Low Life by Michael Botur (Createspace, 2017), 244 pp., $27.99; Fresh Ink by multiple authors (Cloud Ink Press, 2017), 224 pp., $28
It’s a tough time to be writing short stories in New Zealand. Anecdotally, we hear collections aren’t selling well. Competitions have disappeared or had prize money slashed (the Katherine Mansfield and the Sunday Star Times Short Story Awards). Magazines that once accepted single stories (the Listener) stopped taking them years ago. And many publishers state, if in not so many words, WARNING, SHORT STORIES NOT WELCOME. Other forms, such as creative non-fiction and poetry (particularly with the arrival of Hera Lindsay Bird and Ashleigh Young), have vaulted short stories in terms of profile and sales.
Kiwi readers, it seems, would rather gargle cold sick than buy a local collection. Which is something – gargling spew – that could happen in a Michael Botur story – but to Low Life soon.
So why are collections so unpopular? You’re certainly more likely to find a publisher for a novel. And probably you’re more likely to get CNZ funding for a novel rather than a collection. Writers see other writers being successful with novels and poetry and creative non-fiction and so pursue those forms. The result is a lack of quality in the local short story, and the lack of quality feeds the conception that these other forms are what the real writers pursue.
Who, after all, are New Zealand’s leading short story writers? Owen Marshall is predominantly a novelist these days. The very good Tracey Slaughter is one, but who else? There have been strong collections this century (by Pip Adam, Sara Laing, Tina Makareti, Lawrence Patchett) but all those writers then turned to novels. Stories, it seems, are being used as warm-up equipment before the heavy lifting of novel writing starts.
So, is Low Life (Botur’s self-published fourth collection) the book to break through the ice? Or what about Fresh Ink? Published by Cloud Ink, it’s a collection of mostly short stories (some poetry, artwork and novel fragments), many of which are written by graduates of University of Auckland’s Masters in Creative Writing program.
Low Life is sixteen stories set in Auckland or further north, in the suburbs and sometimes the city. A clueless bogan quits his factory job because of something a DJ on his favourite radio station says. Gang members ‘bottle cunts outside karaoke bars’, smoke P, watch UFC, and learn how to be barbers. Over twenty years a wild teenager becomes a high school teacher and then a mum and then goes back to partying. A house-proud control freak bullies a transgender ex-skinhead. A music-loving teen becomes an internationally known music reviewer and heroin addict. An elderly arthritic grandma takes up drug dealing. The night-fill manager at K Mart tries to seduce a new member of his team.
Point of view is spread between the first, third and, unusually, the second person. Some stories end with a twist, some with straightforward resolution, while others are more open to discontinuation. Stories open with their foot on the accelerator and time zooms. The language is all high volume. ‘Unfrozen’ starts:
Your parents chase you over the lip of the balcony but they can’t catch up. You throw your limbs into the passenger seat and shriek DRIVE, cackling. The driver-boy paints your dad with exhaust then just as your dad’s about to grab your door handle you hoon off, squirting driveway gravel.
As the book’s title indicates, many of the stories feature characters who are in poverty or who are blue collar/working poor, and the book’s language aims to capture this both in exposition and dialogue.
Content-wise the stories aim to shock. From the start of ‘Fuckup Day’:
Janelle pulled the curtains open and lit a joint and thought, Please tell me I remembered to buy the fuckin candles … Yup. Sorted. Three brittle candles, 99 cents from the supermarket, plus $1.06 gas. She groaned, dropped the roach of her joint into her coffee cup, prepared to leave her bedroom and fight the world. Fuckin petrol. Oughta splash some around here and burn the fuck-ups outta my life.
From ‘Unfrozen’ again:
… that boy from that Volunteers Abroad stall smokes rocks with you in the toilet and soon he’s pulling your denim skirt and licking your makeup off your chin while punk rockers bang on the toilet door and tell your boy to hurry up and come …
From ‘Cathedral with Tranny’:
I stick my spade into the soil, wipe me brow, whip out a can of deodorant and give the armpits a quick squirt. It’s important to smell alright in the off-chance Ambs will go down on me, as payment, y’know, payment for stayin at our safe house.
Endless stuff like that splats down, immunising and then boring the reader. But the shocking scenes, like the characters and the stories themselves, are only ever superficial. Maybe more punch would be achieved if the stories spent more time on fewer scenes, developing character and tension, pressing the reader deeper underwater, rather than scudding off to the next bout of violence, drugtaking, screwing or boozing.
The book has the energy of a car alarm. There is no subtlety, no nuance, there are no quiet, human moments. Don’t skinheads ever stop for a cup of tea? Don’t they too possess a sense of humour? They need to. Stories need to. Without light, without change of pace, there is no room for the reader, it’s all author, author, author.
To Fresh Ink then, and to begin: a spoiler. More than two-thirds of the book is short stories and novel fragments. The rest is poetry and artwork, but to keep this review in line with my skills I’ve only reviewed the prose – prose that, quality-wise, ranges from very bad to good.
According to their bios, many of the authors have recently completed master’s degrees in creative writing from AUT, and in much of their writing, particularly their use of cliché, there is evidence of this newness to the craft. Unless you are Knausgaard, clichés don’t work in literary fiction. Like that car alarm, they whine and blink, alerting the reader to what the author isn’t doing (thinking originally) rather than what’s happening in the story.
‘Pamela’s heart lurched.’
‘The caress of John’s hand on my neck brought me back to reality.’
‘The skew-nosed bandit drooled at the sight of her chest barely covered by a fine linen chiton and drew his sword.’
Robots claiming independence from their human masters.
Over-writing is another cliché. New writers often burn everything up on every sentence, resulting in too many adjectives:
‘Ashen faced, they clustered in wordless groups, pushing haphazardly stacked carts.’
And too much poetry:
‘The clock winks at Rangi and its slippery hands waltz clockwise into a circular dance.’
But there is better work. Joan Norlev Taylor’s colonial-age ‘The Spirit Child’ features some potent images: ‘Seraphina and Michael were buried at sea. But the sea does not bury; it consumes.’
‘The Gift’ by Karen Phillips is a gentle, convincing story about a marriage breakup: ‘There was almost nothing on the farm that Ron and I between us couldn’t repair, but neither of us knew how to mend the growing holes in our relationship.’
‘What I remember’ from Emma Robinson is about a friendship between two women from different socio-economic backgrounds. There’s this great line when the poorer of the two tells her café-owning boss that she’s pregnant: ‘He said it wasn’t right, would put people off, make them feel guilty if a pregnant woman brought them their lunch. Like they ought to get up and offer to carry the plates.’ But for me, the story – with its touching, unlikely relationship between the younger and older women – had enough content without adding the post-natal depression/psychosis content at the end.
‘Staccato’ by James George is the longest story in the book and deals with a family reunion on Wellington’s south coast: ‘Far out in the dark a ship plies the restless waves of the strait. Its lights hover like streetlamps, like fallen moons.’ It’s a contemplative slow burner cleverly told from three separate points of view.
But overall, like Lowlife, Fresh Ink is disappointing – meaning, for the time being anyway, the status quo holds. Novels, poetry and creative non-fiction still have the story in a headlock, and though breath is being drawn, there were times reading both books when I observed our little friend turning blue.
What each book does do is testify to the challenge of writing a good short story – weaknesses, cracks, missteps … they are all so obvious in something which, by its definition, has to be so light and nimble and yet so powerful.
BRETON DUKES’ first collection of critically acclaimed short stories, Bird North, was published in 2011. That year, Breton was also the recipient of the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson Writer’s Bursary. Empty Bones (2014), a novella and five short stories, is his second book.