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DOUGLAS LOCKHART

Launch of Robert Cox's Alibis, Lies and Goodbyes

Ginninderra Press, August 2006


Jorge Luis Borges, the South American writer, said that a novel was a short story that had gone wrong. An Irish friend put it even better; he said a novel was a short story that had melted. Borges went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature for his short stories alone.

Short stories are among the most difficult things to write; they taunt us with their false simplicity. Inexperienced writers fall for that simplicity. They think the short story a mere limbering-up process for the novel. It is not. A short story is a world unto itself. It has its own laws. It makes demands that the novel does not make. It challenges the writer in a fashion not unlike that experienced by the poet, and at its best carries within it poetic sensibility.

I do not mean by that overworked metaphors, clumsy alliterations or self-consciously produced literary phrases. I mean internal poetic rhythms, rhythms of language that carry us ever nearer to the heart of what is being said. When I detect that underlying poetic rhythm in a short story, or in a novel, or even in a piece of journalism, I know I'm dealing with something real, or at least something approaching the real. I know the writer has touched, or been touched by, the underneath of things.

Such are Robert Cox's short stories. He is all the while searching not just for the optimum sentence or phrase, he is opening himself up to the possiblity of poetry, the possibility of sensing and capturing what can so easily be missed when trying to balance what Sir Herbert Read called "the play of reason and passion in the service of a dream". I'll repeat that: "the play of reason and passion in the service of a dream."

A short story is a collapsing of the novelist's hugely generous and forgiving world into a more refined and unforgiving reality where economy is all. It's like painting a miniature instead of a large oil. It requires a terrific sense of space and structure.

While preparing this launch statement, I was reminded of Rodin's sculpture of Balzac. The French Academy complained that Rodin's sculpture of Balzac didn't look anything like him. Rodin replied that he had sculpted Balzac's essence, not his likeness, and that, in a sense, is what all good writing attempts to do: it attempts to penetrate the surface of things and touch their essence. Robert's short stories constantly reflect this dipping below the surface of things.

This is difficult enough to do in a novel of any size, but in a short story 'essence' has to be captured in so few strokes that it becomes an art form in its own right. The prophet Isaiah - if you'll excuse a biblical reference - summoned it up beautifully: "I sat where they sat," he said, "and I was astonished." W B Yeats suggested something similar in one of his poems. He said we should attempt to penetrate things "....to a marrowbone." That, surely, is what every writer of fiction ought to be after. But it's no easy thing to accomplish, is it? It takes nerve and not a little daring to reach down into the underneath of things.

Through memory we piece together fictional characters. We build them into new beings, animate them, and loose them on the world. Sometimes, however, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, we end up with no more than an amalgamation of bits. Therein lies the difference between 'fabrication' and 'creation': fabrication is, as it suggests, forgery, it is to create lies on legs. Creation, by contrast, is the shadowy felt truth of things we glimpse when we least expect it. A good short story should carry glimpses of these shadowy truths, and Robert's collection fulfils this demand on every other line.

If I have a favourite story in Alibis, Lies and Goodbyes, it has to be 'Grace', story number three, the story of Grace Hull, a fastidious housewife whose preoccupation with housework, her neighbours, and her husband's untidiness (never mind his infidelities) leads her to a life-changing decision. What that decision is I'll leave you to discover for yourself, but in execution this is one of the best short stories I've read in some time. Robert perfectly balances structure and content to deliver a memorable tale which twists this way and that until the story resolves itself in a perfectly executed circle. This is the craft of short story writing at its best, it is the 'underneath of things' writ large.

In closing I'd like to quote my endorsement for Robert's book.

Quote:

Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Cox, a living Tasmanian writer.