When There’s Nowhere Else to Run
There’s a minor revival under way in Australian short fiction so it’s timely that the 2015 winner of The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for the best unpublished manuscript by a writer under 35 is Murray Middleton, for his collection When There’s Nowhere Else to Run.
Middleton’s stories aren’t the high-octane, high-conflict, high-concept variety we’ve had from writers such as Abigail Ulman, Ceridwen Dovey or Ryan O’Neill. They’re lacking the word-perfect polish of a Nam Le story; some of the prose is surprisingly clunky. They don’t have the emotional high points or lyricism of a work by Cate Kennedy.
These deficiencies, though, lead to Middleton’s greatest strength. His craft might be a little patchy, but there’s nothing contrived about When There’s Nowhere Else to Run. There’s no formula, no cynicism, and no self-reflective irony in these genuine, gently melancholic stories about normal people living normal lives.
In “I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me”, a married couple spends a weekend in the country after the wife reveals she’s had an affair. “But I thought about it,” the husband says, about an opportunity he had to stray, years before. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The problem was, I couldn’t imagine actually going through with it without breaking down into tears. That’s what I don’t understand. How did you manage to do it without crying?”
In “The Greatest Showbag on Earth”, a man takes his children to the Easter Show without his wife. On the giant slide, “…Charlotte picks up more speed than Josh. Her high-pitched screaming is the only sound I hear in the whole showgrounds. I watch her small, innocent body ride the pink undulations and I realise why I love her the most. She’s the only person I know who looks at me and doesn’t see an object of pity.”
Even when Middleton’s stories do touch on momentous events, it’s still the day-to-day details that interest him. In “The Last Trout that Richard Bought for Alice”, Richard’s fishmonger complains about Carlton football players and their lack of desperation. “I’d play for free,” he says. “Honest to God. Just to show them what it’s all about. You can’t buy heart, my friend, not human heart anyway.”
In When There’s Nowhere Else to Run, Murray Middleton is not afraid to show us his heart. The fishmonger’s right – you can’t buy that. LS
Allen & Unwin, 256pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Murray Middleton, When There’s Nowhere Else to Run". Subscribe here.