Vignette: ‘The Matador and the Bull’

IMG_3628Brittany shoves him once, twice, spits in his direction.

Her boyfriend, Glen, leaps back, stumbles on the lip of the kerb. His arms make sad little windmills. A passerby sidesteps the spectacle and Brittany laughs, first at the passing stranger, then at Glen. She thinks long and hard about ways to hurt him. She compares him to his father, but the words falter against him; he has heard this one too many times. She brings up that fat sheila again, the one he ‘rooted last month’.

Glen’s frustration finally bests him. He bites back, lists – for the fourth time that week – his reasons for the indiscretion. It was, he explains, a knee-jerk reaction, the unfortunate consequence of months of compounding stress. He reminds her that she is far from innocent herself. Her list of follies is lengthy: there was the handjob she gave Marcus, their mutual friend, at the football; the phone abuse she inflicted on Glen’s family (over an innocuous remark Glen’s father had made over dinner); the gross mismanagement of their welfare money; her endless stream of criticisms; the broken taillight she never replaced; the way she refused to find work, despite dire financial straits; and the … the …

He is shaking, has made a scene. The reasons why they shouldn’t stay together cascade over him. The Bundoora-bound 86 pulls up behind them.

Brittany – red-faced and full of piss and vinegar – boards via the front entrance. On the second stair, she stops, turns, a tear trickling down her cheek, and says: ‘Well, you’re a fuckin’ dud root, you are! Stay away from this piece of shit, girls! Never once made me come in two years!’

IMG_3616The doors close and the tram pulls away. From the middle of Smith Street, Glen watches Brittany exit his life. When at last she’s gone, he turns, walks the five paces to Woolworths and relays his story to anyone who’ll listen.

He misses her already.

* Published in INfusion 47.

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Guest Speaker Recap: Sam Cooney, Editor of The Lifted Brow

Sam Cooney was my most anticipated guest speaker this semester – partly because I’ve long enjoyed his ‘sweet petite tweets’ and partly because he’s been currently killing it (from my perspective) as the editor and publisher of one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, The Lifted Brow. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up his dress (unless he’s into that), but suffice it to say his CV, entrepreneurial skills and general work ethic impressed me. For someone just a couple of years my senior, he’s accomplished a hell of a lot. He also wears many professional hats. I wouldn’t be surprised if his business cards have stapled-on amendments that enfold two or three times.

Sam began his presentation by telling us about his unconventional career path. Apparently, with the advent of the internet, unconventional is the new conventional (like, hadn’t you heard?). Old career models are becoming obsolete; these days, a professional writer’s career path is invariably defined by its random discursions. It’s unsettling to think that the degree I’m working towards could count for everything or nothing, but that’s the nature of the gig. Unlike more traditional careers, the trajectory of a writer’s path is seldom linear.

Sam’s was no exception. His journey began with a false start university enrolment where he worked towards a business degree. He considered this avenue partly because he’d yet to realise his true calling, but also because his all-boys private school had conditioned him to aspire to traditional work. Fortunately, Sam spent his leisure time indulging hidden literary aspirations and it wasn’t long before he realised writing was what he really wanted to do with his life. Though he didn’t say as much, I suspect Sam’s business classes contributed to his entrepreneurial edge. If this is true, it shows that no life experience is ever truly wasted; writers will always find ways to draw from their pasts. It saddens me, though, that there are high schools out there actively discouraging students from pursuing creative or unconventional career paths. But it’s not particularly surprising, given society’s low opinion of the humanities. Continue reading

Guest Speaker Recap: Lauren Williams, Poet/Songwriter

How’s this for serendipitous? Determined not to repeat last week’s hunger-induced rudeness, I opted for an early lunch on the far side of campus. Moments after putting away my last Le Snack biscuit (yep, I eat eight-year-olds’ lunches), I was approached by a guitar-toting woman who asked me for directions to the Writing and Publishing block. This was Lauren Williams, our guest speaker. I escorted her to said destination and, on the way, told her a bit about myself and this ’ere blog.

‘I’m recapping the year’s guest speakers!’ I enthused – no doubt coming across like Peter Brady. ‘Don’t worry: I won’t put anything salacious in it!’

She wasn’t worried, and would later go on to share a few of her tangos with the media. Par for the course for a published poet, I discovered. Right away, Lauren struck me as approachable and passionate. Admirably, she wasn’t afraid to share her strong views on the industry – my kind of guest speaker!

Anyway, let’s proceed with the recap.

* * * Continue reading

Review: ‘Good on Paper’

9780980740547Good on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship and won the prestigious Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award, and so, guided by word of mouth and those impressive credentials, I sought this out. It’d been awhile since a book had tickled my funny bone, and this looked primed to do it. Continue reading

Review: ‘What the Family Needed’

ImageWhat the Family Needed is the exhilarating second novel by New Yorker-cum-Melbourner, Steven Amsterdam. This had been on my to-read list for a while. It never left my radar because its speculative fiction premise – an ordinary suburban family with superpowers – had me intrigued. What the Family Needed has received a few superficial comparisons to The Incredibles, and while I wouldn’t say that’s entirely off the mark, I do think it’s a somewhat dismissive assessment, one that ultimately sells Amsterdam’s achievement short.

What the Family Needed opens with that classic catalyst, divorce. When Ruth leaves her husband, she and her two children take refuge with Ruth’s sister Natalie. Every family member – three adults and four children – gets a chapter, or section, in their own perspective. These characters don’t remain static either. Unflagged jumps in time and space occur between each section. Main character, Alek, for instance, begins the novel at seven and ends up in his forties. Fortunately, it’s never too much work to find one’s bearings. Personally, I enjoyed having to reorientate and make deductions from the narrative crumbs Amsterdam so effortlessly casts our way. (‘Oh, so that’s what became of that character!’) I won’t hark on too much longer about the shifting narrators, but I will say that while this device mightn’t be for everyone (readers who want to relax, follow an easy narrative, rather than disentangle it, may find themselves frustrated), it makes for a story that refuses to play to the reader’s expectations. Half the fun is surrendering to the narrative and seeing where it’ll lead you next. I loved this; close reading is rewarded and the reader’s intelligence appealed to.

I suppose what any prospective readers want to know about the powers. I would say they are deftly handled; they’re not the focal point of the novel, but they are very prevalent. See, unlike with The Incredibles, the characters in this novel aren’t superheroes. They don’t use their abilities to fight crime, nor do they don’t exploit them to their own selfish ends (well, much). Really, the powers (invisibility, flight and mind control, to name a few; to say more would spoil the surprises) exist to punctuate whatever psychological journey that character is going through. Often they’re symbolic of that character’s traits or spirit which, in lesser hands, might’ve come off as trite as it sounds. What the Family Needed is far from trite, though. If anything, the powers heighten the sense of poignancy. There’s no hammy sentimentality, I assure. I say all this because I want to emphasise that this is not a superhero adventure story. Readers expecting that will be disappointed. What it is is quirky, and sometimes funny, literary fiction. What the Family Needed closely and warmly examines the model of the modern family.

Amsterdam’s prose is warm and full of verve. Though he doesn’t shy away from describing dark subject matter, a playfulness pervades. Really, though it sounds silly to say, I found the tone life affirming.
In a sense, the writing is workmanlike, preferring to focus plot rather than deviate with flowery observations or philosophical asides. (The exception to this is the final section, Alek’s, which takes an almost existential turn.) Amsterdam’s turn of phrase is silky smooth – accessible, but not dumbed down. Rather, it’s the subtext, the narrative jumps and the surprises that will have you contemplating. Amsterdam leaves a few plot points open, as if inviting us to reach our own conclusions. Just the way I way it.

Steven Amsterdam is an accomplished writer and this book, What the Family Needed, is one of my standouts of the year.