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Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.
I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.
Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.
Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.
Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.
Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.
Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.
What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.
A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.
All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.
I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.
At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:
The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.
That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.
This morning, after breakfast was done and the dog fed, and after sorting out the chooks for the day, I, feeling the need for just a few cheeky extra moments of procrastination, cleaned the loo and the sink and the mirror. When done, I went into the garden and cut a small clump of pink geranium flowers, popped them in a little clear-glass bottle, filled the bottle with water, and set them out. There: a sparkly, sparkling bathroom; and it always makes me feel brilliant. Until I walk down to the writing-room with a strong mug of coffee in hand, turn on my computer and think, Oh Christ, I can’t remember where I’m up to.
The point of all this? Manhood. Or, at least, gender. The thing is I’ve spent much of the last few weeks (on top of much of the last four and a half decades) thinking – worrying – about gender. Along with most of Australia, probably. Gender, sexism, equality: this is the stuff that’s currently flooding our radios and TVs and websites and newspapers. But I don’t understand what any of it really means. Last week over at Verity La I wrote an editorial about gender equality in terms of what the journal publishes, and I introduced the piece by saying that I simply don’t know what makes a man and what makes a woman. Of course, we can talk in general terms, we can make observations based on assumptions. Even though gender isn’t always black and white, it’s actually the notions of masculinity and femininity that are the hardest to define. Is fixing a car a masculine activity? Is cooking chicken soup a feminine activity? Is tinkering in the shed with hammers and nails a masculine activity? Is, oh I don’t know, blogging a feminine activity? In the end the only rational conclusion is that these are just activities. But if anyone knows of a logical definition of masculinity and femininity, do feel free to share it.
Yet one of the core precepts of human life is gender and what this enables and entitles us to do between being born and kicking the bucket. In Australian political life, men wear dark-coloured suits with blue ties; woman wear whatever they want, more or less, though a pearl necklace, it seems, should be seriously considered if you’re in a leadership position. Men can say whatever they want, even swear (hopefully off-camera), but it wouldn’t be right for women (even off-camera). Men can be ruthless, but when women do the same we’re advised to approach with caution – she may be dangerous or mad, or even a witch.
The welfare of a child
Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about the welfare of children raised by same-sex parents. I used to believe that as long as, say, the son of a lesbian couple had access to a good father-figure (an uncle or high-quality family friend), then all would be right with the world. But what exactly is that father-figure meant to do? Teach the son how to kick a footie and do air-guitar to AC/DC? It’s just rubbish. So my thinking evolved to this: as long as the son has access to masculine and feminine influences (both of which could be found in his two mothers) then all would be right with the world. But does that mean one of the mothers has to be good at climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters (a supposedly masculine trait) while the other has to be good at getting down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floors (a supposedly feminine trait)? It’s totally absurd. So recently my thinking has evolved to this: as long as the son is loved and protected and encouraged and challenged all will be right with the world; one day he might even climb the food-chain to be deputy prime-minister.
Best-ever novels, Fred Nile and the Australian soccer team
But here’s a thing: even closer to home, when I think of my favourite novels, you know, the ones that I’d rescue if the house was burning down around my ears, all but one (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx) are written by men, and all of them (except, ironically, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tobin) are about men finding their way in the world and, quite honestly, fucking it up as they go here, there, and everywhere. Further, as I pointed out over at Verity La, there is a distinct bias towards male writers in the work the journal publishes – and I’m the one who makes the decisions. Surely it goes beyond my personal sexuality (which, sorry Fred Nile, is genetic) to something sinister: in society, and in the way we move through and within society, men have an access-all-areas voice while women must know their place. Cue: the coach of the Australian soccer team and his completely and utterly ridiculous ‘private joke’.
Making crap up
It’s pretty handy that as Australians we live in an environment where these matters can be discussed so freely and openly (though I’d be brave to the point of stupidity to chew this stuff over with some mates down at my Goulburn local). It’s also interesting that these issues have been brought to front of stage by a female prime-minister who is, rightly or wrongly (perhaps both), and consciously or unconsciously (perhaps both), using her gender to bolster her government (which has, it should be said, achieved a lot despite almost crippling political and economic circumstances). But it would be good to reach the chapter – I thought we had already, but clearly I was wrong – where actions are just actions: they don’t have sex or genders. Like picking pink flowers for the bathroom. But it’s likely this is me just being a bit of a fairy. And, as always, making crap up.
- Disgrace by JM Coetzee
- Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
- The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Riders by Tim Winton
- Last Orders by Graham Swift
- Eminence by Morris West
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):
- They’re all late twentieth-century literature
- They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
- The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
- They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
- They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
- The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
- They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
- They’re all set in the Western World
- They’re all dramas
- Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
- Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
- They all understand their political context
- They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
- The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
- Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
- They all have strong senses of place
- Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
- They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
- They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
- The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
- The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
- There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
- My life would be less without them
Happy on my treadly some Sundays ago, I found myself thinking about bravery. I wasn’t planning on dramatically sliding my pushbike beneath a truck or launching myself over a giant pothole. I was thinking about a good friend who’d received feedback from a potential publisher on his latest manuscript for a novel. ‘They say I have to be braver, the bravest,’ he’d told me. ‘Give me an example of what this means,’ he added, ‘to be the bravest of the brave.’ And then he’d flung back his double-shot long black, and more than a bit wounded, disappeared into the wilds of the nearest supermarket, heading for the chocolate aisle, then the ice-cream aisle, and then the bottle-o.
I rode off to the pool in town, because swimming for me is what camomile tea is to those brave enough to try living without caffeine. See? Bloody bravery! That word was smothering my beautiful autumn afternoon, all because my friend had received that feedback.
But what does bravery actually mean?
There is, of course, bravery and there’s stupidity. It wouldn’t be brave of me to even consider sliding my bike under a truck just because I’d seen it done in movies, and it wouldn’t be brave to try bunny-hopping a pothole by clenching my thighs around the bike frame and getting some kind of levitation thing going. This would be the stuff of fiction.
Well, let’s talk about fiction. Was Tim Winton brave when he put two different families in an old Perth house and wrote his Cloudstreet epic? Was Morris West brave when he constructed the extraordinary Eminence around the idea of the Pope-in-waiting being an atheist? Was Annie Proulx brave to write about a life-long love affair between two American cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. Was Heath Ledger brave to star in the filmed version of Proulx’s story? I’m not sure I know the answers to these questions, except the last, which is a resounding yes.
But I needed to find something more definite for my friend.
I reached the city’s paved central square, the cafes half-filled with neatly dressed Sunday afternoon types guzzling coffee. A short distance away, black-clad teenagers lurked menacingly over a stainless-steel pillow with its accompanying poem inconspicuous beneath.
Within seconds my ears filled with the speed-boat-like sound of trance music coming from a portable CD player off to one side of the stage. Gathered around the CD player was a group of about a dozen boys. I’m hopeless at determining ages of people but I figured that the youngest would have been about ten, the oldest maybe fourteen, fifteen. Some were small, others just beginning to be awkward and gangly. Most were casually sitting on the lip of the stage, but three of them, the youngest of the group, were dancing wildly as if the ground was burning up; they were moving so fast it looked like their legs were going to separate from their bodies. They weren’t there to draw a crowd. They were simply dancing in public, and they didn’t have a care in the world, it didn’t matter what others thought of them.
Minutes later, as I lowered myself into the cool pool water, I silently said to my friend, I have found what you need.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, April 25 2009)