The Father of Octopus Wrestling and Other Small Fictions by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, 2019), 146pp., $27.99
Reading Frankie McMillan’s The Father of Octopus Wrestling and Other Small Fictions is like taking part in a speed dating evening. You only have five minutes to meet the fifty-five applicants. All are equally fascinating and equally elusive. If only, you think to yourself, I could spend half an hour reading each one, delving deep to find out if any is a wife beater or an alcoholic.
It was probably a mistake to read this book after rereading Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and then, Olive Again. At first, I resisted the slickness of McMillan’s small fictions that never allowed such close encounters with character and background. But nothing is more annoying than the reviewer who says ‘Why didn’t the writer write it like this?’ or ‘It would have better if she’d done this.’ There is a world of difference between Stout’s connected short stories set in one small town, and McMillan’s fictions, which roam from unspecified locations to Rotorua, Lake Bunyonyi, Ireland, Amsterdam, Ukraine and a myriad of other places.
Narrators range in age and form: from the first person, to the second, to the third. Occasionally there is some small hint that the narrator may have appeared before, but there’s no real telling. Clearly, McMillan wants to evade definition or links to herself. Perhaps the stories work as an antidote to too much confessional writing. Perhaps she is being intentionally slippery – rather like the octopus in Wrestling with the Octopus which ‘goes all Houdini. Disappears in a sulk. Comes back smooth. A Marlboro hanging from its beaky mouth.’ Such stunning images are frequent.
Publishers are reluctant to publish collections of short stories as they do not sell well, unless perhaps you are Alice Munro or Owen Marshall. A collection of short short stories by an individual author is even more rare, although there are quite a few anthologies of flash fiction these days. But there is a vast amount published online. Although I have never taken to e-reading, I found myself thinking this is an ideal collection to have in electronic form. Perfect for standing in a line waiting to be served, or for seeking distraction from turbulence on a plane. But who could turn away from this artisan collection with its marbled purple pages and gold lettering? Canterbury University Press and Ilam Press have done Frankie McMillan proud.
So, how do we read them? All at once, or savoured slowly, like rich chocolates? They are so easy to read it is possible to consume too many at once and feel ‘right now I’d like a nice juicy steak, beef or cauliflower to chew over’. Occasionally, I’ll conclude that a book of poetry, particularly long-form narrative poetry, is greater than the sum of its parts, i.e. narrative meaning takes precedence over lyricism and imagery. In McMillan’s book the parts are equal to the sum but not greater. That is not to diminish them but to say that they are all equally intriguing and deserve to be read individually and slowly. Wrapped in red and gold foil, they are all luminous and perfect for after dinner.
Perhaps genre/narrator/place fluidity and a refusal to be categorised is the theme. Some of these stories slant a bit more towards poetry and have been published as poems. ‘The General Wants a New Flag’, for instance, was published in Manifesto Aotearoa:101 political poems (Otago University Press, 2017). The layout is slightly different but I don’t perceive any attempt to manipulate the line endings.
So, what, if any, is the difference between a prose poem and flash or short fiction? Some poets claim there is no difference, but if that is the case we might as well call a novel a short story. Perhaps it’s not important to other readers, but I like to know what the author’s intent is. Michael Harlow claims his book The Moon in a Bowl of Water (Otago University Press, 2019) to be a collection of prose poems. Like McMillan, he too has work in Manifesto and in Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, 2018). At a glance his collection contrasts visually with McMillan’s. The lines are uneven: you can see there is intent with line endings and white space; and if you read the work aloud, you can detect the musicality.
The lines in McMillan’s stories generally go to the margin of the page; however, white space is created by short paragraphs – some numbered, some a single line – but they are proper sentences intent on going somewhere, with a beginning, middle and end. They are, as McMillan claims, small fictions. Small fictions with a big but darkly comic heart. Still, there are some which lead a little more towards poetry in the emphasis on images and clipped sentences. ‘Father War’ is a striking half-page description of the war arriving in a taxi: ‘As usual it wanted money, wanted the taxi driver to be paid.’ The mother divests herself of jewellery and clothes, and the family escapes to the forest. The last scene is one of victory, the war staggering into the bedroom, the boys throwing hats into the air. Thus, an entire war is summed up in half a page. There’s a kind of genius in that compression.
The collection is grouped together in sections. One story, ‘Jesus and the Ostriches’, is given the luxury of expansion to nine pages and occupies the entire section. There’s still an insistence on breaking the story into numbered parts, as if McMillan doesn’t want the reader to get too comfortable, to be beguiled by a continuous narrative. A woman living on an ostrich farm with her bossy mother-in-law and her husband (who sleeps in a caravan), is visited by Jesus, who asks her to cleave with him. Reader, she does. But in an ordinary scene she also eats chocolate fudge from the pot. She has over-beaten it and has to scrape it from the sides. This image took me straight back to being a bored teenager and my default activity in the holidays, making fudge. So real, and yet there is Jesus with his bleeding heart.
Many stories concern themselves with animals of various kinds. You could say that just as the boundaries between prose and poetry are blurred, so are the boundaries between humans and animals. There are octopuses, birds, gorillas and chimps, some of whom have human mothers: hairy but otherwise human. There’s a persecuted snake keeper whose Russian books about war and exile and bitter feuding between neighbours get thrown to the chimps. The chimps, of course, hurl the pages into the compound. The snake keeper disappears, and the other zookeepers are sorry. ‘Now all we’ve got is a growing pile of snake shit and Russian thoughts about how can a man be here one day and simply vanish the next.’ A subtle plea for eccentricity, perhaps.
As in Olive Kitteridge some of the characters turn up again, and it’s a pleasure to be reacquainted. An aunt who is ‘Miss Nebraska 1963’ poses with half a meat carcass, and later reappears running a mock children’s army.
Having once seen a documentary about Ukrainian babushkas illegally living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, I particularly enjoyed ‘Babushkas’, and the characters’ acceptance of their fate. ‘No matter who falls first there will be no waste for the wind to pick over.’
In another story, ‘You are Never Completely Gone’, which may or may not hark back to a previous story of kidnap, there is no hint of despair or anger despite the apparent demise of the missing person. ‘Even in the summer after your disappearance, the leaves will still smell of you.’ Terrible things can and do happen, but what matters most is to leave something behind, in the form of story. Often the story is never fully revealed or solved, but I was happy to be left with mystery in a way I might not have been if it were a novel involving many hours of reading.
In the first story, ‘Seven Starts to the Man who Loved Trees’, Jazz Novitz, a character who was kidnapped and forced to live in a tree says:
I have to tell myself there’s as many leaves as there are stories. And what people really want to hear is what happens between the gaps, about the falling, and if I can find the plain language for that then maybe I can begin.
It could be a manifesto for the book and its plain-language stories about what happens between the gaps. The more time I spent with Frankie McMillan’s multiplicities of surreal and real stories, characters and situations, the more I appreciated their brilliant eccentricity, and the more I was happy to accept this as sufficient. Any single one could make a novel, but maybe that would become too rich a meal.
In the final piece, ‘The Story Inside Her’, a story is running away from riflemen who are intent, it seems, on the story’s destruction. ‘The story inside her says, that is your ending. But the story running for its life has its own ideas.’ Above all else, this is a collection crammed with so many original and unexpected ideas and perspectives that it seems McMillan has unearthed a never-ending supply. Perhaps. The story inside her is ‘beginning to think that maybe that’s where the story should safely remain’. It’s a wise writer who has learned to listen and to accept that the story knows best.
DIANE BROWN runs a creative writing school, Creative Writing Dunedin. Her publications include two collections of poetry (Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland, and Learning to Lie Together) two novels (If The Tongue Fits, and Eight Stages of Grace) a travel memoir, Liars and Lovers, a prose/poetic memoir, Here Comes Another Vital Moment, and a poetic family memoir, Taking My Mother to the Opera. Her latest book is a verse narrative, Every Now and Then I Have Another Child (Otago University Press, 2020).