Short Story – Making Stuff Up

Making Stuff Up by KW George

Big Issue Fiction Edition 2019

It’s one of the tropes of fiction writers to write a story about writing a story. This can be done in a metafictional way where the author/narrator steps out of the narrative to show themselves writing it or, as here, it can be a story about a writer trying to write.

George begins her story with her first-person narrator, chatting online with her writing group about an American author, FJ Aden who is in the news because he’s made up things about his own life which aren’t true (this seems to be based on AJ Finn’s confessions). The group discuss whether this matters, and whether or not they’d read this author’s works after the scandal. Our narrator muses that the writing group is supposed to be about their own writing and that it often descends into gossip and chat.

She’s spent so long online that she’s late for making dinner (her husband works in an office all day). There is a slight tension between them because, they are supposed to have given up alcohol for the month and the husband wants a beer. He takes off to get some low alcohol beer from the supermarket and she wanders into her study where she’s hidden a bottle of wine.

For the rest of the night she muses about Aden, who she’d originally defended, saying what’s the difference between making things up in fiction to sell and making things up about your real life? Now she thinks, what does he really know when he described his mother supposedly dying from cancer? Our narrator, it transpires, has experienced chemotherapy and had a mastectomy.

In the morning, she tries to open up a document of the writing she’d done the day before but there’s only a blank page – she’s convinced herself she had actually started on the story she’s trying to write. Here we get a metafictional bit when she recounts to us the idea she has for this story. A man, a bit like her husband, is interested in a woman at the office who he meets in the lift: she’s well-dressed but wearing a necklace of paperclips. His wife, at home, notices ‘he misses her mouth when he bends down to kiss her hello when he gets home from work’.

Then our narrator’s mother rings, breaking into her thoughts, and tells her about a yeti documentary she’s watched – supposedly factual, but of course it must be ‘made up’ to some extent. In the last paragraph our narrator says, now she knows how to end her story – ‘My Lara character needs to have a Mum … who confirms it’s bizarre to … find … a handful of paperclips in your husband’s suit pocket …’

‘Making Stuff Up’ is the type of story that relies on the voice to carry it and George’s narrator is an engaging one. I like that it is a story about writing a story and the extent to which a writer can mine their own life for material. The narrator can identify with Aden because (as we find out in the last para) she is using something personal to ‘make up’ something that might hurt her husband, while at the same time lying about her drinking (which is another type of ‘making something up’). I wasn’t quite convinced about the intervention of the mother and why her mother’s swallowing of the yeti story should convince the narrator about the validity of the paperclip/affair aspect to her story.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable short story, covering some interesting ideas with a light touch.

Short story – Bushfire by Kate Grenville

Bushfire – Kate Grenville

Something Special, Something Rare – Black Inc

Despite its title, ‘Bushfire’ is not predominantly about a bushfire, it is a relationship story, a love story. The fire does appear, however, in the second paragraph: ‘brown smoke hid the contours of the hills over in the distance and smudged the sky. After a term in Mindurra Public school, she had got used to seeing the hills … It was unsettling to have lost them now.’

We are thus introduced to our focalising character, Louise, an outsider to the small town. Louise has walked into town to see if she can volunteer to help with the firefighting but not being particularly useful, she’s sent off to make sandwiches. On her way to the hall, she glimpses a man on a fire truck ‘half-hidden among hoses and tanks’. He lifts a hand in greeting but she is taken by surprise and ‘by the time she waved back, the truck had gone’. We are then given a flashback when Louise recalls the time at a town fair when a busybody intending to matchmake had got the man, Lloyd, to bring her a cup of tea, and then ensues an awkward conversation between them. Again, Louise seems out of synch: although Lloyd blurts out some information about himself, she can’t manage to engage with him – ‘Yes, she’d managed to say, feeling the startled look on her face, hearing it in her voice’. She observes, fascinated, as a blush spreads over Lloyd’s face and neck, and then, to her own discomfiture, she begins to blush herself: ‘It was as if her skin and his were having a conversation with each other, all by themselves’.

This image tells the reader something that Louise only slowly works out for herself as she makes the sandwiches.

A man comes into the refreshment hall from the fires, panicked and excited, and this brings us back to the moment of fear and tension and Louise sees that something she thought mundane about Lloyd might be a ‘kind of heroism’. There is then a flashback to one of Louise’s ex-husbands a survivalist type who said if they were separated, he would meet her on the steps of the Gunnedah post office. She reflects sardonically, that he was ‘not the type of man she would want to find’. This train of thought leads her back to Lloyd and the missed opportunity of her conversation with him that the fire has brought into focus: ‘he would not be burned alive. He would come back down’. The last sentence of the story harks back to the blushing incident and places it at the centre of the meaning of the narrative – ‘perhaps they could continue the conversation that their skins … had already begun’.

This is a charming story that shows Grenville’s ear for human frailty, and for the foibles of quiet, overlooked people. The bushfire is a device that brings the mishandled and awkward meeting between the main characters into focus, and gives it a time imperative. The device of the blush device that has their two bodies ‘talking to each other’ works well, and the heat in their faces links in to the heat of the fires. Like the fire it can either overrun them, or the wind can change and it could go off in another direction.

This story was first published in The Bulletin and in Best Australian Stories 2000.

When reading it, I was reminded that one of my favourite novels is Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (recently reissued by Text) which has a similar mismatched couple at its core.

Short Story – Peeling

I am intending to read and critique a series of short stories to see how they work, and succeed and/or fail. I will examine the whole of the story, including the ending. Fair warning to read the story first, starting here with an unusual story by Peter Carey from 2010.

Peeling – Peter Carey

Meanjin Summer 2010

This is written from the point of view of an elderly male living alone in a room of, perhaps, a boarding house. He tells us of his interest in a woman who lives above him – contemplating her movements, his slow interest in getting to know her, but not too fast. There is a certain creepiness in this attention and voyeurism (the woman is younger and possibly vulnerable). She collects dolls that she de-hairs, pokes their eyes out and paints white. For the first half of this story, I thought it was about getting into the mind of a predator, that the ‘peeling’ of the title was really about him slowly revealing himself to us while he thinks he is exposing and defining the woman. From here, however, Carey twists the narrative as the woman begins to speak and reveal herself to the narrator (much to his annoyance as he desires to reveal her himself). At this point, we find out the woman assists with backyard abortions and this has disturbed her (hence the mutilated, purified dolls). As the narrator disrobes the woman (with her consent), she is peeled away: first clothes, then skin, then gender, then age, then identity as she disintegrates into a tiny shell-like, broken doll.

Carey shows total control of narrative, character, scene, language, as you would expect. If I were writing this story, I would probably have finished it at the half-way mark and made it more about exploration of character, but Carey pushes it further to give it that bizarre twist, and thus an additional metaphorical layer. This does make the reader sit back and consider ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what is he saying?’ but, to me, I thought it was taking it too far – the inherent interest we have in the situation as ‘real’ is wrenched around as we are given further ideas of  ‘peeling’, further ‘layers’ that we weren’t expecting.

The Long & the Short – Peaches by Dylan Thomas

A series analysing short stories

young-dogThis story comes from the autobiographical collection Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog first published in 1940.

The story starts with the young narrator sitting on a cart in a laneway while Uncle Jim goes into a pub leaving the boy alone in the growing dark. As the lane gets darker, the men he has seen through the lighted window playing cards turn into grotesques:

… the swarthy man appeared as a giant in a cage surrounded by clouds, and the bald old man withered into a blank stump with a white face.

We have also seen a glimpse of ‘a pink tail curling out’ of a basket the boy’s uncle takes into the pub.

There are further scary intimations on the slow ride home, with Uncle Jim stopping outside a house and telling the young Dylan that ‘a hang man lived there’.

The only comforting things are Dylan’s own imaginings—‘A story I made up in the warm, safe island of my bed’, the steady clop of the mare drawing the wagon on: ‘the old broad patient nameless mare’, and running into his Aunt Annie’s arms when he arrives clutching his ‘grammar school cap’. This latter gives the clue that he is visiting the farm for holidays.

To Dylan’s over active imagination the farmyard in the dark is nightmarish:

The cobbles rang, and the black empty stables took up the ringing and hollowed it so that we drew up in a hollow circle of darkness and the mare was a hollow animal and nothing lived in the hollow house at the end of the yard but two sticks with faces scooped out of turnips.

The next day everything seems more normal, although it is apparent the farm is terribly rundown and life there threadbare, until we meet the unsettling cousin Gwilym. Gwilym is a young man studying for the church with a disquieting propensity to mix up sex and religion.

Dylan gets on reasonably well with Gwilym although his description of him suggests a critical distance: ‘a thin stick of a body and a spade-shaped face’, but when Gwilym uses an unused barn as a chapel and a cart as a pulpit, and preaches to Dylan, the boy goes along with it, letting his imagination run as it always does.

Thomas (the writer) has now set up the story. All is not well in the trope of child goes to farm for holiday. Uncle Jim, we suspect is a drunk (Dylan finds out from Gwilym that he is surreptitiously selling piglets for drink) and Thomas uses the wonderful predatory imagery of a fox to describe him: ‘Uncle Jim came in like the devil with a red face and a wet nose and trembling hairy hands’. Gwylim’s preoccupations are worrying, and, although Aunt Annie is well-meaning, she is downtrodden. Despite all this, Dylan is not threatened in reality—they are his relatives and he is accepted there—he is only threatened imaginatively, through his night fears and his overactive imagination.

At this point in the narrative Thomas introduces a new element. Into the world of Gorsehill Farm comes Dylan’s best friend from school, Jack Williams, dropped off by his wealthy mother to spend the holidays with Dylan, and here we also encounter the peaches of the title.

The peaches are in a can left over from Christmas and kept for a special occasion by Aunt Annie. Mrs Williams, of course, can’t wait to get away from the ‘good room’ with its dust and bedraggled stuffed fox and refuses the offer of the peaches. When she bends down to kiss her son goodbye he tells her she’s wearing perfume, a clue to why she’s dumping Jack at the farm for two weeks.

The boys start off in high spirits playing games and running around but when Dylan initiates Jack into the mock chapel in the barn things go awry. Gwylim tries to get the boys to confess their sins, and Dylan goes through a litany of them in his head from stealing from his mother to beating a dog to make him roll over but, when pressed, can’t admit them:

‘Go on, confess’

‘I won’t! I won’t’

Jack began to cry. ‘I want to go home,’ he said.

Dylan has suffered a lack of imagination in being able to make up a sin and caused Jack to want to go home. Back in bed that night, however, the boys do confess to each other and then Dylan goes on to says he’s killed a man—his imagination running free again symbolised by the sound of a stream he thinks he can hear running next to the house.

But just as Jack’s fears are assuaged, Uncle Jim comes home drunk and there is a row downstairs. When Jim hears about the peaches he lets fly:

‘I’ll give her peaches! Peaches, peaches! Who does she think she is? Aren’t peaches good enough for her? To hell with her bloody motorcar and her son! Making us small.’

The next day Dylan tries to play with Jack but Jack won’t talk to him:

Below me Jack was playing Indians all alone … I called to him once but he pretended not to hear. He played alone, silently and savagely.

Jack calls his mother from the post office and she comes to pick him up. Dylan waves his handkerchief as they drive off but Jack ‘sat stiff and still by his mother’s side’.

Dylan’s way of dealing with the threat of the adult world around him is to see it through the filter of his imagination which can be both threatening and amusing. The reader can see how parlous the situation at the farm is, but Dylan is matter of fact about it—everything can be made different and interesting by seeing faces like spades and his uncle as a fox eating piglets and chickens. We feel sad when Jack won’t go along with it. When Jack sees the threat from Uncle Jim, he leaves, breaking the compact with Dylan. Both boys have to deal with their own situations as best they can, and Dylan’s fantasy world can only ever be particular to him.

© 2014 Helen Richardson