France attending language lessons as part of their visa process, offering a glimpse of the friendships which spring up in this precious if ephemeral community, and tracing the imprint of lives which have been left behind. These students stand on a threshold, unsure of what comes next, seeking opportunity yet also facing disillusion, and the resentment that comes with being allowed to enter a new society while being denied access to the tools of true participation. Likewise, the experience of a young Nigerian man undertaking an internship with the United Nations in ‘Failure to Thrive’ highlights the strange position in which such representatives are placed, asked to speak for millions of their compatriots as they are met with well-meaning but dismaying condescension.

In the unsettling ‘Baby Island’, an Australian woman of Chinese heritage attends a conference in Guangzhou as part of her job selling Australian education to Chinese students. Unstable and lonely, she leaves her hotel and stumbles upon a peculiarly neat and quiet section of the city in which Chinese infants are fussed over by non-Chinese parents. From Guangzhou we move to Lahore. The story from which the collection’s title is taken, ‘After the Carnage, More’, follows the wandering, disjointed thoughts of a man who lies waiting on a trolley in a hospital corridor after an unspecified attack. Unable to comprehend the magnitude of what has occurred, he wants only to hear that his wife is alive. His attention ranges across tenuously connected memories, alighting here and there on particular sensations, sights, words – the adverb ‘suddenly’, and the suddenness of the event which has brought him to this pass.

What came before the carnage? Nostalgia, whether for a relationship that is now lost, a self that has become unrecognisable, a home that is no longer home, or a childhood that can’t be recaptured, is central to many of these stories. We seek familiar stimuli in the face of the unthinkable, and cling to moments of comprehension and clarity as if they were precious possessions. In adulthood, as the protagonist of ‘Easter’ realises with despair, these moments can come to seem hopelessly transient.

When I was younger I felt as if I could feel everything, and afterward I could own those feelings like objects to revisit.

In one of the collection’s finest stories, ‘The Proust Running Group of Paris’, an online forum for recovering addicts brings together a motley crew of individuals who, when they finally meet in person, find themselves excitedly sharing the smells and tastes and sounds ¬that recall childhood. In place of Proust’s madeleines we have hotdogs and crusty baguettes and the air before a storm, as a fragile new kind of companionship arises from isolation and loss.

Throughout this volume characters drift and are directed, caught in the currents of external events, political conflicts, rapid cultural change and insurmountable disadvantage. Perhaps they discover, when they find what they think they have been looking for, that they no longer desire it; or realise that what they have attained can also be lost. In the collection’s final story, ‘A Late Netting’, an unsettled young man is taken on as a deckhand by a French couple whose relationship is riven with discord; together they are blown off course by a storm. Like so many of the collection’s protagonists, they are displaced, unable to set their own paths.

If we had been drawn down a river, at least that knowing river would’ve taken us toward its mouth; a city might have invited us in and set us onto the certainty of a bank. Here, though, all those odds had fallen against us in a panic of horizon.

Winch traces the contours of several very different lives, as her characters try to find the time or place when their lives began to fall away – to remember when they left the shore.

Peripheral Vision is Paddy O’Reilly’s second volume of short stories (she has also published three novels) and each of the eighteen fictions collected in it is expertly constructed. She navigates substantial shifts in tone and perspective, even taking us here and there into the realm of a possible future – or an alternative present – and away from the terrain of realism, with a less explicitly political focus than Winch. Her writing is elegant, taut and acutely perceptive, charting the unexpected encounters, new discoveries and possible connections that shape our lives; and the ways in which our interactions with one another are underpinned by assumptions of which we may not even be aware.

The subterranean threat of violence is present during confrontations in which power is mismatched, not only in degree but also in kind. In the collection’s opening story, ‘Salesman’, a door-to-door salesman making his way home on a sweltering suburban afternoon stops at one final house, to beg a glass of water. On the porch sits a young woman with a prosthetic leg. She is waiting for her partner and his friend to return with a case of beer. Here, the visitor is sure, he can make a sale – yet by the end of the evening blood will have been spilled. The recognisable terrain of the suburbs soon recedes with the wonderfully odd and entirely original ‘Procession’, in which dogs have become self-aware, and are surrounded by passionate human acolytes. A bewildered but loving mother grapples with her rebellious daughter’s recent transition into one such ‘Dogteen’.

I suppose, now I think about it, that it was the clown dogs who were the last to turn. Pugs, Basset Hounds, Boxers. The working dogs led the change. The first dog I saw standing up was a Blue Heeler bitch. She watched me walk past, my mouth open in amazement, and she coughed as I was about to turn the corner. When I swung to face her she wagged her tail slowly, languorously, looking me straight in the eye. That was the moment I knew everything had changed. Not the hind-leg walking but a dog gazing at me as if we were equals.

The theme of our troubled relationship to the animal world comes up more than once within this collection: a short, punchy vignette called ‘Recreation’ depicts the violent titillation of dog-fighting, with the watching crowd thrilling to its brutality; ‘Restraints’ offers a portrait of the near-future in which scientific research requires ever crueller treatment of our primate relatives.

The stories collected in Peripheral Vision sketch sometimes unclear lines between strangers and friends, between those we allow into our interior lives and those we keep out. In ‘Déjà Vu’, a young man taking the waters in France is befriended by a mismatched English couple; in ‘Serenity Prayer,’ the garish world of perverse and invasive reality television is pushed to its logical extremes, in a nightmarish cycle of repetition. ‘Caramels’ focuses its stream-of-consciousness narration on a meeting between a homeless man and his social worker eating fish and chips in the park. What makes these stories so beguiling is the way that small details are offered piecemeal, as we are brought up against horror and wonder in turn; so much pertinent information is conveyed side on, with a minimum of exposition. A phrase thrown here or there into a sentence introduces a character; a shorthand reference to shared experience reveals the relationship of two individuals to one another, and their place in a fictional world. O’Reilly’s prose is characterised by moments of shrewd, even acerbic, observation; stereotypes and easy preconceptions are few and far between, and what messages we might like to carry away from these stories will not be easily reduced.

O’Reilly is particularly interested in the sharp edges of life, the catalysing events which tilt our worlds into disarray, or the moments which cast them in stark relief: whether it’s a shocking act of sexual violence which compels a group of close friends to seek collective revenge, or an adolescent girl’s confrontation with an erratic homeless man, convinced he is Jesus Christ, on the way home from school. Her stories take in the embarrassments we inflict on those we love but do not understand; the indelible marks left by trauma buried in childhood; and the different ways in which people live with the unbearable. Several figures within this collection hover on the edges of poverty and homelessness, in various stages of their abandonment by society – and, indeed, their abandonment of society. Houses crumble; loved ones are lost to unnamed wars; the tragic collides with the banal. Images are distinctive, and sharply drawn.

When travelling the spine of a country, or of a man, with one’s eyes squeezed shut, it is difficult to know whether one is going up or down, forward or backward, into the past or into the future.

Alongside the disturbing and the surreal there is tenderness and quiet selflessness, connections made and others missed, and encounters which do not turn out to be quite what we have expected them to be.

Portable Curiosities is Julie Koh’s first book-length collection, following a capsule volume, Capital Misfits, published by Spineless Wonders in 2015. Her stories, like many in Peripheral Vision, kindle a burgeoning sense that society is on the edge of a kind of madness, threatening collapse. And if O’Reilly’s fictions play to a greater or lesser degree with the boundaries of realism, Koh’s belong firmly in the realm of the fantastical, her subjects ranging from the bizarre to the dystopian, the incongruous to the horrifying.

These twelve richly satirical narratives are absurdist, bleak, and blackly comic. Koh balances political commentary with portraits of society’s most perversely self-defeating behaviours that are often wickedly funny, and sometimes moving. In the opening story, ‘Sight’, a young girl whose third eye sees a household peopled not only by her living family but also but the ghosts of others, turns to the enigmatic Tattoo Man for companionship.

‘This world is two worlds,’ he says, ‘and the divide between them is finer than a layer of human skin […] Something is wrong with those who won’t see the laughing, and something is wrong with those who won’t see the crying. Don’t play dumb with me, China Doll.’

Throughout Portable Curiosities the line between the real and the imagined, even the magical, is opaque. ‘The Fantastic Breasts’ is an unapologetic satire of objectification, in which the disembodied mammaries of the title are subject to a seemingly inexorable course of events, from desire to acquisition to possessiveness to jealousy to apathy and finally betrayal – a younger model; a new pair of breasts.

The collection reaches a kind of philosophical crux with the meta-fictional fable ‘Satirist Rising’, in which we meet the world’s last satirist. Her body is deformed by unhealing sores inflicted, we learn, by her own craft. Each time she wounds with words the injuries rebound upon her.

The moment one stops crying and begins to laugh that hard, dark laugh is the moment a satirist is truly born. For some it takes an intimate betrayal, an un-just death, even a full-blown war. It’s always the idealist who falls furthest from the state of grace, the one whose pen turns from a long-stemmed rose into a polished blade.

The last satirist is the author of a book called The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, an outlandish depiction of the future which has been taken – you guessed it – as a prophecy, and one which humankind has endeavoured since the year of its publication to fulfil. Those ‘portable curiosities’ of the collection’s title are, in this story, the last artists, condemned to live inside a travelling exhibition, encased in glass.

The ghastly jostles up against the droll in the nightmarish worlds Koh creates, from the inescapable glass office towers of ‘Civility Place’, in which everything is transparent and yet no-one is seen, to the potentially fatal consequences of narcissistic gastronomic hipster-dom in ‘Cream Reaper’. The utterly original ‘Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods’ is an aberrant fairytale, written in the form of a committee report into the appearance of a group of musicians camped out in the woods on the edges of a town. One by one the musicians are killed, their instruments destroyed; when there are no instruments with which to play a funeral march, the community is enraged. In notating the separate sections of the report with musical keys, Koh turns the work itself into a piece of music.

Koh targets the reductive and stultifying effects of cultural stereotyping, from the banal logic of misogyny to the scourge of xenophobia. Inequality in all its forms meets her satiric ire, as do those systems which lock individuals into consumption and competition. And where Winch traces the personal and interpersonal consequences of inequality, Koh zooms out her lens to sketch the patterns which shape social behaviours – the racism which pervades public dialogue; the irresistible pressure of conformity to a capitalist system. One of the collection’s highlights is ‘Sister Company’, its futuristic vision bringing to mind the nightmarish alternate realities of Charlie Brooker, or George Saunders. It takes place in 2030, and its protagonist is Orla, an increasingly alienated and depressed young woman who works as a generator of ‘sims’, or simulations, imagining the content of erotic novels for paying customers. She approaches the Sister Company seeking a form of therapy delivered via android – and it is when she gets a glimpse of what lies behind the android’s glamorous exterior that the story skirts into the realm of the dystopian. Perhaps the most dismaying element of this imagined future is the persistence of human solipsism: we invent advanced robotic power and artificial intelligence, yet all we can think to do is produce erotica and save money on fireworks, still mired in self-loathing. Koh is not pulling any punches, weaving elements of the mysterious and the grotesque with the all-too-real. Skirting the ‘bleeding edge’ – to borrow her tongue-in-cheek use of a particularly apposite bit of management-speak – not one of these stories allows her readers to sit comfortably.