What Fear Was
by Ben Walter
Puncher and Wattmann
Published November 2021
If You're Happy
by Fiona Robertson
Published February 2022
The Teeth of a Slow Machine
by Andrew Roff
Published March 2022
I am looking for something to say about the short story as a category, something to distinguish it, and my mind alights on the word ‘fun’. Is it possible, I wonder, that the short story permits the author to play, to have fun, in a way that other forms do not? Do we tend to ignore this because the word ‘fun’ is difficult to fit into an aesthetic claim, because the concept itself seems to resist being aestheticised, its monosyllabic punchiness evoking childish play or adult condescension that dodges the analytical eye? It was just a bit of fun. Don’t you know how to have fun? This isn’t fun.
To have fun is to sketch an agreed set of parameters within which the usual rules don’t apply, and this constitutes the fundamental work of the short story form, where brevity requires a premise to be conjured in a flourish, like a stage revealed behind a rising curtain, and then extinguished before it has worn out its welcome, before the reader has the chance to ask the sort of questions that require detailed answers (This is perhaps why John Barth titled his influential postmodern short story collection Lost in the Funhouse). A reader must be willing, then, to forgo the development and explanation they would expect of a novel; this gives the short story writer freedom to play. Because of this, short stories require a certain generosity on the reader’s part, a willingness to accept a set of terms that can never be entirely unfurled, and that process entails something like a mutual commitment to having fun.
When I say that short stories are fun, I do not mean to diminish the possibility of serious subject matter, but rather to describe the conditions of their fictionality, and the readers’ commitment to their sketched worlds. Short stories are of course not reducible to fun; many are not fun to read and their value is rarely predicated on the quantity of fun they provide. But to consider what it means to have fun is to reckon with the disposition that allows us to peer into a universe through a keyhole only a few thousand words in diameter, to accept and follow the action through the keyhole, despite it being done with before we’ve had time to fully comprehend its implications.
In his magisterial study of literary character, Character and Person, John Frow writes of the ‘fragile “let’s pretend” moment that precedes all narration.’ This resembles what I mean when I speak about the fun of short stories: the requirement for two parties to agree on the shared conditions of a world, before both can dive in. Once you attend to this act – delimiting a world, its rules – to make narration possible, you can begin to witness it everywhere. In theatres, concert halls, art galleries, conversations, politics. We are forever accepting a level of pretence to allow us to get on with things. Among the features that distinguish a form is the way in which this moment is enacted. The thrill and risk of a short story collection is that it requires the reader to continue to reset themselves in relation to each new pretence; each story is necessarily initiated by a new ‘let’s pretend’ moment.
To read the three short story collections considered here – What Fear Was by Ben Walter, If You’re Happy by Fiona Robertson, and The Teeth of a Slow Machine by Andrew Roff – is to see the authors take advantage of the variety and experimentation the form permits, each book bouncing through (having fun with) time periods, cultures, degrees of realism and unrealism. And as the variety accumulates from story to story, the sustaining identity, or perhaps project, of each author takes shape.
The organising principle that gathers Walter, Roff, and Robertson for this essay is that they are contemporary Australian short story writers. Reading them together reveals that while they differ in terms of their interests, they are each, in their own way, engaged in a kind of problem-solving: working to argue themselves out of (in Robertson’s case) or into (in the case of Roff and Walter) a wry existential nihilism. There exists, across the books, a sense that we are born blinkered into a tragic world, and therefore faced with the awkward choice of liberating ourselves by discarding the blindfold and thus being exposed to the profound despair that witnessing the world entails, or remaining blindfolded and ignorant so as to avoid becoming overwhelmed by our postlapsarian plight. (Keeping the blindfold on, does, however mean that we continue to bump into things.)
In The Teeth of a Slow Machine Andrew Roff displays his sense of both formal and stylistic fun, with a tendency to amplify the taken-for-granted unheimlich of the everyday. Here narrative tension usually depends on dramatic irony, with characters often ignorant of the significance of their own stories, even as moral and philosophical messages are clearly signalled to the knowing reader. His subjects include a PhD candidate protagonist coolly reporting on their hideously unethical research project, which entails examining the mind-body problem by torturing refugees imprisoned in a detention camp, and a train barrelling towards children playing on the tracks, a train seen by the reader long before it is seen by the children. Another is written from the perspective of a sports mascot whose identity has become inextricably blended with the giraffe costume he’s reluctant to remove. He commits to his team in a world disintegrating due to some unnamed geopolitical or environmental disturbance, the consequences of which cloud the edges of his vision, before becoming unavoidable.
Several of Roff’s characters earnestly parrot the language of the marketing department – a man of inherited wealth who flies with prototype wings revels in his status as a beta tester of the rarefied technology; in the opening story, a noir-riff that follows an investigator hired by a fried chicken chain to shut down would-be imitators, the narrator speaks reverently of the Founder and the Recipe. George Saunders, whose characters habitually find themselves tortured by narrative logic, is a clear inspiration. Similarly, Roff’s characters commit moral transgressions happily, or are hapless victims of circumstances incomprehensible to them; although Roff more emphatically enjoys his characters’ ignorance of their significance, enjoys finding absurd what they take seriously.
This is dramatised by a story titled ‘Reality Quest’, which takes the form of a text-based role-playing game, wherein the narrative responds to player input. This story depends on two jokes: the first is that the game is being played by a girl despite clearly being meant for a boy (when asked to name her child, she names it ‘bieber’), the second is that the game follows the filthy cruelty of medieval life, with no room for sword-swinging heroism or porcelain-skinned princesses. Instead it immerses the player in an existence that is nasty, brutish and short, involving a mangled horse, dull and poorly recompensed hard labour, amputation, and a vicious and violent father-in-law. The girl clearly finds the game disgusting, but sees it through to its grim, dissatisfying end. The obvious analogue is that of reader and writer, but Roff tends to be antagonistic not towards his reader but rather towards his characters.
Recurring details are threaded through the collection, which suggest some overarching frame with which the book might be approached. In ‘No Good Deed,’ a story about an archaeologist who works to advance the interests of mining companies against the wishes of Indigenous populations has begun to experience blackouts during which she undertakes virtuous acts against her will. A priest, explaining the world’s spiritual complexity, tells her that the Sumerians believed in seven discrete heavens, a gesture that fails to endear him to the protagonist. A later story, ‘Third Heaven’, follows a woman who believes herself to be in a dissatisfying heaven but it is gradually revealed (to us, not to her) that she is in fact in a nursing home. In the story that precedes ‘Reality Quest’ a child plays a video game of the same name despite the admonitions of his mother. Roff’s seeming pact with the reader depends on this knowingness that the reader possesses in lieu of his characters, as we surveil them and their frailty.
Where the backdrops of Roff’s stories are the neurotic and hypocritical psyches of characters incapacitated by the gap between perception and reality, the perspectives in Ben Walter’s What Fear Was often seem secondary, or subject, to the landscapes in which they are contextualised, whether urban, suburban, regional, or remote.
Walter’s collection reverently treats Australia’s geography – in particular, Tasmania’s rugged scenery – as precious, misunderstood, and threatened. Here is a place of mystery and wonder that is disintegrating as its colonisers try to grasp at it, to comprehend and own it. (Having never been to Tasmania, I felt at times as if I was encountering an alien dialect, having the uncanny experience of an author defamiliarising an object with which I was not in the first place familiar.)
Walter’s stories rarely settle into a simple, coherent worldview, doubling back on themselves thematically and stylistically, keeping the reader off balance. They are dense of prose and thick of meaning; reading What Fear Was can feel like slicing through spiky underbrush with insufficiently sharp weaponry.
The opening sentence of the collection exemplifies this:
When you step into the grey boat it bows to the applauding waves and nods to those retreating then it settles on its stage, poised to break into another round of curtain calls as the wind from the south hurls petals of spray.
The boat, the waves, and the wind are dramatically anthropomorphised (a touch awkwardly – the figures jostling for attention), nature is posed as both antagonist and protagonist. This lively Australian environment, its harshness and beauty, is Walter’s most vivid and visceral subject.
In ‘The Eradication Program’, a cartographic survey expedition is recounted from the perspective of a reluctant participant, born on the islands (recalling Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Translations). The story explicitly takes inspiration, acknowledged in two epigraphs, from Gulliver’s Travels, in which Lilliput is located in relation to Van Diemen’s Land (a Lilliputian features prominently), and the Royal Company Islands, a group of islands that were mapped, early in the nineteenth century, south-west of Tasmania, but have never since been encountered, the consensus being that they never existed in the first place.
The narrator describes the party of men, whose job it is to eradicate these islands by mapping them. When they encounter a cairn marking the burial site of a woman the narrator once loved – a woman to whom occasional reminiscing, interspersed throughout the story, is addressed (‘remember when we met on that ledge carved in the crumbling quarry stone?’) – and he is instructed to map it and thus destroy it, he finally feels compelled to recognise and resist the crushing weight of colonial obliteration.
The governing affect in ‘The Eradication Program’ is discomfort. Cold and wet penetrate clothes and bedding; the narrator has contracted an unsightly skin infection, breaking out in sores that repulse his colleagues. Walter is at his most forceful when describing the natural world, the prose sculptural, aiming for a rough elegance, as if hewn from the outcroppings his characters clamber across. Again, here, Walter endows non-sentient things with sentience. The narrator sees, amongst the harsh unwelcoming landscape, ‘Leaves with wide blank faces; the native cabbage wonder[ing] how it ended up here.’ In the next paragraph, water being boiled for tea ‘is getting up on its haunches.’
At the end of the story, the narrator looks out across the island they are eradicating:
We stand on the lip of land, the newborn escarpments that just last week were flowing fields sloping gently to a pebble beach, the town’s cemetery sojourning on the fringes until we savaged them with our navigation, disappearing turf and blanking out the peat, felling the bridge that linked us to the bottom of the sea.
This vision of the human and ecological realms at odds, at war, permeates the collection, colonialism presented as a destructive project that inevitably turns the gun on itself.
When Walter’s characters are removed from nature, the urban environments they inhabit are often equally unsettling, as are the characters’ relations to reality, which take on the logic of dreams. In ‘Surely You Can’t be Serious’, Leslie Nielsen, the star of The Poseidon Adventure and Airplane!, has been stuck in traffic for so long that he cannot recall his destination. He is captivated by a hitchhiker (‘Can’t the man see that he is stuck in traffic? Why wouldn’t he just walk?’) who stops to express how much the actor’s films have meant to him. Nielsen doesn’t know what to do about the fact that the hitchhiker is, without permission, taking the flowers that have provided him some minor company and solace through the interminable traffic jam.
‘The Day the Music Died’ opens with a couple whose plan to catch a flight to Fiji is disturbed by their having to spend the morning battling flies (‘We slap their leering faces and they sprawl on the carpet like twists of dark wool.’). Seeds of anxiety are planted as the narrative seems to be barrelling towards the terminal point of an air disaster. On board the plane, anxious passengers make love in their seats, and ‘get a little drunk on the best booze the airline can offer.’ The story ends with their plane plummeting towards the ocean, as a group of musicians the couple had seen milling about with their instruments when waiting to board, rise from their seats to play their guitars, ‘And incredibly, the plane begins to stabilise’.
Where Walter and Roff are more interested in literature’s capacity for stylistic innovation, and its potential to examine the feelings of reality through structures of unreality, each of Fiona Robertson’s stories is treated as an opportunity for an empathetic encounter, the ambition generally moral rather than formal.
If You’re Happy is an exercise in people-watching – and the people being watched tend, due either to sadness or frustration, to be unable to get a clear view of the nature of the challenge that plagues them. The stories follow a pattern: a protagonist is confronted with a crisis that reveals something of their character, and that crisis gently prods them towards a better self.
In ‘Shiny Things’, a burglary is disrupted when the intruder, Connor, a boy in foster care who dreams of providing for his younger sister, witnesses the owner of the house he has targeted, a wealthy older woman, sleepwalking onto the street, about to step in front of a careening vehicle. He rescues her, and drops a necklace that he stole, which she, to the boy’s surprise, describes as ‘ugly’ and ‘ostentatious’ – a word the boy does not know but gets the gist of. Despite his being revealed as a thief, the woman invites him in, enticing him with the offer of steak. He eats the steak, returns the stolen goods he had stashed in the pockets of his hoodie, gruffly accepts the woman’s thanks, and leaves furious, unable to process the emotions of the encounter, unable to fathom why she didn’t call the cops.
Notably, it is the only story in the collection written in the second person, with the reader addressed as Connor, (‘The thought of steak makes your mouth water. The fosters feed you and Ava baked beans, noodles, toasties.’) The apparent drive of the story is to place two incompatible characters together, and see how in connecting, each might make the other a little better. After the incident, there is a minor shift in Connor’s disposition: ‘Lately you’ve been hanging out with Dale after school instead of scoping houses. You’re thinking maybe you can scrape by with what you’ve saved.’
Often, the stories model the mending of interpersonal failures, the way in which people, when failing to understand each other, will at first dig in, before softening a little. On a snowy Vancouver evening, an elderly man is leaving his daughter’s house when he overhears her complaining that he talks too much and never listens; when his car fails to start, he stubbornly stays put through the bitter night, rather than returning to the house for help. The story concludes with the father and daughter in a hospital room together, finally able to reveal something of their complex feelings, and being a little better off for it. In ‘A Shift in the Ice’, widower Joseph, taking a guided tour of an Icelandic glacier, becomes increasingly exasperated by tour-mate Kimmy, a bubbly American who won’t stop chatting. In a moment of overflowing frustration, Joseph gruffly demands she get out of his way, causing her to slip, fall and injure her ankle. Again, this story ends with a moment of frank, mutual understanding, and something like forgiveness.
In what has, since his death, become David Foster Wallace’s best-known work, the Kenyon College commencement address published as This Is Water, he imagines how one might cope with the dreary frustrations of everyday life, by practicing radical empathy. If, for example, you are stuck in traffic, he suggests, you might imagine:
that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
If You’re Happy can be read as an exercise in adopting this pose, an effort to imagine the complexities in other lives, in the hope that in doing so, we might be both more grateful for our own, and less quick to diminish the struggles of others.
Robertson’s worlds are not exactly karmic, but they are ordered by a therapeutic moral rationality. Protagonists are nudged towards revelations, self-fulfilment, ever-so-slightly more nourishing lives, although they face obstacles. The problem with the approach that Wallace proselytises is that it treats the task of empathy as something requiring monumental effort, a vast moral quest that demands we indulge in terrible fancies about the lives of others. While at times Robertson indulges this impulse, If You’re Happy avoids this pitfall when returning to the quotidian, and treating its characters not as ethical models, but as inevitably flawed individuals who might, on a challenging day, edge towards a better version of themselves.
Most of the stories across these collections depend on this question of how we fail to understand the world (a fraught, if endlessly compelling, philosophical position), suggesting that the fun of the short story collection is intimately entwined with the fun of cycling through perspectives so that each new subjectivity functions as a vehicle for demonstrating differences from what has come before and what comes next.
The success of this conceptual project (which varies across and within each of these collections), partially depends on how the reader and author are implicated once lines are drawn to demarcate where fun is to be had. Things come apart if the narrative and literary pleasure (and fun) rely on extracting a feeling of heady readerly superiority by coaxing them to identify, say, a character’s ignorance. If all we can extract from a story is the knowledge that we would never be as stupid or immoral as the people it depicts, then the reading experience is closer to onanism than art. Reading these books, I wondered whether short stories are particularly prone to either enthusiastically embrace or flagrantly reject this kind of gratification. The collections are at their least convincing when doing the former, and at their best when doing the latter.
Is there something distinguishing a particular kind of contemporary Australian short story that emerges from gathering the work of Roff, Walter, and Robertson? The danger of generalising these rather distinct collections is that to do so may end up erasing the virtues or otherwise of their particularities, and it can be tempting to lean on the similarities in order to attain the gratification that comes with pattern recognition, the kind of thing that structures a review essay. But the pleasure of generalising is that, in looking at objects together, new aspects are revealed by their multivarious context.
What I can say, is that the stories here transmogrify the fun of the short story form into wryness, funnelled – sometimes thrillingly, sometimes unsettlingly, sometimes unsatisfactorily – through juxtaposition, knowingness, melancholy. They also all attempt to cloak humanistic inquiries, examinations of how we might be better, in literary outfits. Saunders, perhaps the best-known short story writer working today, has written that ‘The land of the short story is a brutal land, a land very similar, in its strictness, to the land of the joke.’ It is worth asking, then, a question we should ask whenever brutal fun is being had – who is the object of this brutality? In which direction does the punch line punch?