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Famous Reporter # 36
 

 

 

RALPH WESSMAN

Recent Writing

 

Nicolette Stasko

'The Invention of Everyday Life', Black Pepper, 2007. ISBN 978 1 876044 56 5

‘Imagine a hump of land surrounded on three sides of water,’ runs the opening line of The Invention of Everyday Life, describing the setting for the series of stories that comprise Nicolette Stasko’s most recent novel. Well, imagine the wind as it courses with frenetic fits and bursts – and is just as readily becalmed - through the streets and narrow alleys of the imaginery town of Dockside. Imagine the town with its sleepy pockets of population arrested in photographic frame and detail in bedrooms and studies, at doctor’s surgeries and on walks along the beach. Imagine the rise and swell of human emotion, bubbling on occasion with warmth and joy but concentrated more ordinarily on the humdrum realities of an existence where hope's been quenched as surely as a candle's snuffed flame. Imagine a book of loosely-linked stories whose moody descriptive passages are notable for their lack of a human presence and intereaction, and you have The Invention of Everyday Life.

Slated as a novel, it’s no novel in the ordinary sense of the word but a ninety-seven chapter sketchbook - brief sketches, each no more than a page or two in length - of the daily life of Dockside’s inhabitants. The overall effect achieved in these fragmentary pieces is bleak and sombre, interspersed with an occasional ray of light. Mention is made in the story ‘Trawling’ of a fisherman’s daily routine, his accommodation to the times - ‘It is true – he has to go further and further each year to catch anything’ – wherein life is an endless struggle to make ends meet. There’s no contented retirement to look forward to, ‘… no café, no bocce, no gossip or fish stories. He will look after his grandson while his wife does the washing she takes in.’ The measuring of time in this fashion surfaces again in the story ‘The Coming of Artichokes’. ‘Another spring they sigh, the artichokes will last maybe a few more weeks and next year … will we be here to see the coming of artichokes?’. Stasko engages in a constant measuring of last things, invites the corollary of measurement against our own correspondingly shortening timespans.

Yet the Italo Calvino quotation at the beginning of the novel - Each life is an encyclopaedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable - indicates that Stasko’s stories represent a shuffling of styles and approaches and this is certainly true of the opening piece 'Geography I', wherein it rains - not cats and dogs, but – fish ... more surreal than bleak, almost suggesting ‘this is about the surprise of life’. Similarly, ‘Eggshells’ ends with the surreal, almost casual aside ‘A man silently beats his wife. She too is silent, taking the blows as a roof gathers rain’.

The occasional story departs from the narrative tone and voice of disinterested observer to confirm the  existence of passionate relationships and pursuits in the lives of at least some of Dockside's inhabitants. ‘Point of View’ speaks of a writer who has purchased a small weather board cottage for the express purpose of writing his third novel ‘This novel is not going well although he is obsessed by it; like opening an oyster – inside pearl and ocean, outside brittle and easily chipped, tenaciously closed.’ While experiencing difficulty with his work, in his personal life the writer is happy and content. ‘He wishes he were not so happy, so content here. He wonders why it is difficult to write about happiness, the ordinary things.’ There’s a glimpse here of what moves the individual in his ordinary pursuits and in his search for happiness. It's in stark contrast with the majority of Stasko’s brief sketches wherein little beyond the surface is revealed, where rarely is a human response occasioned or called for. As such, the reader as observer is distanced from identification and emotional involvement but assumes the role of witness to the unfolding trivia of daily events, invited to draw his or her own conclusions.

 

Kevin Brophy
'what men & women do', stories by Kevin Brophy. Flat Chat Press, 2006

It's difficult to ‘place’ Kevin Brophy through the stories in his most recent collection ‘what men & women do’. Approach from a position of familiarity with earlier work and you run the risk of pigeonholing the writer. At their most straightforward, his new stories sparkle with droll wit and satirical observation, entertain a realism placing the reader fully in the frame. Not that realism is his sole signature style, for Brophy's equally fond of the oblique approach promoting distortion, suspension of belief.

At the heart of Brophy’s stories lies - as the book’s title suggests - the nature of relationships between men and women. Often they’re about the transition from love to out of love, though that’s not to say the relationship ends, it’s more that a transitional stage has been reached which requires navigation. Some speak of utterly unendurable matches

"We both said we would never marry, not if it meant going to bed with a man like Mortein Mortin day after day, year after year."

or hint at relationships that never quite make the grade.

‘She remembers the way her father would always bend the endings of fairy tales: "… and the prince and princess lived relatively happily ever after," he would say, grimacing at her. "The best anyone can hope for."

The book's title story – ‘what men & women do’ – is the finest of the collection, with its finely etched sequence of events in a child’s life. Brophy's humour is impossibly contagious and underlined with a poignancy that speaks of relationships that are never quite connected, never quite glued.  An exceptional eye and ear for detail is apparent in the following interaction between Eric, Pat and Diane, three children who role-play setting the meal table for dinner. Eric acts out the role of dad, late home, while Pat plays mum

"saying over and over again, 'Where is he, he said he'd be home at six and it's after six.' Diane sat behind a box and sang songs in a low voice. She was the wireless. After each song she would stop and say the time. The minutes after six kept increasing. Eric was to sit 'outside' the kitchen, with his back to them. He was not to arrive until Pat had burnt the dinner and thrown it out the window. When he was finally allowed to come in he was told to lean against the door as though we would very soon fall over."

Simple realism - a concern for what rings true - is but a facet of these stories, which elsewhere suggest "there but for the grace of God go I". ‘Search’ is the story of a young woman who after a stint of travelling through Europe meets another young Australian and agrees to act as a drug mule ferrying drugs back into the country.

"He mentioned a sum of money. She was tempted - it was her chance to avoid going back to a job she didn't like. Perhaps she would be able to study or continue to travel. The flat would be paid off."

Who’d ordinarily risk their future in this way? Yet jump the hurdle of one bad decision and the reader arrives at plausibility, at identification with the drug mule’s fate.

Elsewhere, plausibility takes a back seat and creativity takes control. ‘Thanks Anthea, love Sean’ tells of a man with two wives in two countries, a man whose work takes him away for much of the year. ‘With one wife he was a man with short hair and a clean-shaven face, and with the other wife he had longer hair and a beard. He would go away by himself to grow his beard and hair for two months before arriving at his other wife's home. Apparently these two faces allowed him to keep his two lives separate in his mind." No doubt it's a story based on fact, one imagines Brophy coming across it in a newspaper or conversation and mentally noting its literary merit. The same story speaks of a man who went to funerals to pick up women. 'Death and sex, this man used to say, they're made for each other. He found women at funerals were more beautiful than anywhere else. Always well-dressed, with shining eyes, trembling lips, their faces all vulnerability and courage - there with the knowledge that life might pass them by. He believed funerals make us reckless. He would go to a funeral and pretend to be an old and distant friend of the deceased when he spoke to a woman." Unlikely behaviour to most of us, but in Brophy's hands the characters come alive with manifest possibility. His stories throughout the collection question issues of race, ageing, illness, depression and death (etc) with an inquisitive and often quirky sleight of hand.  In ‘A Happy Death’, the character Andy is described as "a philosopher of sorts, or at least a provoker of thought", and Andy could be said to describe Kevin Brophy to a tee: a gentle nurturer of thought and ideas, of discussion and openness and inclined to curiosity about our interactions with others.

 
 
Brook Emery
Uncommon Light, Five Islands Press 2007. ISBN 978 0 7340 3762 6
 
Brook Emery’s writing derives from a clear and defined space feeding, as often as not, from a political dimension. Yet essentially it’s a poetry abandoning certainty for ambiguity; dogged by doubt, raising more questions than it answers.
I can’t get my head around it. How did we devise
 
a concept like just war: the slain of the Lord
are dung upon the ground. I know there are distinctions
it is important to make and I don’t expect perfection
but the chicanery of subtle thought…
The poems in Emery’s new collection extend as far back as communal memories of a Bondi adolescence  in 'Thirty-six views of Bondi Beach', acknowledging relationships that clearly remain important regardless of the passage of time. Memory is stripped bare in this affectionately recorded recollection of shared lives and early experiences. Its narrative qualities are elsewhere evident in poems such as ‘Feeding Birds’, which captures the poignant image of a hand scattering bread for the gathered pigeons and gulls, ‘Knuckles uppermost, the hand appears / to rest on air, pivoting at the wrist as if / he were conducting time or prolonging / a gesture of farewell.’
 
On other occasions, the descriptive is a little less foregrounded. 'Landscape' skates between the defined and the open-ended in its account of spending all day ‘half-lost in maps'. Studying the countryside from the ‘cold height' of a map, trees become dots, plains dominoes, and without an imaginative reassembling of the terrain’s contoured valleys, crevices and fissures one assumes there’d be few surprises in store. However,
Do not be misled, nothing here
is certain. The landscape is familiar
but somehow redolent of nightmare
an exchange of dissembling eyes
that misinterpret as alternatives intrude.
‘Landscape’ pulls up with harsh and attendant reality to the finality of ‘Late at night // a man is bashed by teenage boys, a girl / is lured into the bush and left to die’.
 
Emery's poetry is not aesthetically difficult – a concern for communication over obscuration? – yet is nevertheless demanding; the difficulty here is following the poet’s train of thought, his explosion of ideas that seeks to engage a responsive, responsible readership. Many poems are initially anchored in reality before drifting to speculation, as if to establish a point of mutual understanding with readers before the real work of the poem begins. Few remain purely narrative pieces, with most developing beyond the cosmetics of surface imagery to embrace a wondrous sense of the human capacity for love and loyalty, betrayal and disingenuity…. 
 
Emery is in turn optimistic, pragmatic, even fatalistic, his concerns triggers for our fears, for our strategies for survival, our roadmaps for hope. He is confronting - teasing intellectual strands here, fashioning connections there - and deeply personal. He questions the centre of his being: how involved am I in matters of the world? Am I absolved from its difficulties? Absorbed by them? Ranging from the realpolitik clearsightedness of the poems entitled ‘Monster’ (there are four) to subtly laid hints at an ambiguous presence others might term ‘God’, Emery writes with what could be readily described as balanced optimism. Yet he's not one to easily pin down. Who are we, beyond our mixed bag of responses to each occasion? Does Emery cleave to hopefulness, or is his an optimism resting within the moment?
the world won’t be a safer or a fairer place
our willingness to wonder and to hurt will be the same.
But the sea may come up and, if we’re lucky
and not too afraid, we might press ourselves
against the edge of that one big wave, cling and let go.

 

 

 

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