The lives of three saints: Lucas Smith reviews Unaccountable Hours by Stephen Scourfield.

Unaccountable Hours by Stephen Scourfield. UWA Press, 2012.

There is something refreshing in Unaccountable Hours, Stephen Scourfield’s compendium of three novellas released early this year by UWA Press. The refreshing thing, or rather the refreshing absence, is irony. Irony saturates modern culture. We are ironic about our tastes in television, books, music (especially music) and clothes. It’s probably fair to say that irony is modern culture. There even exist those who practice religion ironically. Not so much swimming against the current as floating far out beyond it, Scourfield has delivered an utterly sincere book. It is an amazing achievement but not necessarily an entertaining one and the refreshment leaves a puzzling after-taste.

In the first novella, “The Luthier” Alton Freeman is a meticulous crafter of fine violins. He uses Australian hard-woods in his monomaniacal search for the Sound.

“The sound makes Alton Freeman’s chest vibrate. It seems to enter his body and force its molecules to drum together. It feels almost dangerous. It is as familiar as his own pulse, as the sloshing tide inside him when he plugs his ears with his fingers. It is as familiar, but better. It isn’t just biological or organic, it is emotional, expansive, interpretive. It is majestic.”

The sound is a recording of Bach’s cantatas and partitas made by the fictional violinist Monica Erica Grenbaum.

Majestic! In a modern novel. Incredible. Surely this is a sign that the story is a tragedy. Surely Alton Freeman is due a major misfortune, perhaps a fire to burn his precious viols or a jealous rival to steal his shaping techniques? In fact not only is “The Luthier” not a tragedy, it is a story in which not only the main character’s dreams are fulfilled (through those awfully true clichés hard work and determination) but his precocious child also enjoys great success. It is a story without a villain and therefore only half a story. Though he struggles mightily with his tools and the limitations of his ability he is not even in battle against himself. No vices plague him, and his loving family and loyal friends do everything they can to help him (with the exception of his initially sceptical father).

The writing is often elegant and there is much to enjoy for lovers of classical music or those who enjoy learning the details of somewhat archaic crafts. (I am both, by the way.) If Scourfield is not himself an amateur instrument-maker then he has done some incredible research and love for the Alton and the rest of the characters drips from every page.

The second novella, “Like Water” is the most humourous of the three. It is narrated by thirty-four year old Australian-Italian writer Matthew Rossi. He divides his time between Rome and Perth, two cities which are in most ways polar opposites. The idea of the “Dyadic—of two parts,” defines the story. “I occasionally adopt the name Sydney-Fairfax…using both components of this has the advantage of, overseas, of defining a refined antipodean, which everyone loves.”

Freed from quotidian concerns by a hefty inheritance and a lucky movie deal for one of his novels Rossi muses on such things as “the question of Happiness,” and remembers, in great detail, former lovers. But he is like all of Scourfield’s characters concerned with how to live. He has determined not to procreate, “not to exacerbate the situation generally, not to make everything worse.” In a turbulent encounter at the beach he befriends seventy-two year-old Beatrice and perhaps does more than befriend. Of the three works, “Like Water” features the most conflict, though it is internal. Rossi is intensely neurotic and self-concerned but likeable.

In the final novella, “Ethical Man” Scourfield creates Bartholomew Milner, a sort of old-fashioned naturalist obsessed with doing things the right way. “It mattered. It all mattered. It mattered to Dr. Bartholomew Milner—scientist, biologist, ornithologist, author of numerous papers, namer of two species—how he moved, his quietness, his fluidity, not just whether he could complete a given task, but how he could complete it.” (his italics)

Milner is given a contract to survey a section of the Little Sandy Desert—it’s plants, insects, reptiles and mammals. For six months he will live alone in the desert following what has become known, scornfully among some, as “Milner’s Ethic”: “not even treading lightly, in the popular idiom, but leaving absolutely no trace whatsoever.”

Somewhat implausibly, given his talent for solitude, Milner is “a mesmerising speechmaker.” The speech he gives at a university about the coming “Sixth Extinction” gives Scourfield a chance to repeat pious, millennial ideas about the destructive nature of humanity, which will end up causing our own annihilation. Ideas which are hard to deny, but when found in fiction as barely concealed authorial comment have me reaching for the most scurrilous Kingsley Amis novel. To Milner’s great credit, he does live his ideals but painstakingly having respect for nature is not the most compelling storyline available to a novelist. A nasty mining concern, hunters or even dirt-bikers would have provided a much-needed counterfoil for Milner’s musings.

Unaccountable Hours gives us three saint’s lives in circumspect, careful and often elegant prose. What’s missing is plot and conflict both inner and outer. There is a deep Christianity about these stories as well, unusual in Australian writing and Scourfield has grasped well the way faith and ideas influence our behaviour. Unaccountable Hours is an at times fascinating read but it remains un-compelling despite the attention to detail. There’s a reason hagiographies aren’t read much anymore.

– Lucas Smith

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Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow. He is currently one of those ‘responsible’ for The Nose http://thenose.com.au/, a Melbourne based free fortnightly newspaper of satire, journalism and literary review.

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Unaccountable Hours is available from UWA Publishing, http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/

Issue 2: January – February 2012 Contents.

Rochford Street Press

Three Novellas – Lucas Smith reviews The Dark Wet by Jess Huon.

The Dark Wet by Jess Huon. Giramondo 2011

Books editor for The Big Issue and first-time author Chris Flynn recently called on  book reviewers to pull no punches (or plaudits) when discussing first books. “The debut novelist should not be afraid of criticism. In fact they should welcome it more than most. No one should be given a ‘free pass’ just because it’s their first book (something I’ve heard reviewers say so many times, it’s depressing.)” To be sure, the size of the hatchet should be commensurate with the circumference of the reputation, but Australian independent authors and publishers are not made of paper-bark. Not to say that he would endorse anything said here, but Flynn’s comments are welcome. I offer this not as a prelude to a hatchet job but as a way of reiterating that the nebulous and elusive goal of all reviewers should be to improve our literary culture.

“Ground’, the first novella, one of three in Jess Huon’s debut The Dark Wet, tells of young painter and erstwhile graffiti artist Jed Harp and the complicated relationship he has with Daniel, his now deceased partner in tagging. Daniel committed suicide by jumping off or out of something but apparently died of exposure. (“‘He was naked, Jed,’ Alexandra whispered. ‘The people who did the autopsy said he would’ve died before he hit the ground.’) We never find out what Daniel jumped off or out of despite the suicide being the locus of the story. There is a certain art to ellipsis and understatement, and Huon sporadically achieves it, but when everything’s under and there’s no statement the reader is left skimming the surface of the text, not entirely knowing what happened before and therefore unable to care what will happen next.

Jed moves to Darwin where he indulges in some casual noble savage stereotyping of Indigenous painters. “He watched the black painters, men and women, sitting cross-legged, legs splayed effortlessly against the dirt; there were no borders on the canvas, working as if the piece wasn’t separated from the rest of the earth around them.” Daniel’s mysterious sister Alexandra offers some interesting counterpoint but she, like the rest of the characters, speaks and thinks in clichés. Struggling to paint and running out of money with a child on the way, Jed’s deus ex machina comes in the form of a Vic Arts grant.

The second sequence, “A Wide Lens” details the intense, sexually ambiguous friendship between adventure-girl Isabelle and gay, ascetic Oliver. Both are desperate to break out of the strictures of their suburban Australian upbringing.

For Isabelle, this means sex and travel to India. While she travels Oliver pines away for her, “ensconsed here, in the bottom of the world, my body shaking like a frail old man( it happened as if out of nowhere) in my childhood bedroom, on a fucking Saturday night.” (her italics) It’s as exciting as it sounds. When Oliver finally travels to San Francisco and orders a large American meal. “Something about this place, it seemed to him…was turned up high…A rambunctious, confident vibe, he thought. Potentially, he wiped his hands on a napkin, overpowering. Overbearing.” We are left wondering, did he or did he not wipe his hands on the napkin?

Huon has a habit of using a single adjective as a whole sentence. “This was someone I once would have thought [of] as hopeless, helpless, spineless. Worthless.” Of repeatedly allowing verb clauses to stand as complete sentences. As I have just done. “She took a breath. Settled deeper back into the chair. Gasped as her feet were picked up off the ground.” These lend a caught-breath quality to the work which is very quickly fatiguing and only rarely exhilarating.

“The Leopard Story”, the last novella, about a young woman seeking spiritual solace in India, shows the most promise. It features some striking passages such as “But offering my body to Jesus, I thought as a sixteen-year-old, would be like saying, ‘Here, Jesus, take this, I’m not sure what to do with it.’” Unfortunately, as happens far too often, the good bits are not left to evoke meaning on their own. This is the sentence immediately following, “An empty gift, like a body without breath, a kiss without any feeling.” Constant explanation and tautological modifiers tire the reader’s patience and question his or her intelligence.

Huon has traveled extensively in India but even so her India remains for the most part a stereotyped country of material poverty and spiritual riches. The most compelling part of “The Leopard Story” occurs when the narrator attempts to find help for a dying man lying in the gutter. The people in the street ignore her pleas for help. She hires a rickshaw but the hospitals refuse to admit him. Finally she finds the man’s son who takes his father away. In this episode we get a glimpse of India not as a spiritual playground for lonely westerners but as a real, human place, populated by good, bad and indifferent people.

                                                                                                – Lucas Smith

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Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow.

An Uneven Debut – Lucas Smith reviews The Rattler and other stories by A.S. Patrić. Spineless Wonders 2011.

A.S. Patrić has done the rounds of our little magazines and even co-edits an online little mag, Verity LA. He has paid his dues and The Rattler, his first book, is the uneven result. Short, abortive prose poems full of imprecise syntax and breathless gushing sit alongside thoughtful, subtle and carefully nuanced writing.

“Movement and Noise” portrays the death of a young girl but then retreats to the inner life of a boy who lives on her street. The ending returns to the death with astonishing power. Some much needed silliness, which after all is the source of seriousness, is provided by Anais Nin and June Miller bickering in Melbourne suburbia in “Ducks”

“Baby Shoes” is a subtle, very brief story about the inspiration behind Hemingway’s famous six word short story, (“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”). Hemingway is referred to only as ‘the Yankee’ and the implications of the story are allowed to hit the reader gradually. The aunt and uncle of Santiago, who will become the old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Here, Patric’s literary meta-referencing shines. The Yankee tells the couple that he has found what he needed for his story and then leaves. The story ends and we are left with exactly what we needed and no more.

The apex of the collection is “Some Kind of Blues”, a reflection on ethnic origins that manages to avoid clichés of migration and generational culture clash. “The question was still being asked among the children at my school. What are you?…Those massacres and rapes were who I was, because the television informed me that the Serbs were responsible for all the evils of those wars and I was a Serb.” I assume by his name that Patrić has Serbian ancestry. If so he is admirably honest, if not he has a penetrating imagination.

But too many stories are marred by forced profundity, an unfortunate byproduct of this powerful imagination. “The Frame” provides an example: “Greeks gaze into empty coffee cups and look into the smudge of chaos like scientists who stare through their microscopes at a smear of cells—but they’re the same stains. Accidents of birth, followed by accidents of life, then accidents of death.” Tell me something I don’t know.

Inexact grammar frequently halts the reader’s rhythm. Here is one of numerous examples: “he had a smile on his face. And an erection.” On his face? It doesn’t seem likely but that’s what those words say. Replace the full stop with a comma and the ambiguity is removed. To paraphrase Clive James, writers should never demand that their readers do most of the heavy thinking. Sentences like the above do not ingratiate a writer to his readers.

As one character says, “he knew every raindrop by its name. Did he think that’s smart like he thought I am sometimes, or is it as stupid as it sounds to me. You can’t be sure. Can’t be sure of anything.” This holds true for literature. Is this grammar artistic or just bad? Is this sentence, because said in a character’s voice, meant to be a non sequitur? Is the author cleverly playing off the notion of set in stone definitions or does he not know what words mean? You just can’t be sure.

The title story (and by far the longest) is the flat, undercooked tale of Atticus, a retired tram driver and aspiring writer. Patrić tries to wring meaning out of it and unite the collection by alluding to previous stories (Anais Nin and June Miller get a run), but the idea feels forced rather than organic. His literary ambition is limitless and his anger is on a hair-trigger but Atticus never quite feels like a real person. Which is fine, but he never quite feels like an overtly symbolic character either.

“Atticus was standing in the Writing Reference section in the bookstore. Atticus already had every book on the shelf worth owning. Not that he’d read every one of those at home, but he’d started them all and had an idea of what they all contained. That imparted an immense feeling of poised potential.”

“The Rattler” does not seem to be in the least autobiographical, but ‘poised potential,’ besides being a redundancy, is exactly what A.S. Patrić has.

Spineless Wonders, the publisher of The Rattler is a new NT-based press and they deserve praise for taking a punt on the short story form but I have one cheap shot to throw at them. The book features a blurb from “Les Murray, poet and editor, Quadrant”. Is Spineless Wonders trying to distinguish our greatest living poet from the soccer commentator of the same name or do they think their target audience needs a primer? Sorry.

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Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow.

Short Bursts – Lucas Smith reviews life kills by miles vertigan, Sleepers Publishing 2011

One of the reality television shows in miles vertigan’s first novel life kills is called ‘the world’s funniest home paraplegics’? Whether this strikes you as amusing or not, in the age of The Biggest Loser we are surely not far away from gawking at the disabled for amusement. Also encountered are the even more plausible “unsightly rabbity chewing styles of the disgustingly beautiful” and the hopefully very close “celebrity snuff hour”. It is praise to say that this novel does not compromise on its humor.

life kills is not so much a novel as it is a sustained style. Martin Amis insists that style is inseparable from content and life kills at its best lives up to this dictum. Here’s an example:

“the woman on the phone thinks i’m a retard like it says ring in case of an emergency and i’m thinking that in my neck of the woods a now completely irrelevant pesco punk never has been with his head impaled in a plane window has all the basic hallmarks of a lay-down misere dog balls face slapping capitalled bolded huge imposingly times roman fonted fucking emergency”

It’s tempting, with this breakneck writing style, to let the reading experience be hypnotic, like watching a waterfall. But slow down the anarchic prose and a decent plot emerges, which saves life kills from being just funny postmodern obscurantism. A hitman, a ‘wealthy german industrialist circa 1923’, boards an airplane and assassinates various denizens of first class. He is waylaid by a series of unhelpful flight attendants, ostentatious advertising and his own neuroses. Interspersed within this main story are the personal, emotional and existential crises of pilot and co-pilot brad and chad and the vindictive rivalry between flight attendants bubbles and sparkles, which keep things moving in hilarious fashion.

To label life  kills as a work of avant-garde or ‘experimental’ fiction (indeed what fiction is not) is to miss the point. For the most part the style is remarkably easy to follow given there are no quotation marks, full stops, commas, or capital letters. (Each section does end with a perfunctory   punctuation mark) After a while the reader begins to mentally insert punctuation. In the pure dialogue chapters, vertigan cleverly has the characters saying each others names as substitutes for quotation marks. The book is written in short bursts that kindly break up the text for the reader. The shortest chapters are only one page, the longest is five (e-book) pages. The print edition runs to little over one hundred pages.

It seems that everything these days is a critique of ‘consumerism’, such that the word has lost much of its force. Yet vertigan is much cleverer than most. The satire is inventive enough to get around its heavy-handedness.

“hey brad there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you really do you really have something to ask me chad because you know there’s nothing more amazing for me than the sweet childlike interrogatives that spill and waft like little fairy blossoms from your tracheostomyphone like innocent whimsied honeydew from some mechanical freakshow…”

The modern condition of infinite, contradictory, desire has not been paraphrased better than this:

“i’m chugging down a family sized roomful of oh so delicious ‘n’ tasty quadruple battered and deepfried triple lardburgers while some loser retro amish dude uses my abs as an anvil.”

What keeps life kills from being, frankly, an irritating first year creative writing prose poem exercise is the impeccable sense of rhythm. The words might not be divided into discrete sentences or even thoughts, but they are free-flowing poetry, like a Willy Wonka production line or migrating birds. That and the wit and wordplay, turn what could be an enervating slog into a compelling narrative.

It is not without flaws. Sometimes the prose really is too dense and it’s hard to know what’s happening or who, if anyone, is talking. But getting to the point is not the point of this book. It is for readers who relish a challenge. And it is worth noting that books like this, by their nature, are difficult to critique without making a category mistake.

The novel concludes with unexpected i.e. somewhat traditional, pathos and the hitman emerges from his decadent morass as an insecure and complex human being, all the more accessible, one suspects, because of his very untraditional voice. The style carries the day. life kills is a welcome change from the ponderous and breathless and oh-so-significant middle-class social realism which dominates Australian fiction.

This is a risky book for Sleepers, the Melbourne outfit that also publishes Steven Amsterdam and its yearly Sleepers Almanac. Here’s hoping it pays off.

Lucas Smith