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A Perfect Day for Bananafish — by J.D. Salinger — first published in the New Yorker, January 1948

photo by Serge Meiki

photo by Serge Meiki

What story could be so perfect that The New Yorker would offer a contract of first refusal to an unknown young writer? On receiving this submission, the New Yorker turned around to Salinger and demanded that they have the right to see any other short story Salinger wrote before anyone else could look at it. Well, that might be true, but the story, Bananafish they accepted still had to undergo a year of revisions before it came out in its final form. It was this story however that introduced as Salinger as a writer that couldn’t be ignored.
By the way, if you’re frantically browsing a fishing website trying to work out what a bananafish actually is, you’ll have to rely on the description given in the story by Seymour, a soldier returned from World War II. According to him, they are “very ordinary-looking fish” but when they swim into a hole where there’s lots of bananas, they act like pigs and eat them all. So all you can do is trust him that such things exist.
Thousands of young men left for World War II and more than a few were broken on return. Bananafish is a short, short story, and starts with Muriel speaking to her mother long distance from a hotel. She and Seymour, her husband back from the war, are spending time on the coast. Muriel’s mother is concerned, a number of incidents are alluded to, such as Seymour driving a car at the trees on the side of the road, but since the pair have left Muriel’s parents house, there have been no more incidents, and Seymour just spends his time lying on the beach.
Outside, Seymour is lying on the sand. A five year old girl staying at the hotel comes up, and the two go out into the ocean. He speaks of the peculiar bananafish, and the girl is convinced she sees one swimming by in the ocean. At this stage, it’s probably better you go out and find a copy and read the ending. It does end with an intensity that Salinger exhibits in his other work.
Sometimes it’s impossible to separate an artist from his or her back story. Would Vincent Van Gogh capture the imagination as much if he lived to 80 in a small house in the French countryside? If he hadn’t cut off his ear, but had a wife and six children? Salinger’s output was slight. He was hailed as a genius after the release of Catcher in the Rye, one that he only exacerbated by the bizarre lengths he took to avoid the spotlight. He provided the public the definition of a reclusive author, and the more he did to avoid his fans and reporters, the more he intrigued them.
Salinger himself went to war, and whatever underlying anxieties he had were not helped by having to see action at the front. The alienation he felt on return is apparent through this story. Seymour can no longer relate to normal society. But if the character is anything like Salinger, he couldn’t relate to begin with. It is fascinating to see a literate, intelligent, young man express through his writing his inner world, one that comes across in his writings far better than any clinical description of how he might be feeling.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Burning Chrome – by William Gibson – from the collection: Burning Chrome

servers by hisperati

servers by hisperati

I remember back in my computer studies class in high school, my teacher repeatedly showed us the movie, Sneakers starring Robert Redford and River Phoenix. Perhaps she was hoping to inspire one of us to try and hack into the Pentagon, get caught and get our small country town on the 6 o’clock news. As far as I know, none of my classmates managed to force their way into a high security system. That movie however has always remained with me, so when I was reading Burning Chrome, all the images of cracking systems came flowing back.
Burning Chrome is famous, at least in sci fi circles for introducing the word ‘cyberspace’ into the lexicon. I would think that it would be one of the greatest achievements of a writer to create a phrase that enters popular parlance, but Gibson seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards the term. I guess the problem is that writers don’t get to pick and chose what is remembered of theirs, he describes it as a term that is ‘evocative and essentially meaningless’. Since he coined it however, much has been made of the phrase.
In the short story, Burning Chrome, two computer hackers, Bobby and Automatic Jack are going for one last big score, one that can net them enough money to allow at least Bobby, to retire. They hope to intercept the electronic transfers of Chrome, a hacker who works for the mafia and launders their finances. To do so, Automatic Jack uses a stolen Russian military code breaker and the two of them go into the matrix and penetrate the defences of Chrome’s computer systems.
There is a subplot about Rikki, a girl that Bobby is seeing but Automatic Jack secretly loves, and it gives the story weight and poignancy. But what I love about the tale is the description of the physical space of the internet. The two hackers being immersed in a world of the cyber attack. They flow through walls of encryption and ward off deadly online attacks, in order to slip inside the defences of the network. The story is an evocative travelogue through pillars of information and computer networks. Part of it is the imagining of a future that is still distant, but one that still holds probability.
If there ever been a popular and well received movie made from a William Gibson novel, I’m sure we would have watched that also in my computer studies class. Unfortunately, any attempts to adapt his works into film seemed to have been doomed to failure, a la Johnny Mnemonic. However, Gibson will be remembered for his contributions to science fiction, even if people who use the term cyberspace, have no idea where it comes from.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Pontoon Boat – by Garrison Keillor – from the collection: Leaving Home

I love the news from Lake Wobegon. Okay, every week seems to be a quiet week there, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot going on under the surface of the small town community. For those who aren’t familiar with the Lake Wobegon stories, they feature on Garrison Keillor’s radio variety program, A Prairie Home Companion which broadcasts on PBS radio. The stories revolve around a meek, god fearing community in Minnesota, whose people don’t like to show off and seem to get unhappy if everything is going their way. Basically, if you can understand what a Lutheran is, you have the key to Keillor’s Wobegon stories.

Keillor was a writer long before he was a popular presenter and his pieces read well on the page. I was lucky enough to be given the collections, Leaving Home and Life Among the Lutherans recently as a gift. I adore the Wobegon stories and have subsequently devoured both books. Keillor has a whole range of publications about Lake Wobegon though, including numerous novels. I had to pick one story to talk about, and I went with the one story that was duplicated in both collections. I know it’s a little show-offy to concentrate on the stand out story, and I’m not sure the citizens of Lake Wobegon would approve, but I settled on Pontoon Boat anyway.

Wally, the owner of the local bar, buys himself a pontoon boat to sail on the lake. He loves his boat but can’t show off to his patrons about it. He can only speak about how troublesome owning a boat is. However, he loves his boat and keeps inviting people out on the lake for boat rides. When Wally invites the mayor, Clint Bunson out, Clint remembers that a delegation of Lutheran ministers are coming to town and it would give them something to do to go out on the lake. The ministers arrive two months later, all 24 of them. The pontoon boat of course can’t comfortably hold 24 lutheran ministers, plus Wally and the mayor, but Wally doesn’t want to speak up and reveal himself as some type of ‘amateur sailor.’ So the overladen vessel sets out onto the lake, with the ministers politely crowded in the back. Of course, things go wrong, Fortunately the water is not deep. The story ends up with ‘Twenty four ministers, up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.’ Just wonderful.

Thanks to the power of the internet, I can link a Garrison Keillor story right here. If you have  a quiet moment, sit back and enjoy the news from lake Wobegon.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Standing Ground – by Ursula K. Le Guin – collected in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories

rally for planned parenthood by FibonacciBlueWhen I first borrowed the collection Unlocking the Air and Other Stories from my local library, I didn’t realise that I had, in fact, read The EarthSea series by Le Guin as a child. I had found Unlocking by running a catalogue search for short story collections and hers was one of the few the library had which I hadn’t already read (note to self: find a new library). Though she may be noted for her science fiction/ fantasy work, the stories in the collection are reasonably grounded in the current day. The collection I read only drifted as far as magic realism, which, while quite fantastical, didn’t have any wizards.

The story that I went to first, Standing Ground, seems to have lodged in my mind the longest. It was originally written for Ms magazine, a publication I’ve never read but feel I ought to have. Now that I know they have short stories in it, I might be inclined to pick one up in the future (that is if it’s still around). Standing Ground doesn’t shy from controversy. It is the story of two women going past protesters to access an abortion clinic. At first we think that there is a mother daughter relationship between the younger and older woman, and there is, only it is the other way round. Delaware is the teenage daughter of Sharee, a mentally handicapped woman and it is Delaware, who is there to support her mother.

Despite her disability though, Sharee is clear that she does not want the pregnancy as it is the result of date rape. Sharee can clearly see the difference between her first, wanted pregnancy of Delaware, and with the current one, thinking of it as: ‘Mac had hurt her, cut her, made this wound inside her.’ Sharee seems to be able to view the abortion procedure with a clarity lacking to those around her.

The story also focuses on the protestors outside the clinic. Mary and Norman. Norman is old and doesn’t like the restrictions placed on him by the church’s organising body who say how the protest is to be conducted. Mary thinks that Norman is a fool, and is going to get them into trouble the way he swings his protest sign about. Both believe God is on their side, but Mary and Norman dislike each other personally. Their bickering seems to contrast with the solidarity inside the clinic.

Standing Ground is not propaganda, but no doubt, being published in Ms, it would have sympathies towards the one side of the argument. It looks more at the difficulties the issue raises in people’s lives. I don’t know if I am doing Le Guin justice here by speaking about a literary short story when she is more famous for science-fiction stories, but having read Standing Ground, I have thought about it often since and wanted to share my thoughts about it. The good thing about this blog though is I can return to an author in the future and look at some of their other work, so expect a Le Guin science fiction piece sometime in the near to medium distant future.  (At least before 2020, I promise you.)

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Henry Lawson – The Drover’s Wife – originally published in The Bulletin, July 1892

Collinton Hut by Jema Smith

Collinton Hut by Jema Smith

Lawson is quintessential reading for anyone wanting to talk about the Australian bush. The ‘bush’ that he talks about doesn’t exist in quite the same way as it once was, but there are still examples of it, depending on how far out you travel. Lawson gained fame from some of his early sketches, as he called them. His sketches are basically character profiles, detailing a particular day in the life of an individual. In the story, The Drover’s Wife, the titular character is a woman who is left to raise four children, while her husband has gone off droving. They once lived together, but drought has ruined their small farm, and the husband now goes off for periods of six months or more to earn money for them.

The wife is the only adult around. The omniscient narrator advises that at one stage the woman had five children, but the child died while she was there alone. ‘She rode nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child,’ the narrator advises.

She is alone in the lonely countryside. She has battled floods and a bush fire to protect her house. “She loves her children, but has no time to show it. She seems harsh on them.’ The woman cries at times and laughs at others. But she continues on. The sketch contains a story, that of a snake that has made its way into the wood heap. The children are excited and try to kill it, along with the dog but it remains inside the heap. Later the woman is trying to get some wood but the heap collapses on her. She is injured. The snake emerges but the dog manages to kill it.

The story, The Drover’s Wife is extremely interesting. It reads like a piece of journalism, yet it contains a restrained emotion that goes further than objective fact. The loneliness and hardship of isolation are ever present.  Most Australian’s already know the divide between Henry Lawson’s and Banjo Patterson’s portrayal of the bush, but it is worth noting again. Patterson tends to give a fun, sentimentalised version, while Lawson portrayed the difficulty of life. Lawson’s view is of course much bleaker.  At the time, it was not near as popular. A century later however, it has become regarded as just as valuable a contribution to Australian literature.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Aquarium at Night – by Robert Drewe – from the collection: The Rip

Prison Cell on Robin Island SA by Sebastiaan Jonker

Prison Cell on Robin Island SA by Sebastiaan Jonker

I feel Robert Drewe should be more famous than he is. Perhaps not quite Peter Carrey famous, but at least he should be more well recognised around the world than he currently seems to be. When it comes to my favourite Australian short story writer, he probably even nudges ahead of Cate Kennedy, whom I write about quite a bit on this blog. I would say there might be a gender bias there in my selecting Drewe ahead of Kennedy. I am a man (despite my girlish name), and Drewe’s main characters are mostly men, therefore, I find the characters more relatable for me (I realise this reasoning is unenlightened).

The Aquarium at Night: that’s what the main character, Dyson thinks the prison he is in looks like. He is in England, having been caught entering the country with 4 ectasy tablets he’d forgotten about in his surf bag. He is waiting for the authorities to work out if they want to charge him with trafficking or possession, a time consuming process. In B-wing, he uses his two hours of free time each day to attend a writing class. At night, in his cell, he writes down memories from his boyhood growing up on the Australian coast.

Oswald, a long-term convicted murderer, keeps peace in the writing class. When Oswald is transferred to a medium security prison however, some gang members come in and make trouble for class. Dyson confronts them and tells them to get out. He knows by doing so, he will have to watch his every move for the rest of his time in prison, but he has weighed it up, and realised, the class means more to him than the risks he will now face.

Robert Drewe stories speak of Australia’s love of the water. Australia is an island nation, and the coast plays a symbolic role, if not literal role in many of his character’s lives. In his collection, The Rip, each of the 13 stories has an aspect of water, or the ocean as a major theme. This theme tends to hold true in Drewe’s other story collections as well.

Most writers seem to return again and again to a particular theme. In it, they wrestle with a concept that they can never truly capture. Each story is another attempt at reaching some sort of definitive explanation, but there concept is mercurial. Just as Annie Proulx returns again and again to the setting of ranch life in Wyoming, Drewe keeps returning to the coast. He’s attempts at trying to capture it are exquisite.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Thrill of the Grass – by W.P. Kinsella – from the collection: The Thrill of the Grass

empty baseball field by Timothy Vollmer

empty baseball field by Timothy Vollmer

1981. The narrator informs us the baseball players are on strike. The stadiums stand empty. The narrator manages to pick the lock of his local stadium and goes in to relive a lifetime of memories about the game. He recalls a time when the fields were covered in real grass and not the synthetic turf the owners now employ.

The man keeps returning to the stadium night after night. He decides to cut out a square of the synthetic turf and replace it with a square of grass from his own garden. He then goes on to enlist other true, old time baseball fans to join him in replacing the turf with real grass, a square at a time. Soon, an army of old men are working through the nights to restore the field before the baseball players return.

Kinsella’s prose is some of the most beautiful I have read. I know not everyone is a baseball fan, but Kinsella uses baseball as a metaphor of something ‘good’ and ‘wholesome’ in life. His baseball at its heart is always pure. Even though it can be corrupted by external factors, true fans can always restore it to its rightful status.

That’s what Kinsella writes about, but how he writes his stories is something else. Something magical. Here are a few phrases from the story.

‘The night is clear and cotton warm.’

‘…a square of sod, the grass smooth and pure, cool as a swatch of satin, fragile as baby’s hair.’

‘each sprinkler will sizzle like frying onions as it wheels, a silver sparkler in the moonlight.’

‘squares of sod, moist as chocolate cake, green with icing.’

I could go on, but then I’d basically be reprinting the whole story here. Reading Kinsella is a rare, glorious treat.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2011 in Uncategorized