Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Book review: Inexperience and Other Stories, Anthony Macris (2016)

This book of early fiction by this Australian author contains many subtle beauties. The title story, which takes up most of the space in this collection, recounts a trip to Europe by the narrator and Carol, his girlfriend. They are Australians trying to escape the mundanity of suburban existence. They are very young and inexperienced.

In Paris they meet a number of different people whose attitudes to life tell us a lot about who our protagonists are. These are amusing scenes full of complex ideas. In fact, the entire story constitutes a sophisticated inquiry into the nature of being. Who am I, the protagonists seem always to be asking. Who are you?

It seems like ages ago since those days. We all survive this kind of existence at one point in our lives or another. We strive to make sense not only of what we see around us, but of our very selves, and this striving has something heroic and beautiful about it. There is something elemental about the lives Macris' two protagonists live as they make their way in foreign countries. Strangely, we miss out on two years of the narrator's life in the UK, and after Paris suddenly he is on a plane back to Sydney. In Thailand he decides not to leave the plane, and sits staring out through the window at the night. Then suddenly the story takes us to the Bankok stopover on the "out" trip.

It's a short chapter. The narrator and Carol are sitting in a cheap restaurant in a shopping centre and they are surrounded by the sounds and smells of a strange place. They are happy in a way that perhaps they will never be again. There is something so evocative about this short chapter, with its stacks of cheap T-shirts and its sticky plastic table cloth. In this interim zone between home and abroad, the narrator and Carol find their natural environment and a kind of settlement that will possibly elude them ever afterward.

For while the notion of "Australianness" is important in the book it is essentially a story about this relationship between two people. When Carol starts to withdraw, the narrator feels things start to slip out of his control. The rest of the journey will be more problematic than the stopover in Bangkok on the way "out". The narrator is about to learn something important about himself.

The title story is long but wonderful in strange ways, and the other stories each also have things to offer the reader. There's 'The Nest-Egg', a Dostoyevskian contemplation on mortality that takes the reader on a thrilling ride through modern consumer culture. Then there's a diptich, 'The Triumph of the Will' and 'The Quiet Achiever', which focus on a man living in the suburbs of one of Australia's big cities, and tracks his progress from proprietor of a failing business to being a resident in an institution. It is not a pretty story, but again Macris is in such cool control of his material that you are entertained past worrying about the fate of the main character.

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