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Monday, 28 April 2008

Thea Astley's Hunting the Wild Pineapple (1979) is, ostensibly, a collection of short stories. This fiction is buttressed by inclusion, in 1997's Collected Stories, of some of them. In fact, the reality is different.

There's a man and there's a woman. They meet on a bus, much like the classic scene with Mrs Dun and Mrs Poulter near the start of The Solid Mandala. But we're in Queensland and we're in the midst of the post-60s counter-culture and it seems to be a private war instead of (the more prosaic and popular notion of) a reckoning, where youth repudiated social structures demonstrably lacking in authenticity following WWII.

There's not much on Astley online, and less on Hunting the Wild Pineapple, but it is clear that Astley belongs to the significant generation of women writers, which includes Helen Garner, who 'rewrote' our shared sense of morality. They didn't do it alone, of course, hence the White reference in this book.

Brain, we're told "is one of nature's dazzling failures, so injected with the fraudulent potency of his wildcat schemes he is always on the verge of financial bliss or ruin". So it goes with each of the male characters here, and so it went with Waldo, the Apollonian analogue of Dionysian Arthur.

In Astley, the referent is visible only in the telling or the dialogue. She is sure there is a way to transpose reality accurately (though not always cleanly). The irony is not self-reflexive; the author always knows what she knows, and we are in no doubt ourselves.

In other words, Astley believes it is possible to actually name things on the page (which, here in my copy, are thick in the first edition). But she plays effectively with the reader, drawing out of him reactions that allow little leeway. In this sense, Astley is a literalist: she can describe the world, regardless of how difficult this task may seem.

But the book shimmers with wisdom because of the complex relationships between each of the stories (the subtitle is "and other related stories"), where names and types pop up with disconcerting regularity. We are in capable hands, and this book is better than the earlier The Acolyte (1972), which I'm in the process of reading now.

And the sentences are not only intelligent (often with encapsulated clauses that meander to catch up, finally, with their beginnings) but colourful. Astley has, you feel, a tremendous amount of energy and it emerges at the tip of her pen.

And like Joan Didion, there is the sensation of control. That, despite the divagations and the byways taken, the goal is always in the author's sights, if not those of the reader.

The romance of the loser, the irrelevant, the marginal is here - and it's possibly a greater achievement to have discovered fine ore in such a lode, than merely to have charted, in the 70s, the lineaments of public morality in the noughties.

If I remember Astley for anything it will be this: that you can drive a nail through a piece of plywood even if you crack your thumb twice, and even though the first attempts result in bent and mangled shafts.

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