In 2009, a novel entitled The Slap occasioned considerable hand-wringing and chest-thumping within certain literary circles, a chorus which reached its crescendo when the book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The story of the unexpected and wide-ranging effects of the smacking of a child by a man who is not his father, The Slap features foul language, pornography, and an instance of almost every bigotry it might be possible to imagine. Its author, Christos Tsiolkas, defended his novel's at times blatant attention seeking in large part by claiming that he envisaged the work as a sort of "state of the nation" address for a multicultural Australia seething with unspoken—and unspeakable—tensions. Tsiolkas, himself the progeny of immigrant Greeks, depicted an Australia in a polite, middle class kind of crisis, aware of the contradictions and meaningless shibboleths on which its society was built, but unable and unwilling to be brave enough to address them.
In the wake of that novel comes a collection of further Australian fictions which in rather different ways explore somewhat similar ground. Sprawl, published by Twelfth Planet Press, is an anthology of eighteen works which refract Australian suburbia through the prism of the fantastic. Quite often, the stories walk the same in-between streets as The Slap: multiculturalism figures strongly, as do various kinds of repressed sexuality, hypocritical finger pointing, and bourgeois guilt. The varied tone inherent to a collection, however, enables Sprawl to escape The Slap's almost monotonous voice, one of the most fatal of its several weaknesses.
The first work in the collection is not a short story but a poem: "Parched," written by Sean Williams, dangles the ghost of fiery obliteration over the precipitation-starved streets of Melbourne, inspired no doubt by the wildfires which damaged so much of Victoria in 2009. This warning seems sadly ironic given the recent devastating floods in Queensland, but nevertheless establishes a tone of liminality which those deluges only emphasise: Sprawl isn't a chronicle of the energy of Australian cities, their boundless, creative urge to multiply; it's more a nervous glance at a papered-over crack on a flaking wall. For instance, in "Relentless Adaptations," written by Tansy Rayner Roberts, suburbia is overtaken and its apparent certainties quickly collapsed by chaotic legions of vengeful characters from fiction, released from their own worlds at last to put a stop to the endless literary mash-ups which are disfiguring their memory. ("Zombies are hot right now . . . Zombies are classic." . . . "I still haven't forgiven them for what they did to Jane Austen." (p. 3))
This megatextual joshing is an instance of Sprawl's other recurring feature: its fondness for black gallows humour. This is rarely of the laugh out loud variety, and isn't very often even presented as explicitly humorous. Instead, there's a dark glee in juxtaposition: a seedy bar and an angel (the lovely "One Saturday Night, with Angel" by Peter Ball), a neighbourhood watch committee and fairies (in a witty story by Barbara Robson), a visit from an electrician and ancient aboriginal magic (Dirk Flinthart’s "Walker"). In her introduction to the collection, its editor, Alisa Kranostein, explains that she wanted each story to speak in a "distinctive Australian voice"; that voice as here presented is irreverent, demotic, and wise. "Most Australians live in sprawling suburbs and not built up inner cities," she continues, "and I wondered how this setting would impact the kind of urban fantasy stories told." Again, these stories are certainly different to the works of a Miéville or a Beukes: lighter, perhaps, but also somehow more troubling for their sub rosa settings. In a city, you can see the grime everywhere; in a suburb, it festers out of sight.
In "Brisneyland By Night," then, Angela Slatter unveils a unsettling parallel culture which exists at the margins of a fantasised Brisbane. "West End's filled with Weyrd. Everyone thinks it's just students, drunks, artists, writers, a few yuppies waiting for an upgrade, junkies and the Saturday markets or cheap fruit and veggies. There's also a metric buttload of Weyrd, who do their best to blend in, generally successfully" (p. 190). The old suburban fear documented in that seminal text of alienation and estrangement, The 'Burbs (1989)—how do you know what's going on behind the next identikit, anonymous door?—is thus refigured speculatively. How do you know that the preacher on the corner, the solitary mystery neighbour, the ranting father, isn't an augmented human with a nighttime sideline in magical powers?
Sprawl perhaps doesn't reinvent the wheel, then: there's nothing new in making the bland everyday of the suburbs into something scarier. As far back as the 1950s, Richard Yates reacted against suburban values in the terrifyingly mimetic Revolutionary Road; more recently, and one suspects at the opposite end of the literary spectrum, the American writer Julie Kenner has written a series of books about a demon-hunting "soccer mom" (Carpe Diem (2005) et al). The comic and tragic potential of weirding the suburbs has long been established. What Sprawl achieves, however, is to weird the weirding.
Krasnostein's authors are almost wilfully disparate in their approaches. At times, this results in stories I can't be entirely sure are suburban—perhaps the term has broader meanings in Australia than where I'm based in the UK. "Yowie," from the pen of Thoraiya Dyer, is the very odd tale of the wandering remnant of a long extinct race of sentient marsupials, and takes place in a municipal museum. Pete Kempshall's "Signature Walk," meanwhile—in which an estate agent living under a new identity in order to hide from an horrific childhood transgression receives her punishment on a valuation visit—is made possible only by being set so deep in the rural hinterland that it is impossible to obtain a cell phone signal. The cover of the volume represents a familiar sort of street map, all residential crescents and deliberately interrupted grid systems; the stories themselves break out further afield.
Nevertheless, Sprawl is so consistently engaging a collection that it's hard not to forgive the editor her idiosyncracies, and her writers their license. This entertainment takes different forms. In Kaaron Warren"s contribution, "Loss," an unempathetic university lecturer loses the use of all her senses, one by one. This rather mythically poetic justice is an obvious stunt on one level, but it is precisely in the suburbanisation of so grandiloquent a punishment that Warren achieves a new kind of effect. "There were often tears in her lectures. The students knew that. They were prepared. It was a test, for some of them. For others, an excuse to be weak, Rhonda thought" (p. 124). Rhonda is very ready to condemn, to refuse to accept mitigation or complication—she finds way to bolster her separateness from those around her, to render it a virtue. She is in this sense the quintessential suburban busybody, domineering in her closed minded reverie. The unexplained—and unexplainable—situation she finds herself in at the close of the story, lying on a bed unable even to tell if she is naked, makes flesh a certain kind of suburban sin.
At one point, Rhonda walks through a market, savouring the sensory overload she cannot quite give herself over to. In "How to Select a Durian at Footscray Market," on the other hand, Stephanie Campisi plunges us into a heady multicultural wine. Her setting is a pungent Australian Araby, properly asserting the changed face of the residential outgrowths of Western cities: they are no longer the uncontested realm of bored, WASPish housewives with their careful lawns. Campisi sketches evocative glimpses of everyday exotica: rainbows of plastic bags, spiked sand dunes of discarded durians, frontyards refigured as "grey deserts"; if the piece features that old standby, the pseudo-mystical pair of twins, it is also an aptly memorable celebration of story: "amidst the blooming shouts of the stall vendors, and the waterfall of chatter of friends and relatives who clump in narrow walkways between stalls, and the bony, rattling clang of the cash registers, she is listening instead to the quiet bird of her daughter’s story" (p. 36). The stories in Sprawl frequently retrieve the human and the particular from the faceless rows of suburbia.
It's possible even to see this motif in a story ostensibly about a young woman who reminds people of anyone but herself. In "No Going Home," Deborah Biancotti captures an episode in the itinerant life of a wanderer whose face seems to reflect back at those who look upon it the memory of a dead lover, friend, or family member. Like Campisi, Biancotti has a great way with an image ("He looked like a chewed-up apple core, widest at the rim of his hat and at his splayed feet" (p. 99)); but she also has a gentle, teasing style which establishes depth with surprising brevity. Biancotti doesn't explain from where her protagonist derives her power of mimicry, doesn't even give her the ability actively to control it; the effect simply is, and the interest lies in its repercussions. In focusing on the human reaction to the supernatural Biancotti of course emphasises individuality and specifity; but she doesn't allow the central female to become a cipher, either. It is in this balance that Sprawl is at its best.
I've enthused about Biancotti's writing on these pages before, and it’s a testament to the strength of Sprawl that her story doesn't stand head and shoulders above the others. Still, there are some duff notes: I've never rubbed along with Ben Peek's writing, and his portentous "White Crocodile Jazz" has done nothing to change my mind; "Gnawer of the Moon Seeks Summit of Paradise," by Anna Tambour, felt to me as ungainly as its title; and "Weightless" by L. L. Hannett was the sort of story I should like—an elegantly written, distantly dreamy parable of sorts—but lacked a killer line or clear hook with which truly to grab me. On the other hand, another reader might find one of my favourite stories in the volume, "All the Love in the World" by Cat Sparks, off-hand and incomplete: in a post-apocalyptic Australia (Mad Max is namechecked), a well-to-do cul-de-sac cordons itself off, converts lawns to vegetable patches, and ekes out an unenviable but peaceable existence. One of its inhabitants, the heartbroken narrator, bereft after her partner leaves her for a younger and newer arrival, leaves the safety of the street to forage for life-saving drugs for her former paramour. She discovers that the urban centre is in fact home to a thriving, if makeshift, civilisation of survivors:
They're garbed in many colours, a hodge-podge of pre-war fashion trends. Some clearly enjoy the art of it. Diamonds over khaki camouflage, suits and swimwear mixed. Definitely something Caribbean going on with hair. And makeup. Too many clown eyes for my liking. Some look like they’ve been living in pyjamas for eons. (p. 273)
This is perhaps less well crafted than some of the stories in the book, and the oddity of a post-apocalyptic dispensary, with a bus which visits outlying settlements once a month, might push some students of cataclysm past the boundaries of disbelief. But the human story at the heart of the piece, its cheeky refiguring of the suburb as the truly dangerous space, and its avowedly Australian voice—there's something in its sandy spaces and mixed cultures which could not be replicated in any other society's future history—that appeals to me as a sort of ur-text for Sprawl. It's very cute, and not a little cunning.
In the final story in the collection, the vivid Grand Guignol of "Her Gallant Needs," a teenager in 1983, John, reads Mad Magazine and plays primitive video games. In the contemporary paranoia about this strange new form of entertainment, adults around him become concerned that such an addiction to electronic stimulus could prove dangerous. Far more threatening to John is the literal American harpy that has moved next door—Hazel, a demoness who has seduced his brother (John spies on them and watches her metamorphose into an awful demon as his sibling climaxes), feeding her son truckloads of fast food which seems to have a deleterious effect on his health (in truth, he is obviously a golem slowly disintegrating as Hazel's magic is stretched too far). The story's author, Paul Haines, leaves the truth of the core narrative ambiguous—is the fire which engulfs Hazel's home, killing everyone in it except John, the result of a final battle against evil, or an arson attack fuelled by John's jealousy and video game-crazed paranoia? He leaves nothing to the imagination, however, when John discovers Hazel in her torture chamber: "She pulled loops of grey intestine from the belly and raised them to those red lips. Her tongue, large and wet and pink, flicked out seductively, licking the steaming loops" (p. 332).
In this explicitness, Haines is not so far away from his countryman Tsiolkas's chosen mode. But in the humour and multivalence of "Her Gallant Needs" one sees an approach to Australian suburbia quite at odds with the poker-faced didacticism of The Slap. Tsiolkas gained notoriety for practicing a kind of writing almost indecently separated from that of the older, patrician generation of Australian novelists—Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally. In Sprawl, however, we see another, quieter and yet infinitely stranger, new Australian generation at work. It's something of a pleasure.
Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
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