Review: ‘[untitled] Issue Six’

ImageThe sixth issue of Busybird Publishing’s flagship literary journal opens with a question: ‘Where has [untitled] been?’ The journal, which ordinarily sees an annual release, was an unexpected no-show in 2013. According to the editorial, the publisher’s self-imposed deadline repeatedly slipped by as the editors-cum-mad scientists deliberated over their largest assortment of stories yet. Talk about perfectionists! But issue six is here now, and I’m happy to report that [untitled] has come back strong.

The issue opens with one of my favourite stories: Josh Donellan’s ‘The Stench of Adventure’, a charming, fictionalised account of the author’s Cambodian travels. Having been to Thailand, I related to Donellan’s depiction of South-East Asian culture. It’s a sweet story, playful in tone. But also worth noting is that the author nails the shameful way privileged westerners treat lesser-developed countries as their personal playgrounds. This story sums up what [untitled] is all about: smart, well-written, entertaining stories that can be enjoyed by anyone. There was no pretension in ‘The Stench of Adventure’, thus it struck me as the perfect opener.

Another highlight was second story, ‘An Open Book’. This story was vintage Ryan O’Neill: the state of a relationship is revealed through passages, doodles and notations made in the margins of a book. It’s quirky, involves a bit of light detective work and appeals to our base voyeurism. Ryan O’Neill’s relentless cleverness continues to impress.

‘The Crying Space’ was a melancholic account of a man experiencing trauma-induced blindness. Despite how it may sound, I found this refreshingly unsentimental. There are no miraculous recoveries (at least not within the timeframe of the story), and main character Bryce is forced to re-evaluate his perception of the world. Author Peter Farrar excels in his sensory descriptions. It’s deeply affecting and impossible not to project yourself into Bryce’s situation.

Wendy Purcell gave a memorable reading from her story, ‘The Broker’, at issue six’s launch, and I’d been thinking about it since. Purcell subtly implements an intriguing, fantastical concept (a pawn broker removes sellers’ memories of the objects they’re divesting from, Eternal Sunshine style) into an otherwise familiar setting. This closing story was a multi-faceted page-turner, and ended the journal on a perfectly poignant note.

The 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition

Also included in this issue were the winners of the 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition. Not sure what was in the water this year, but I found all five of these very impressive.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth’s highly commended ‘Niall’s Edge’, a mournful comment on global warming and our acceptance of fate, was perhaps the most ‘literary’ story in the whole issue. The precision in her descriptions was astounding.

Contrasting this was Venetia Di Pierro’s ‘Rollerbaby Queen’, a buoyant, Fifties-style story about an adolescent friendship. Di Pierro’s story excelled in its rich portrayals of Fifties culture and of authentic teenaged friends growing apart.

Peter R Hill’s ‘She’s All Broken’ was an occasionally funny, sometimes frustrating, always powerful art heist caper. This story’s point of difference was that it starred a disabled protagonist with a fully functioning mind, but communication difficulties. ‘She’s All Broken’ bravely inhabited a minority’s point of view to beautiful effect. Putting the reader inside this character’s skin enables them to experience, first-hand, just how fearful and prejudiced society can be towards the disabled.

Adrienne Tam’s ‘The Human Child’ initially struck me as a moody, atmospheric tale about family dynamics, which it is – but it evolves organically, becoming much more. Tam sucker-punches the reader with a dark late development, transforming the story into a fantastical fable, akin to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Well-executed.

Special mention must go to Luke Thomas’ first-place-winning story, ‘Regatta’, about a fractured married couple’s travels through Africa. Luke Thomas’ ‘Real Estate’ was one of my personal highlights in [untitled] issue five, and, for me, ‘Regatta’ cements the author as one of Australia’s seminal short fiction talents. It’s hard to articulate why this story resonated with me the way it did. Listing its superficial qualities feels insufficient. ‘Regatta’ has intangible magic; it’s a perfect marriage of voice, technique, character and story. Thomas wholly inhabits his protagonist, Tom. The story is no meditation on angst, but Tom’s pain is positively palpable. And still he holds things together, hoping, with grace, restraint and occasional wit. The titular boat race becomes a desperate, metaphorical struggle. More than the sum of its parts, ‘Regatta’ is a delicate, Hemmingway-esque story that will doubtlessly stay with me.

Overall Impressions

Unfortunately, not all of the stories in this issue were direct hits for me – ‘Puppet Fears’ was a bit beyond me, and may require closer re-reads; ‘Tilly’ showed fleeting brilliance, but felt tonally confused; and ‘Pretty Birds’, despite inspiring an excellent cover image, was underwhelming and a bit obvious. I’m fast realising, though, that this is the nature of reading anthologies. Different stories appeal to different people; it’s possible – even likely – that others may rate these as favourites. Overall, the sheer diversity of styles in [untitled] issue six was undeniable and greatly appreciated.

I’m thrilled about [untitled]’s return. It is an excellent celebration of Australia’s diverse literary talent, and issue six maintains the high standard set by previous issues. Reportedly, Busybird are working to get issue seven out by the end of 2014, so hopefully the wait won’t be too long for more short fiction goodness.

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