Monthly Archives: February 2011

Direct Action – Cate Kennedy – From the collection, Dark Roots

Fire by Tripp

Fire by Tripp

Now, if all the references to Fosters, Vegemite and the need for better Dingo fences haven’t given it away yet, I live in Australia. Therefore this blog will tend to over-represent Australian authors. As a distant little market of the English speaking world, we like to focus somewhat on our own down here. Therefore, I’ve started reading the stories of a star of the local scene, Cate Kennedy. She’s won every short story award in Australia worth entering, and recently was the guest editor for The Best Australian Stories 2010, a series put out by Black Ink which is probably one of the best resources to go if you want a snapshot of Australian short fiction.
Nearly every Australian library will have a copy of her collection, Dark Roots. Every story in it has either won or was shortlisted in a major Australian competition. I’ve read about half the stories so far, and have concluded Kennedy is a master of the final line. All the stories have, well, twists would be the wrong word for it, but there is always something brought up in the dying moments of the story that emotionally shades everything that came before.

The story Direct Action, is about an unemployed welder, who takes part in protest activities against a local company that is pumping effluent into the nearby river, a river in which as a boy he fished with his father.

The welder borrows some industrial equipment from his father. His father guesses the reason why his son wants the equipment, but begrudgingly lets him have it anyway. The son recalls the three times in his boyhood when his father was proudest of him. They are when he learned to ride a bike, when he patched a hole in their backyard swimming pool by himself and when he caught a large, brown trout in the river.

The welder sneaks into the compound and welds plate metal over the pipes that spray muck into the waterway. However on the way out, he is recorded on security camera, and the police track him down and arrest him.  His father watches in the court, and gives him a look of disappointment. The narrator reveals it was the same look his father gave him, after he caught the brown trout years before and then preceded to toss it back into the river.

I’m liking Cate Kennedy’s stories more and more as I read them. It’s a marvellous technique she employs, sort of a new take on the twist in the tale, and not nearly as clichéd.

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Posted by on February 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie – Junot Diaz – from the collection: Drown

Iphone background 054 by Patrick Hoesly

Iphone background 054 by Patrick Hoesly

When I first heard about this story, I raced to read it as I generally need help in all four areas.  And the story pretty much reads like an instruction guide, only as it goes, it unfolds an incredible subtext of the poverty and racism faced by the ‘you’ of the story.

Diaz gives helpful advice. ‘Clear the Government Cheese from the refrigerator.’ ‘Hide all the pictures of yourself with an Afro.’ He gives advice on what to say to the mother of the girl that comes around, what to say to the boys in your neighbourhood. How to ignore the guy in the neighbourhood who weighs two hundred pounds and walks his two killer dogs that tear cats to pieces. As Diaz says ‘never lose a fight on a first date or that will be the end of it.’

Diaz’s story I think is a good example, of what I’ve heard called iceberg storytelling (I’m not sure if it was Hemmingway or someone else who came up with this term, but it’s a good one). Only one eighth of the story is actually revealed, the rest is lurking below the surface. As a reader you get a very accurate picture of the person Diaz is portraying, even though you only learn through the helpful advice he gives you.

A line like ‘[she says] I like Spanish guys, and even though you’ve never been to Spain, say, I like you’ says so much outside the actual literal meaning of the words. It’s a beautiful technique that Diaz uses to full effect in his stories.

Diaz was born in the Dominican republic but emigrated with his family to the United States when he was eight years old, where he lived in a poor neighbourhood in New Jersey. As he says in an interview, ‘[he has] seen the US from the bottom up.’

I myself have been comfortably middle class all my own life. Even when I’ve been unemployed, or working in a factory, I know I’ve always had a safety net. Yet the stories of the poor have always fascinated me. Like Orwell says, you can’t write when you’re desperate for your next meal, so most of the stories of the poor are told through observation. Diaz himself, says that he was lucky, and that he wrote his stories in his collection Drown, while he was working as an editorial assistant for a university press. However, his family around him continued to have mixed fortunes, with two of his brothers going to jail.

How to Date… is a great story, and well worth a read, as are the other tales in the collection ‘Drown.’ And as Diaz reminds us at the end of the story, when the date is over, remember to put the government cheese back in the fridge.

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Posted by on February 25, 2011 in Uncategorized


Dimension – Alice Munro – first published in the New Yorker

TTC bus by Michael Gil

I’ll start with an apology, I have only read two stories by Alice Munro, so I don’t know if the conclusions I draw are representative of her body of work. It seems she is the consummate short story writer, so much so, she has dedicated her career to the art form. I don’t believe she’s written any novels, but she has produced collections of interlinked short stories in book form.

Recently I borrowed the 2007 and 2008 editions of The best American Short Stories series from the local library and Munro had a piece in both of them.  Both stories dealt with unnatural deaths, but I fear my sample is too small to tell if this is an ongoing theme in her work.

Dimension begins with Doree catching three buses, at first I thought this was going to be a good old fashioned story of the road, but no, it turns out she is visiting a mental hospital near where she used to live. It turns out that her husband killed their three children in a jealous rage. This is the third time she’s gone out to see him, but he wasn’t available for the first two times she made the long trip. She is not sure how she is going to feel after the meeting. She is seeing a psychologist, and she describes the visit to her.

I find it interesting the way Alice Munro shows that life goes on after such a horrific event. Too often in the media, it seems there is a hyper interest in the event just after it occurs, and then another flurry of interest when the sentencing takes place, but once that happens, it appears the matter has concluded, at least in the eyes of the television and news reporters.  When I was reading this story, I couldn’t help thinking of a case in Australia over the trial and subsequent unsuccessful appeal of a man who drove his three children into a lake.

The same can be said for a detective story or shows like CSI. All the characters are interested in the murder while it is being solved, but once solved, the characters are then able to forget about it and move onto the next case. Munro shows that there is at least someone who can’t just dust their hands afterwards.

Doree manages to see her husband on her third visit and is shocked at how thin he has grown and how much hair he has lost. She thinks that he looks like a ghost. She tells her psychologist that she will no longer visit her husband, but after receiving a letter from him, she makes the trip again. It seems that while he has been in the institution, he has been thinking, and he has come up with a theory that their three children are still alive, though in another dimension, or plane of reality. Over the next few weeks Doree is unable to dismiss this idea as nonsense, though she knows that she should.

The story ends in a beautiful redemptive moment when on the way out to the hospital again, Doree sees a pickup truck crash on the road in front of the bus. She and the bus driver get out, and go across. The bus driver calls for an ambulance, but it seems the teenage driver of the pickup truck is not breathing. Kneeling beside him, Doree remembers the CPR her husband taught her when they were married. She is able to give the young man mouth to mouth and get him breathing again. Because other drivers have now stopped, the bus driver wants to keep going to the institution, but Doree decides to stay with the boy until the ambulance arrives. She no longer has any desire to visit the institution again.

Now, I’ll confess, I don’t know exactly what the last part of the story means. Perhaps it’s not meant to offer a clear cut resolution to the story. It is a beautiful scene none the less, and it is the part I remember most vividly after putting the book down.

There’s a lot to be said for something where one can’t wrap the ending up neatly, and say, that story was about…

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Posted by on February 20, 2011 in Uncategorized


Emergency – Denis Johnson – from the collection: Jesus’ Son

photo by Russell J. Smith

photo by Russell J. Smith

One of the days I will have to work the night shift in a hospital. It seems that’s the best place to get drugs. Quality drugs too, not like the ones you can get on Church Street from a transsexual called Beatrix.

In the story Emergency, a man, known only by the name ‘Fuckhead’ is working the night shift along with his friend Georgie. That night they have both been stealing and taking drugs, though Georgie seems to have taken far more than Fuckhead. It seems to be a quiet night, that is, until a man comes in with a hunting knife buried to the hilt in his eye. It seems his wife put it there, though the man doesn’t want to press charges against her unless he actually dies from the injury.

The doctor on duty freaks out. He doesn’t want to touch the injury until he has an eye surgeon, a brain surgeon and a top class anaesthetist come in to help. While fuckhead places a call to the specialists, the drugged out Georgie takes the patient off to prep him for surgery. Half an hour later, Georgie returns carrying the hunting knife in his hand.

Through a miracle, the patient doesn’t die. The next day, on their day off, Fuckhead and Georgie go to a carnival, drive around lost for hours, hit a jack rabbit, and go to a drive-in movie during the middle of a blizzard just to watch the lights.

When the pair return to work, Georgie can’t even recognise the patient he pulled the knife out of, and wonders why the man is thanking him.

I really enjoyed this story. It was written in pretty straight forward language, but had a Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, type of feel, where actions have no consequences. There seems to be no moral lessons to be learned from Emergency, it just contains descriptions of stuff that happened. It has a light, rootless type of feel, but all the same, you certainly get a kick in your guts when Georgie appears carrying the hunting knife in his hand and you have no idea  whether he has just killed the man by removing it.

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Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized


Runaround – Isaac Asimov – from the collection: I, Robot

production photo of Robonaut (R2) by NASARobonaut

production photo of Robonaut (R2) by NASARobonaut

If you know the three laws of robotics, you were probably, like me, beaten up a lot at school. For those who aren’t familiar with them, they are

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These are the three rules programmed into the robots by the company, US Robots, so the machines can never threaten humans.

Now Asimov’s robots aren’t like the sleek, sexy replicants played by the likes of Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner. Asimov’s robots are constructions of iron and steel that have glowing red eyes. They work in mines on Mercury or distant energy stations under the supervision of human technicians. Never the less, they are all too human.

The three rules  of robotics were first introduced in the story, Runaround. Now, when reading this story you first must accept that there were fully functioning robots around in 2005, and that we were attempting to mine the planet Mercury by 2015. As long as a reader is happy though to shift the dates forward a bit to some undetermined time (why don’t we say, 2033*), the story still holds well together.

The first attempt to mine on Mercury it seems had been a failure, though quite an accomplished failure. Now a second attempt is being made.

Donovon and Powel are awaiting the return of Speedy (unit SPD 13) who has been sent off to retrieve selenium from a nearby source. This mineral is required to fix the photo-cell banks, whose operation is essential for the two men’s survival on the unliveable surface of the planet. The two have space suits, but not even the suits can protect the men longer than thirty minutes out in the sun’s glare.

The story goes on to illustrate the working of the three laws. Speedy has been sent out to retrieve the selenium, but because there is volcanic activity in the area it has to enter, it cannot enter, because it would be breaking rule number 3, protecting its own existence. But because it has been given an order (rule number 2), even though an order that was given casually without proper thought, Speedy is now constantly circling the area it was sent to, in a confused state. Only when Powel enters the heat of the surface deliberately to put his own life in danger, is Speedy able to obey the first law, race over to save him to save him, and then be given new instructions.

When crafting the story, Asimov wanted to look at the practicalities that would be required if we built intelligent constructions. It seems that before him, the concept of robots in science fiction was one of Frankenstein and his monster, where the monster would at some point, invariably turn on its creator.

I think Asimov has the right idea when it comes to the debate on technology. He examines the ethics of a situation; something that mankind has often demonstrated it as little aptitude for. We can apply Asimov’s way of thinking to a lot of our current technologies. For instance, social networking and privacy. Each time a new technology arises it is certain to open up a new range of ethical questions that must be dealt with by society.

*Note to self, amend this date in 2033 if we still haven’t reached Mercury yet.

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Posted by on February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized


Hills Like White Elephants – Ernest Hemmingway – from the collection: Men Without Women.

the laid back way of the cafe by Longhorndave

The laid back way of the cafe by Longhorndave

Pick up any two bit list of short story recommendations (like this one), and I am sure you will find Hills Like White Elephants on it somewhere. I always have. Now, I’ve always had a problem with Hemmingway, more so with the myth he projects. You know, the big game hunting, bull fight watching individual always obsessed by what makes — or doesn’t make someone a real man.  Though I have always read this particular short story, only recently have I understood why it makes it onto all of the lists.

First, I would say to anyone who is going to attempt to read it (it can be found numerous places online) What you must know is the meaning of the following lines.

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

Okay, I didn’t understand this until someone explained it to me. He’s talking about her getting an abortion. I just have never associated ‘letting the air in’ as something that takes place in the procedure. You really need to understand that part because the entire story hangs upon it. Once you know it though, the piece gains an entirely different atmosphere.

The story is essentially a conversation between a man and a woman. The man is only called the man or the American, and the narrator calls the other main character, the girl, though the man of course calls her Jig. There is some description of the setting around them, they are waiting near a train station at a cafe in the valley of the Ebro.

They say Hemmingway has a deceptively simply style, I would think The Hills Are Like White Elephants would be a good example of this. The piece feels entirely naturalistic, relying heavily on dialogue, however there is much going on.

Towards the end of the conversation, the girl says ‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’ though of course the man cannot.

There seems a great subtlety to Hemmingway. There is a reason he didn’t become extinct like the dinosaurs of the past. It is hard to say what point he is trying to make with this story, and I think that’s the great art. He isn’t trying to say anything. We are forced to watch the scene as though we were sitting in the cafe with them, but unable to reach out and change the story in any way.

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Posted by on February 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


Them Old Cowboy Songs – Annie Proulx – from the collection: Fine Just the Way it is, Wyoming tales.

photo by Tomas Caspers

Mudkickers by Tomas Caspers

There are a number of first rate stories in Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way it is. I have picked Them Old Cowboy Songs, as a typical example of the expansive style that Annie Proulx employs.

In the introduction to the story Them Old Cowboy Songs Proulx writes a message to the reader in italics before the tale begins.

There is a belief that pioneers came into the country, homesteaded, lived tough, raised a shoeless brood and founded ranch dynasties. Some did. But many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’

The ones who are forgotten are most often the main characters in Proulx’s stories. Men and women who are born without any prospects, and remain that way for the rest of their lives. I don’t think it would be much of a spoiler alert to say her stories often end in tragedy and death. Perhaps tragedy is not even the right word. It is as though there is no other way for these people to end up.

Them Old Cowboy Songs follows the story of Archie and Rose who stake out a homestead on poor Wyoming soil. We are told in the first paragraph that the property is called Little Weed, not after the plant life, but the name of a gold prospector who starved to death nearby. Archie is only sixteen and Rose is even younger when they marry and set out to build a cabin on the land.

The story begins in 1885, but to me, the story does not feel like a period piece. Much of the action takes place in isolated settings, so it doesn’t feel amiss that there is no mention of cars or gas seam lines. There are elements in the story, such as the details of Archie’s cowboy and ranch work, that I guess would feature more modern technologies these days, but I am sure it would still even now, be very lonely working far away from home.

Like many stories by Annie Proulx, Them Old Cowboy Songs is set over a number of years. This is a technique of hers which I applaud. It seems a current trend in short stories, is that they are set almost in real time, as though the short length of the work requires an equally short time frame. Proulx however, in her stories, usually follows someone from adulthood to death. She gives a few details about a character’s childhood but they are usually in the form of a memory of a formative moment. Sometimes though her characters could almost still be described as children, aged rapidly beyond their years by the harsh Wyoming setting.

The character of Rose in Them Old Cowboy Songs is a good example of the women of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming. Rose, like many of the women marries early, and is forced to take on the duties of the homestead. This doesn’t just entail cooking and cleaning, but being able to keep going, when despair sets into her husband. It would seem no one lives in Wyoming by choice. (My apologies to the Wyoming board of tourism if I am painting a bleak picture here.)

I will spoil the end of this story, in the hope that it will inspire a reader of this blog to read other stories in her collections. Because Archie and Rose do not have the capital to maintain work on their property, Archie travels many miles away and has to cut off communication with his young wife, as he needs to keep his marriage secret from the ranch owner, who will not let married men work for him (believing they will leave his employ at the first opportunity and go back to their family.) Therefore Archie is left wondering about the child he and Rose were expecting when he left.

Rose, alone on their property, has complications with the birth and delivers a still born child. And it just gets worse from there.

During a harsh winter later that year, Archie freezes to death in a remote shed during a snow storm. No one knows what has happened to Rose out on their property either. In the summer, when the man on the neighbouring homestead returns, he discusses that she has died some time since he was last there. You know there will be no one around to mourn for either one of them, and soon they will be forgotten. But then again, Proulx did warn us about that before the story started.

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Posted by on February 13, 2011 in Uncategorized