‘When you’re 43 rats crammed into a trenchcoat, you don’t particularly want people to question what’s underneath.’ This is the thesis of Patrick Lenton’s new short fiction collection, Sexy Tales of Paleontology. The line speaks to an anxiety around being dressed down or ‘figured out’. It’s hard to find a formal genre in which to slot this book, mostly because it’s set out in a way that could be described either as a verse novel or a series of short stories, but it also contains fragments of microfiction (‘Homing Pigeon’), with a novella (‘Boatjack’) thrown in for good measure.

Sexy Tales is published by the award-winning small press Subbed In. The book is similar to other recent releases that have a certain quality of a deep-fried meme, in that they rely on intertextual pop culture references which are set out in a mash-up so far removed from its original context that they take on ever more laughable, distorted forms. I’m thinking here of Patricia Lockwood’s No-one Is Talking About This, or Eloise Grills’ If You’re Sexy and You Know It, Slap Your Hams, where there’s a linking thread of thinly copy-and-pasted pop culture references mixed with a dizzyingly irreverent humour that works towards this ideal of being ‘sexy’. Because you don’t want to be too serious; if you want to make people laugh, for an audience where an eye-rolling Gen Z contingent have heard it all before, you have to be aesthetically concomitant to the martyr or a satyr (or both). And much like the protagonist ripping open his trenchcoat full of rats, in order to gain currency, it seems you must expose yourself again and again.

The opening story, ‘43 Rats’, reads like a limerick as Lenton playfully allegorises the experience of queer masculinity, depicted via a cringing protagonist whose identity is comprised of a certain number of rodents under a trenchcoat. The story goes that the rat man lobbies the council to install streetlights in the local area after being mugged by a snake, which somewhat disjointedly segues into his political mobilisation of other rodents in a Rat Pride parade, whereupon it’s discovered that this man actually isn’t proud of his identity, because he isn’t 43 rats in the first place – when he tears open the trenchcoat, the rats collapse and he’s revealed to the horrified crowd as a fraud. Yes, the rats are all performing for an audience, but it’s unclear what this performativity means for queer people as a complex and self-identifying community. His character navigates friendships and romance with quirky women and evades the scornful gaze of men who would ‘rub their ham-fists together threateningly, or nudge their compatriots, and turn their long necks to watch me pass.’

In much of the collection, descriptions do the work of establishing voice, character and setting. For example, in ‘Tales of Generosity and Kindness’, Lenton captures the feeling of growing up in the suburban blur of country Queensland:

In this town, children were like those crab migrations you’d get on a tropical island: swarming in huge numbers, often irritating, extremely hungry, but one day you wake up and they’re gone, naturally scuttled off to study at big-city TAFEs, to audition for The Voice, to marry short but successful tennis players, never to return.

These pithy descriptions create impressions of scenes rather than actually letting them play out in real time. An aesthetic is generated from zeitgeisty surfaces, holding a funhouse mirror to the cultural conditions of the mid-2000s. Mostly these portholes into the recent past are interesting, but I wonder sometimes if these portraits aren’t too taken up with their own reflection to explore the outer contours of the story through character arcs. Sexy Tales doesn’t critically engage with its lampooned subjects as much as dance around them with a kind of narcissistic charm.

In the microfiction piece, ‘Homing Pigeon’, Lenton captures the distinctively modern malaise of internet dating, treading the fine line between popularity and loneliness, digital and analogue algorithm. The protagonist witnesses his friends deleting their various dating apps over brunch while he continues his practice of strapping love letters to pigeons’ feet in search of romance. ‘Brandon had put his faith into a different type of romantic algorithm … He knew they weren’t homing pigeons, but he assumed they had to go somewhere.’ A playful metaphor, Lenton’s protagonist’s method seems like folly in contrast to the messages sent out by his friends through the internet.

‘Homing Pigeon’ is a paragraph long; a novella titled ‘Boatjack’ concludes the collection. Here, an eccentric sea captain named Jack is sailing with a boatful of young adults as they pursue a whaling operation in a Sea Shepherd-esque campaign to protect the creatures. The way Lenton has him describe whales to the unwitting teenagers is hilarious:

Whales are the purest beasts in the world, with hearts the size of Volvos, and souls as big as the world. They mean nobody no harm, and all they wanna do is swim around and sing beautifully and raise children. They breathe air and they don’t run the banks. They’re like marine Celine Dions. They are grey lumpy salt friends. Barnacles and fish with big sucker mouths live on them. Nice old men live inside them. They eat prawns because every day is Christmas lunch for a whale.

Whales don’t run the banks! We love the fact that nothing from nature can work to control us while we hold dominion over them (a fallacy, of course). The descriptor ‘marine Celine Dions’ speaks to the charismatic nature of whales in the public eye, so much that their home can be turned into a toxic tip, but as individual creatures they are raised on a cultural pedestal. ‘Nice old men live inside them’ echoes the Biblical myth that speaks through the recent tale of fisherman Michael Packard, who claimed to have been trapped inside a humpback whale’s mouth in June 2021. Nature and non-human creatures make up a big part of Lenton’s cultural absurdism: when the school guidance counsellor recommends that the story’s protagonist join the vessel of troubled teens, he says: ‘the only place I could escape them would be into the ocean, where I would probably be taunted by some adolescent sea turtles with too much hair gel.’ Earlier on, alongside the skittering rodents of ‘43 Rats’, masculine bodies are aligned to snakes and feminine ones are birdlike. I found myself vaguely reminded of Evelyn Waugh as Lenton evoked the vile bodies in a cast of reptilian millennials who ‘flapped and squawked around the table, cigarettes held akimbo’. The roaring twenties have made a comeback.

Sometimes, when thinking about the meme-ification of literary fiction, about books like Sexy Tales, I wonder whether the point is that it is readily digestible and aesthetically curated for flatness. Some of the pastiches seem overly internet-like, in the way that they rely on description and image to convey to the reader a particular impression, without following through with action. In the same way that social media relies on succinct, rapid impressions, Lenton’s plot and characters rely on flattish, sweeping description to hold themselves up.

For example: the fifth story in the collection, ‘Home is Where the Dad Is’, curveballs the reader into a coming-of-age story about a kidult son returning to his father’s underground bunker (which is designed to protect him against an oncoming pandemic). The story concludes with the dad meeting someone who shares his obsession with pandemics through an online dating site. The story represents a time-relevant if unoriginal premise – something that falls close to the definition of a meme. Due to its reliance on a furnishing of humourous pop culture references, the story lacks the structure of irony or action. As a result, most of the ensuing jokes fall flat, excepting references to Trumpian health recommendations (‘Now let’s go bathe you in bleach!’) and dehydrated bunker food (‘There’s egg powder on the bench if you want dinner, son,’ he called over his shoulder … Jason sighed and began making egg.’)

The remainder of the Sexy Tales are mostly laid out like sketches, with comedic pacing and rhythms, but some stories peter out towards the end without the action and character building needed to make such skits move on the page. I got the sense of rushing to get to the finish line in some of the short stories, where narratives don’t so much unspool as the machine appears to jam, getting caught up in the manufacture of its own overembellished setup, without the usual payoff. Despite this, nearly every story starts with a dynamic opening line, zinging with a frenetic, irreverent energy: ‘Jeremy struggled beneath the weight of a novelty-sized cheque.’ ‘Bono had shut down America.’ Each of these skits is like a fizzing sachet of sherbet, a short hit of zany euphoria. And there are often zingers buried deeper in the packet; I laughed aloud at the uncovering of a secret Kardashian sibling:

a science teacher at a small high school in a town outside of LA. He was one of those rare teachers who managed to skate along the delicate line of teenage indifference – neither hated enough by his students to make his classes and life hell, but neither attempting the risky proposition of trying to charm his troglodyte wards.

This character outline reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr Rosewater, a novel detailing the life of a philanthropist who inherits millions of dollars and soon becomes undone by a lawyer, Norman Mushari, who identifies Mr Rosewater’s unravelling mental wellbeing. In this novel, Vonnegut uses dark humour to expose and undermine the cultural drivers of late capitalism and American exceptionalism, something which Lenton seems to hint towards. This is not to say that Lenton’s surfaces aren’t illuminating, or at times roaringly funny. His Sexy Tales are a hilarious pastiche of faddish online culture, canvassing an array of popular phenomena from celebrities to streaming platforms, which are often lampooned in tandem: ‘He wanted Owen Wilson to stop calling him and asking for “hangs”. He needed Jennifer Lawrence to cease and desist from cyberbullying him on Twitch.’ But I can’t really imagine what it would be like to read Lenton’s tales from the perspective of someone living outside of the specific internet era we’re living in now. When I read a few morsels aloud to my octogenarian grandmother, she just shook her head and crowed: ‘what’s a … podcast?’ several times before I gave up.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflagration of conspiracy theories, truth is a bogeyman ready to hit you over the head with more bad news. Where there’s bad news, there’s fake news; in the story Jim Kardashian, the protagonist becomes the topic of celebrity gossip (‘The heading read: Jim Kardashian Destroyed My Butthole Forever: Former Congressman Speaks Out’) and is fired from his job. The imagined character of a reality TV family being ejected from his real job by the constant disclosure of fame speaks to an uneasy relationship between private life, publicity and hype. But there’s also the question of time. How does truth expand and shrink in significance when put under the magnifying glass of the digital news cycle, inside the murky petri dish where the amoebic forms of news and fiction blur?

Lenton’s absurdism highlights a tension for literary publishers, both print and digital, around relevance. To employ a buzzword, many literary journals have pivoted online in order to reach wider audiences, while extending the life of print pieces and fostering new experimental works – I’m thinking here of Island’s new digital archive and Voiceworks Online, which provides a space for young digital writing – but for other journals (I’m thinking here of Kill Your Darlings and Overland online) and certainly for the news media, the online publishing cycle is more directly linked to news and current events. Time sensitivity doesn’t have to compromise nuance and complexity – but sometimes it just yields more hot takes. Mostly this applies to nonfiction, but fiction can also be subject to pressures of topicality. Short fiction that responds to current events can become a kind of ‘time capsule’ or longer-cooked response to change. Many publishers are grappling with the transforming material circumstances that contour the industry in digital space. Meanwhile, tensions between instrumentality, the drumbeat of exposure and ‘output’ can work in direct opposition to creative practise for its own sake.

Lenton’s work allows us to think about this relationship in challenging ways, as well as the question of literary value. What makes a book distinct from a meme if both are dependent on a web of intertextual references, some of which are digital and some which rely on the printed page? The divide between digital and literary is an artificial one, one of the divides that Subbed In playfully eschews by its own definition as a ‘literarararararararary organisation’. Perhaps the appearance of ‘hustling’ for virality in a manner that is funny and sexy and aesthetically pleasing is actually consistent with the project of independent literary organisations like Subbed In to forge new paths for experiences often marginalised. In the aim of literary organisations to be bold, provocative, diverting, radical, loud, silly, unapologetic and vibrant, we find a satyr’s account of literary possibility. Perhaps what Lenton’s book shows us is a meeting of the satyr and martyr, where instead of doing battle with weighty ideals shrink-wrapped into tight corners in a claustrophobic arena of independent publishing, the satyr laughs and says, why don’t we play-fight?

DIY and independent publishers like Subbed In are under increasing pressure from market forces that promote an overt culture of competition and hustle, a counter to the DIY ethos of strengthening collective solidarity and community collaboration. When I think about how to word the social value that Subbed In creates, I realise that ‘social value’ as a vague ideal is inherently fraught; in using such outcome-based, transactional metrics as indicators of ‘value’ to assess the worth of a cultural ‘product’, we impose a limiting framework – yet there are few ways to attract the resources necessary from supporters to do creative work without such framing. In his article ‘Freeing the arts from the yoke of neoliberalism,’ Richard Watts writes:

The best point to begin is to say the number one question, the first question that an artist utters should not be about funding – and that the funded moment, the business moment, the way in which you want a transaction with an audience to involve money, is only one small part of cultural activity.

The problem with this, that Watts encourages readers to rally about, is the lack of available funds for artists and public commons to support their travails. Breaking or escaping the mould, as Subbed In does so often with aplomb, is not so easy. There is significant labour involved in publishing, producing and distributing experimental work from a suburban garage – and the Sexy Tales that come out of it are no less worthy of acclaim because they are funny, and indeed their social value might be registered in the laughter and confoundment, confusion and comfort they create in the midst of the pandemic.

The seeming conflict between social value and aesthetics can be neatly surmised in the binary opposition of martyr and satyr, but perhaps it is not so much a question of intrinsic value as much as the packages they are delivered in. The question then arises as to how experimental writers are afforded cultural visibility within the confines and possibilities of independent publishing. To put the short, snackish kind of writing that is often found online onto the printed page, a writer needs to have a fair bit of ‘clout’ behind them. Much like Lenton’s nonfiction book, Uncle Hercules and other lies: 16 essays about almost nothing, the stories in Sexy Tales feel ‘told’ to the reader in a way that is very digestible, almost as if you’re sitting across from a person spinning a yarn. Occasionally, though, they start to feel more like miniature elevator pitches rather than tales. I will grab your attention, they seem to say, and hold it for a few moments before you next pick up your phone. This is an internet book, and to me, reading such snippets as a book rather than on a website feels strange. 

In Old English, the word clout means ‘a lump of something’ or ‘a patch of cloth’ used to mend a hole. Today it comes in the form of collective influence or social sway that can be used to patch over the gaping hole left by:

  1. the defunding of literary organisations
  2. the endless sinkhole that is social media, where many writers (including myself) fall like bewildered Alices down unending echo chambers and rabbit holes.

It seems to me that there are two ways for emerging and experimental writers to break through in the saturated digital landscape; you either make yourself photogenic and glossy and appealing (become a satyr) enough to woo your audience through a consistent dedication to this aesthetic, or, you stake yourself on harrowing accounts of personal experience (become a martyr). Maybe it’s too simplistic to talk this way, but I often find myself wishing I was more like the former, like Lenton. A satyr can do things differently to a martyr, having a certain flair and a flexibility that’s not always available to the latter. What interests me is how small publishers are providing gateways towards alternative visions, ones that offer a combination of hilarity and sadness in a tragicomedy of clout-patched errors.

There are a variety of small and independent presses including Subbed In, Rosa Press, and Pantera Press working not just to fill the gaps of mainstream publishing in Australia, but also to build new structures and networks for writing communities to develop in tandem with digital literary modes. I’m thinking too of the predominantly online Liminal magazine, whose anthology Collisions: Fictions of the Future was published 2020 by Pantera press to critical acclaim, while Rosa Press’ ‘Red Series’ chapbooks also published in hard copy in 2020 and then circulated in pdf format in 2021. Interestingly and similarly to Lenton’s book, these works also have a rodent motif running through them; Tom Melick’s ‘A Little History of Fatigue’ begins by examining rats as the test subjects of fatigue studies, while Elena Gomez’ ‘Crushed Silk’ contains the satirical lines:

I, a glamour rat,
the best one […]
I’m a water
baby it’s a joke I’m
a forest nymph it
came out of a team
building exercise

Here, as everywhere, the self-as-rat becomes important; the ability to shapeshift, to scurry out of sight of the public eye, generated by the self-magnifying mirror of the internet age.

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