Saturday, 3 February 2018

Book review: Australia Day, Melanie Cheng (2017)

This is the most accomplished collection of Australian short stories I have read since putting down Cate Kennedy’s ‘Dark Roots’ in 2006. It’s a completely ravishing assemblage of work of a generally high quality that decisively announces on the literary scene in this country the arrival of a special talent. Cheng is a woman possessed of an uncanny ear for dialogue and a brilliant sense of timing, and most of the stories in this book have a visceral impact that is of a kind that only short stories or poems can wield.

The book is structured with the eponymous story, ‘Australia Day’ – about a young ethnically-Chinese man going to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Jess, who is Anglo – bookended against the final story, ‘A Good and Pleasant Thing’ – about an elderly Chinese immigrant, Mrs Chan, who had dined the previous night with her second-generation Australian daughters Lily, Daisy and Rosie (and grandson, Martin, the third generation), but who today grumpily decides to punish them by dropping off the map, because they suggested that she move into a nursing home.

We have in these two stories twinned sides of the Chinese experience in Australia, which is viewed here from the vantage points of two distinct generations. The mimetic power of the voice in the story about Mrs Chan helps the author tell one story, while the tale of Stanley Chu tells its own story of casual racism. When Mrs. Chan sees a magazine cover at the checkout in the supermarket with the face of Pauline Hanson on it she is suitably dismissive, and Stanley coldly assesses the respective virtues of his girlfriend and her ex, Eddie Mitchell.

Cheng turns her limpid eye to other problems in this country, as well, but not without a deep and abiding sense of compassion. In ‘Macca’, Dr Emily Garret works at a community health centre where she comes across a patient with the same name as in the story’s title. He’s a middle-aged bloke whose face shows signs of sustained heavy living and whose arms are marbled by tattoos. He has a daughter but he doesn’t live with his family anymore and he’s sleeping on the floor at his brother’s place. The authorities have told him that they’ll put him in jail unless he stops drinking, which is why he’s at the clinic. Emily prescribes Valium to help with the withdrawal symptoms that she knows will come and she organises for a social worker to visit Macca.

One day, he’s not at home when the social worker comes round and she calls Emily to tell her. Emily knows that if Macca absconds, the police will be able to pick him up, so she calls him and gets through. The conversation on his side is typical: brief sentences, just words really, laconic, but optimistic. The story doesn’t merely provide insight into a recognisable Australian “type” – the dissolute underclass male – but also probes issues at the margins lying between the professional and the private as Emily struggles with her own feelings about Macca.

Issues of race are examined again in ‘Toy Town’, another short short story in the volume. In it, young mother Maha starts up a conversation with Nicole, an Anglo woman whose daughter Charlotte is about the same age as Amani, Maha’s daughter. While Charlotte and Amani play in the play centre, Nicole and Maha talk. When Charlotte comes up to her mother for a snack, Nicole gives her a felafel she has made at home. When Amani comes up for a snack Maha gives her chocolate biscuits and a Vegemite sandwich. It turns out that Ncole’s father had worked in Saudi Arabia when she was a girl, so she knows the Middle East. For the children, issues of ethnicity are much less interesting than the slippery slide.

Matters of identity and shared signification help the plot along in many of the stories, most of which are short and punchy. You feel the emotion welling up as the feelings inspired by Cheng’s stories take hold of your imagination and engage with your empathy.

In the longer stories, however, there are different dynamics at play and one of them, ‘Fracture’, which is sandwiched between shorter stories, doesn’t really resolve well at the end. It is about a second-generation Italian-Australian, Tony Ferrari, and the doctor, Deepak (he isn’t given a surname, tellingly), a second-generation Indian-Australian, who treats him at hospital for a broken leg. The leg doesn’t heal properly, and Tony continues to be in a lot of discomfort long after the bone has set. He has also been let go from his job as operations director at a manufacturing plant, and he is aged 60. Despondent and angry, he decides to get revenge on Deepak and starts putting up posters in the hospital that are designed to shame the junior consultant, who is told by the hospital to write Tony a letter of apology. He does so but the posters don’t stop appearing.

Simone, Deepak’s girlfriend, is also his boss at the hospital, and she’s a successful surgeon in a highly-competitive, male-dominated profession. Like Deepak, she is not given a surname in the story and like him she comes across as distant and uncaring. Deepak drives a Porsche and lives in an expensive apartment in St Kilda, and Simone doesn’t seem to empathise with her lover’s serious conundrum when the chips are down. But the finale is unsatisfying, relying as it does on a disconcertingly fresh plot device – Luca, Tony’s grandson – one that hadn’t really been examined in any detail earlier in the story. The story ends on an ellipsis with a fizzle and a desultory pop, unlike in most cases that Cheng offers us, which snap shut like a dropped manhole cover.

The other longer story in the book is ‘Muse’, the second-last story here. In it, Evan Bailey, a widower aged in his late 60s or early 70s, is confronted by his daughter Bea’s girlfriend Edwina. Evan had married the daughter of a prominent Melbourne surgeon, Lola Duvall, and had unfortunately lived up to his father-in-law’s estimation of him, so he is sympathetic to Edwina’s conundrum. Like Edwina, who paints, Evan used to paint and Edwina invites him when the two women visit his house for a meal to come to a life drawing class in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. He goes along and enjoys himself but after a few visits Danielle, the model, is replaced by someone else and he finds he can’t get his line right without her. He follows her home and approaches her brazenly in a video rental store one night, asking if she’s model for him for a fee and she agrees.

When she turns up to begin the session at his spacious house, Evan enters the zone and you get an uneasy feeling as his hubris militates against the sense of justice that Cheng has evidenced in other stories in the collection. When things go pear-shaped, you’re not surprised. The feeling you get at the end of this story is more nuanced and less decisive than you are used to. It reminded me of the rather floury resolution that terminates Cate Kennedy’s 2009 novel, ‘The World Beneath’, which was also a work that, in my mind, lacked the percussive force of the writer's short stories.

With Cheng, it’s as though the longer stories are marred by the remoteness of the resolution from the initial inspiration that began proceedings, like doing a drawing with a piece of chalk attached to the end of a long stick. The chalk comes into contact with the blackboard but the outlines you get are less distinct and fresh than what you get in the shorter stories in the collection.

The book has won a string of prizes, including the 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction, and the accolades she has received are richly deserved. I wonder if she’ll look in future to write a novel, and I wonder how it would turn out if she did. I suspect that her natural length is the impressionistic short short story, whipped up in a brief spate of rapid brushstrokes, as I have outlined here. Would the poetics of the novel suit her unique talent?

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