Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer
Other Stories brings together Melbourne-based Wayne Macauley’s output over the past decade and counting. The collection is filled with ‘other’ stories—tales that are other, or outside the mainstream, in a double sense. They are other in subject, given that they are stories that trace the lives of characters who exist on the margins, or characters who would be otherwise unlikely contenders for centre stage in Australian literature; and they are other in an industry sense, since the collection is published not by a multinational—or even large independent—publisher, but by small outfit Black Pepper. Many are also other-worldly stories, stories about ordinary people who find themselves contending with surreal experiences.
Some of the collection’s tales read as allegories. Yet this age-old form is given new life in Macauley’s hands, and most of the allegories are firmly placed in recognisable, contemporary Australian territory: the stories are populated with trams, inner-city ex-bohemian suburbs, one-street towns and places where ‘houses have crept up the valley … the skeleton bones of the new houses marching’.
Other tales develop in less familiar, though still recognisable, worlds, both in setting and content: ‘Jack the Dancer Dies’ has a personified death as protagonist in a poetic take on the fable ‘The Red Shoes’, while in ‘Man and Tree’ a woman’s brother transforms into a tree.
Throughout, there is wry commentary on modern society, which makes the collection seem almost prophetic. For example, no sooner has a man turned into a tree than: ‘They came in their hundreds, bumping up the fire track and crashing through the bush. The local shire sealed the road, cleared a square of land for a car park, and began charging five dollars to see him’. In another story, the narrator recounts how he hires out bohemians to real-estate agents in order that ex-bohemian inner suburbs—which the bohemians were pushed out of—exude a measure of ‘character’ and ‘ambience’. Elsewhere, schoolboys who ride trams are set to work re-stumping houses in an informal labour market, until various regulations ensue and ‘records could then be matched against the previously agreed quotas and notices might then be placed in trams informing the public whether or not these targets had been reached’.
In some of these stories-as-commentary, there is a Kafkaesque sense of the oppressive and ominous presence of authority and systems, such as in ‘This Bus Is Not a Tram’, in which buses are plastered with signs declaring that they are trams and all passengers are expected to take on this belief; or in ‘The Bridge’, where the protagonist dutifully carries out his superiors’ orders to guard a bridge, and throughout there is a mounting sense that the orders and subsequent occurrences are some kind of cruel psychological experiment. In another sharply critical tale, the excesses of political leaders—and their general tendency to wreak havoc—are detailed; then, in a single moment, the blame for their behaviour is squarely placed on the public’s shoulders, for our condoning their symbolic gestures and our apathy when it comes to considered, responsible voting. Meanwhile, ‘The Farmer’s New Machine’ is chilling in its portrayal of the lengths gone to in the name of progress, and in the name of supporting a lifestyle of excess on this driest of continents.
The language that Macauley employs is usually simple, but is often used to great effect to create rhythmic structures. Many stories take the form of kinds of first-person testimonials, which facilitate this rhythmic style. Occasionally a metaphor is so arresting for its clarity of vision that it takes your breath away—for example, after a magical night, ‘something still lingered, some ineffable thing, like a porchlight left on all day’. At times the language is image-rich, such as in the phrase, ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond … ’.
The only (small) reservation I had about the collection was its occasional use of place names as short cuts for establishing setting: while ‘Keilor Downs’ may evoke some connotations for a Melburnian, would it do the same for a reader from elsewhere? Yet, all in all, this is an accomplished collection from an as-yet underappreciated Australian writer who is, nevertheless, slowly, surely achieving a significant output, both in quantity of titles and importance and relevance of the same not only to Australian literature but also to each reader. We could do much worse than learn from these tales.
Elizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. Her blog on reading, writing and translation is called Plume of Words