Monthly Archives: March 2011

Victory Burlesk — Margaret Atwood – the collection Murder in the Dark

photo by Geishaboy500

I love when something grabs hold of me and won’t let go*. Having in my last post looked in depth at one of Margaret Atwood’s prose poems, I couldn’t help myself from looking more closely at some of her other short, short stories. At the local library I sat down and started going through ‘Murder in the dark’ by Atwood. It’s hard exactly to pinpoint what you would call her short, short fiction. Prose poetry? Vignette? Flash fiction? Some of it reads like memoir, but you can’t be entirely sure if she is just presenting facts that never happened for effect.

In The Victory Burlesk from Murder in the Dark, the narrator goes along once, or maybe twice (she can’t quite remember) to a strip tease, a particular daring thing for a woman and her friends to do. They laugh at the absurdity of the night, but the narrator thinks that the women are talented in the way they spin their tassels or undulated their stomachs, and she compares it to the performance of a plate spinner or some other act.

She is watching however, when a woman comes out in a black evening gown with her back to the audience, and the narrator realises that the woman is reasonably old and is about to take off her clothes. The narrator becomes horrified that the audience of men will jeer the woman, but then begins to wonder if the joke is, and wonders whether the woman on stage knows that it is coming.

When the woman drops her clothes, and the audience sees her aging body, they go dead quiet.

I would suggest Atwood’s vignettes are perfect for anyone trying to write so-called flash fiction (pieces under 500 words) they are not trite at all.

One common strategy people seem to apply with 500 words is to have the whole story build to some late minute twist at the end of it, which sticks out like a beacon on a black night. Atwood’s pieces aren’t like this.It’s tough to decipher exactly what the message is in her stories, but they are strongly written, with wonderful respect to the use and order of words. Atwood punches at some essential truths. Her voice comes across so powerfully, which is incredible, given the short amount of space she has. Oh, and did I mention they’re quick to read. Always a bonus in our time conscious society.

* The police, of course are excepted from this broad, general statement.

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Uncategorized


In Love with Raymond Chandler – Margaret Atwood

A while ago I was speaking with some folk about their favourite short stories, and it was recommended that I should look at the short stories of Margaret Atwood. Each time I visited a library since, I have idly looked through the books by Atwood, hoping to find a collection. Usually I find only novels, such as The Blind Assassin. However, while waiting for a haircut at Northcote the other day, I decided to pop across the road to the library (yes, my life is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and adventure) and found a book of hers, which was full of one or two page stories (I later found out this was a volume of her prose poetry). One in particular stood out, not just, because I too am a fan of Raymond Chandler, but it is both shocking and accurate.

In, In Love with Raymond Chandler, Atwood describes how, what really comes alive for her, is Raymond Chandler’s description of furniture in his stories. How he understands that furniture says so much about people. She goes on to describe an orgy between her and Chandler, where they would run around in a motel room sniffing the furniture, rubbing their fingers along it, rubbing themselves over it. It is wonderfully sensual and cheeky in tone. I also love the line she uses, ‘the eyes of his cold blond unbodied murderous women, beating very slowly, like the hearts of hibernating crocodiles’.

The piece itself is very short, and someone has decided to put it up on their own blog, so here is a link to the text.

Also the piece has been read out by a guy on youtube for some reason. (Yes, that’s right, a guy, I would have much preferred to hear the author herself read it, but this was what I found.)

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Posted by on March 26, 2011 in Uncategorized


A hypothetical

A hypothetical
3242008 by elleinad

photo by Elleinad

Let’s suppose you live in Australia and want to study short stories for the purposes of entering them into competitions (a noble-ish ambition). You head down to your local library, but on reaching the hallowed shelves, you realise you’ve left the stove on and need to race back home … or you find that there’s only five minutes left before closing time because you’ve slept until 3:30pm; whatever the reason, you only have time to find one book.  What do you pick? What do you pick?

Myself, I would go with the Cate Kennedy collection Dark Roots. It’s a slender volume, so you’re not going to struggle under the weight, you can put it in your pocket even (that is, if you have big pockets and don’t mind slightly creasing the corners.) All the stories have won competitions and have been set in Australia. There is a great range of craft on display. First person, second person, third person perspective. But the stories are all around the 3000 word mark, which is the word limit set by many local competitions.

Now, people might argue there are better stories out there, and possibly that’s true (though I enjoy the stories in the collection and find them well written and polished). However, it’s a horses for courses thing, sure Tolstoy might have written War and Peace, but he couldn’t go entering it into the Banjo Patterson Short Story Competition, because a) it’s over 3000 words and b) it’s not set in Australia.

This is the book I recommend reading if you’re only going to read one collection before sending something off within Australia. You can find it in any library (I don’t know this for a fact, but I think you would be pretty hard pressed to find a library in Australia that didn’t have a copy) so you can borrow it, read it and return it. It’s not long, you’ll be able to get through the 17 stories with possibly renewing it once.

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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


To Build a Fire – Jack London – First Published 1908 in The Century Magazine

Man by the Stream by Andrey Pivovarov

Man by the Stream by Andrey Pivovarov

It seems the modern trend in short stories is to pitch something that makes you question and think. And the story To Build a Fire certainly makes you think. But it is also one heck of a gripping tale. Jack London doesn’t make a good tourism advertiser though for the Yukon trail. Possibly because the author lived and worked in the Klondike in 1897.

A man sets out with his husky dog along the trail on a -75 degree Faherient (-60C) day. It is colder than anything he has experienced before, and his dog certainly knows it’s not a good idea for them to be out and about, but the man presses on. He is walking along the top of a frozen creek, but there are parts where springs push non frozen water up, forming pockets which one can fall through. Unfortunately this happens to the man, and he winds up falling through up to his knees. The water will turn into ice and stop his walking, so once he gets out, he has to start a fire to melt the extra weight off his legs. His entire life depends of lighting the fire, but his fingers have gone numb. He is barely able to hold the matches. He is so desperate, at one stage he thinks of killing his dog and thrusting his hands inside into its intestines to warm them up. Does he manage to get the fire going and save his life? What do you think?

This is a terrific story, man vs. wild style, from the days before Bear Grylls taught us all what we’re meant to do in such situations. Jack London may seem to be a tough sort of guy, but he doesn’t thrust a masculine message on us. Even though the main character thinks that the old prospector who had warned him against travelling alone at such temperatures is ‘womanly’ for his concern, the main character reconsiders the man’s advice as he comes nearer and nearer to freezing to death.

Whenever I’m procrastinating (which I seem to have down to an art form) I should think about how hard Jack London worked on his stories. He is the ultimate model of disadvantage and hard work, at least for a white male of the species. Whenever I am slacking off, I should remind myself, what would Jack London do?

As copyright has lapsed on the story, you can find it near anywhere on the net. Below is a link if you want to read the story.

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Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Swimmer – John Cheever – First published in the New Yorker

The Swimmer – John Cheever – First published in the New Yorker
Fresh Journey by Stefano Mortellaro

Fresh Journey by Stefano Mortellaro

A lovely, lovely story. Neddy Merrill, a resident of a wealthy neighbourhood, works out that he can make the distance from his friend’s house, back to his own house, by swimming from one neighbour’s pool, hopping out, climbing the fence and swimming in the next pool. By doing this all the way, he can effectively swim the distance to his home.

As he goes though a strange shift seems to take place. When he left his friend’s house, it was clearly summer, but a storm comes in, and the air starts getting cold. When he finishes his swim it has become winter, and Neddy is not sure how long ago things happened.

Look, I can’t describe adequately how good this story is.  What I can do though, is say that this is available from the New Yorker fiction podcast (available free on itunes.) Anne Enright (herself a short story writer) discusses Cheever with the current New Yorker fiction editor, Deborah Triesman before she reads the story, in its entirety, out aloud. Make sure you listen after the reading as well, as further discussion takes place. I think if you look up the story on Wikipedia, as well, there is a link to the full text of the story there.

The Swimmer has been described as being both naturalistic and surreal at the same time. The conversations, Neddy has with any neighbour who happens to be home, present ordinary (though wealthy) people, yet as Neddy carries on, the edges of reality start to blur slightly, he can’t seem to remember that an old friend of his had a major operation, and that he himself, might be in trouble.

I was planning to carry on my Australia bent, but this story sort of slipped in and interrupted it. I can’t stop thinking about it, although I’m not sure what techniques I can take away from it. If the mix of naturalism and surrealism wasn’t perfectly pulled off, it would seem silly, and any editor would reject it offhand.

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Posted by on March 11, 2011 in Uncategorized


The Yarra – Nam Le – first published in Brothers and Sisters, reprinted in The Best Australian Stories 2010

Machete by Marcello Braga

Machete by Marcello Braga

To keep with the Australian vein I’m mining at the moment, I’ll talk about a Nam Le story I’ve recently read. Nam Le is one of Australia’s brightest upcoming stars. His collection, The Boat, did fantastically well on both a local and an international level. He writes long short stories, though they probably fall short of novella length but I know the borderline is extremely vague between these two terms.) There are only seven stories that make up the collection, The Boat, but some of them run over sixty pages long.

One that I’ve read recently though that has particularly impressed me though was  The Yarra. Even though it is shorter than some of his other pieces Le writes, it was still the longest story in The Best Australian Fiction 2010. It is the story of two brothers who are second generation Vietnamese Australians. The story is set in Melbourne (the Yarra is the major river of that city) and details the strained relationship between the two. Narrated by the younger brother, it describes the beatings that he took from his brother Thuan when they were boys, and goes on to detail Thuan’s relationship with a girl called ‘Baby’ which keeps winding up in fights between Thuan and Baby’s ex boyfriends.

Image by Frostnova

Image by Frostnova

They go to Asian nights at nightclubs. Asian nights, the narrator says, occur in Melbourne, but got banned in Sydney due to the fights and gang violence at such events. Perhaps with good reason, because at one such night, Thuan and his friends fight off one of Baby’s exes and his friends and wind up killing three of them. Thuan goes to jail over it while the younger brother continues on becoming a lecturer at a university and buying a house. What is revealed at the end of the story though, was the younger brother was there the night it happened, and was as much a participant as any.

For better or worse, Nam Le, as a writer has lived the immigrant experience. His family arrived in Australia (from Vietnam) when he was two. In many ways the twentieth century and possibly the next is a story of great shifts in the population. Of subcultures within cultures. Myself, as I’ve mentioned am strictly middle class, but have always been fascinated with the lives of the poor. However, when I lived in Sydney, I realised that I really had no idea about the life within the migrant communities there. If I attempted to write a story set there, I would find it riddled with at best, assumptions and at worse, stereotypes. It is impossible to grade disadvantage in Australia on some type of scale, but I would put the trials suffered by first and second generation immigrants as up there.

Nam Le is only young, and its guaranteed that he’ll produce more work. I suspect he’ll be one of Australia’s leading authors over the coming years.

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Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Uncategorized