It’s quite the ballsy thing for a writer to name-drop Raymond Carver smack-bang in the middle of their own collection of short stories, and almost a direct challenge when they do it more than once. “Carver, that’s advanced,” remarks an impressed teacher in one of Jennifer Down’s vignettes, after a bored teenager describes the short-story master’s work as mostly involving “unhappy couples who drank too much and argued”. The reader is automatically invited to make an arch correlation. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ unfortunate mentions of both Kurt Cobain and Bowie in their syrup-dumb “Californication” springs to mind as a classic example.
But there’s enough solid storytelling in Down’s portrait of domestic survival to merit a favourable comparison. Like Carver, she chooses to turn over her often suffering, bereft subjects and display their pale, flabby bellies to an audience. Like Carver, she delicately slices an in-and-out point for her character-driven stories without heavy emphasis on drama or “big finishes”. She’s a gentle observer who feels for the people in her tales of love lost and love survived.
Pulse Points is not a light and fluffy collection, nor is it weighted heavily by doom and high tumult. Down gently and carefully portrays the pragmatism of human suffering – the “small daily dramas” of our complex existence. There’s a bleak ribbon woven through these pages – Down’s characters deal with cancer, suicide, sexual assault, miscarriages, drug addiction, mental health issues – yet it’s anything but depressing.
Down makes excellent, efficient work of language, and this is never more evident than when 85 pages in she suddenly and without warning plonks the reader into a story with an American narrator. This is dangerous territory for an Australian writer, not least when the preceding pages have been peppered with familiar landscapes and cadence, but she deftly succeeds without appearing like a struggling local actor attempting a New York twang.
This is a finely crafted collection that reminds us how sad and beautiful it is simply to be alive. Down’s debut novel, Our Magic Hour, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing and she was named a 2017 SMH Best Young Australian Novelist. It’s probably insulting to comment upon how young she is, but the emotional depth of her writing displays a gift that will no doubt continue to unfold as her body of work grows. Carver would have toasted her success. KR
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Jennifer Down, Pulse Points ". Subscribe here.