Dealing with old discontents


As the new editor of The Best Australian Short Stories 2004, Frank Moorhouse had the task of reading through 600 stories to select 27 for publication. He says that never before has he been ‘exposed in such a short time to such fine writing and such intriguing and venturesome stories’. Of those selected, six are from previously unpublished writers. In an environment where Moorhouse fears the short story has been rendered ‘sub-economic’, this suggests that the genre is still capable of surprises.

The anthology works partly because of Moorhouse’s decision to arrange the stories in a way that ‘loosely follows the organic order—from stories of youth through to stories of ageing’. The book offers a range of human experiences, from the awkwardness of adolescence to the despair and resignation of old age.
Among the collection, two first-timers stand out: Nathan Besser’s Letter to the Drowned and Alli Banard’s Finding the Way Home. With a sense of foreboding, Besser parallels the waters rising around a house with the breakdown of a relationship. In contrast, Banard’s work is a terse tale of a country girl returning home, capturing the atmospheres of the neglected bush and its forgotten people. The story ends with the Australian motif of the clattering screen door.

Erin Gough’s Jump and i.j. oog’s the american dream will appeal to those who relish rich prose. Gough writes of ‘salt and chips air’ that is ‘thicker than pub smoke’, while oog places his seething protagonist in a derelict house in the middle of nowhere. Disenfranchised masculinity is a theme that reappears in Paul Mitchell’s In the Shell, a story about two blokes working in a service station on the Hume Highway, and what happens to one when the other decides to shoot himself in the head. These are bleak tales, snapshots of people on the edge.

Conscious that many published essays in Australia began as public lectures, Robert Dessaix, the new editor of The Best Australian Essays 2004, expresses a desire to revive the voice of ‘the amateur’. Dessaix contrasts ‘panic and seriously inflamed passions’ with the attitude of the personal essay and its preference for ‘imaginative reflection’ and ‘tentative speculation’. Essays, Dessaix suggests, reveal the subtle working of the mind.

Organised into three categories—Memories, Arts and Artists, and The Wider World—Best Essays has a curious structure. Slightly bitter pieces such as Herself—Bille Brown’s memory of accompanying a dying screen star on one of her final outings—and M.J. Hyland’s sardonic biographical reflections on genetic metal illness in On Becoming a Mormon for a While and Other Madnesses, sit awkwardly next to Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s genially cantankerous Bed-riding, and Mind, Body and Age, in which Donald Horne explores the paradox of the body simultaneously carrying and holding captive the self it loves and loathes.

J.M. Coetzee makes another impressive appearance with his 2003 Nobel lecture, He and His Man, which recasts the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday from the perspective of Crusoe’s ambivalence to Friday’s anthropological observations of his ‘civilisation’. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Somerset Maugham offers tight, bright prose very much in keeping with its inscrutable subject.

Ann-Marie Priest explores the communion between writer and reader in Towards an Erotics of Reading, the essay that best captures what is best and worst about these two collections. If, as Priest suggests, the act of reading is one where we ‘listen in utter silence … to the deepest, most serious, most cherished thoughts of another’, then the Best collections provide the opportunity to listen to a range of contemporary voices and seek connections and contradictions.

In the final section, historical pieces are grouped together with more immediate, ‘hard-hitting’ journalistic pieces concerned with detention centres, the environment, education and Australian-Indonesian relations. In between these pieces, Dessaix has spliced further contradictions: essays which don’t quite fit anywhere, but which, it seems, the editor simply liked. With a preference for loose structures and even looser definitions, Best Essays 2004 is at its best expansive and open-ended, and at its worst, as one reviewer suggested, ‘perversely ephemeral’.

Determined to give the short-story collection a good ‘shaking down’, Moorhouse was willing to publish first-timers on merit alone, suggesting that the walls of Australia’s publishing industry are no longer unscalable or impenetrable. Similarly, Dessaix’s rejection of ‘table thumping’, coupled with his attempt to look for writing that persuades through reason and good humour, also indicates a new way of dealing with old discontents.

If Moorhouse’s style suggests that the walls can be scaled, then Dessaix has worked on the assumption that the walls themselves are redundant. Pretend they don’t exist, Dessaix seems to dare, and you can walk right through them. It is an attitude that may well seem provocative to those who complain of bruised craniums.  

The Best Australian Stories 2004, edited by Frank Moorhouse. Black Inc, 2004. isbn 1 863 95245 4, rrp $24.95
The Best Australian Essays 2004, edited by Robert Dessaix. Black Inc, 2004. isbn 1 863 95237 3, rrp $24.95

Kiera Lindsey read theology and graduated with first-class arts honours from the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, where she is completing a postgraduate thesis on the Hume Highway. She is also project officer of the Development of Australian Studies Networks in Indonesia project.



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