Books

Bernard Cohen
When I Saw the Animal

Bernard Cohen’s When I Saw the Animal is a bit of a pig’s breakfast: a thin potage of leftovers, scraps, mystery offcuts and, yes, occasional meaty nuggets. Here you’ll find more than two decades of literary leavings all mixed in to make what you will.

There are droll tales of bad marriages and fractious families. There are bright little études and rather dimmer experimental pieces. There are lightweight stories about mix-ups and misunderstandings and there are pages of notes towards some meditative travelogue. Not to mention prose poems and assorted stray lines purporting to be snatches of overheard conversation.

In “Orangeade” there’s an egotistical 20-something trying to engineer a birthday hook-up. It was included in The Best Australian Stories 2002 and makes that seem like a long time ago. In “Waltzing Matilda” we get the death of the Jolly Swagman as told by the troopers. This, too, from the same period, seems dated. In the swagman elegy, one of the witnesses to the unfortunate incident of the jumbuck at the billabong explains to an unmoved audience:

I was merely trying to illustrate a sense of the solemnity of his crime and to prefigure his tragic end. But if your foreshortened attention spans will only bear the abridged version, that’s what I’ll give you.

This consciously pompous roundaboutness is typical of Cohen’s comic style. He makes good use of it in “ClickBait”, a jokey skit in which the characters talk only in BuzzFeed headlines, but the manner has become ingrown and is too often an end in itself. His obsession with graceless verbal constructions is central to this debilitating habit. Remarks are not made with purpose but “purposively”. One character “sarcasts” inwardly to himself, another is caught “annecdoting”. There’s always a glitch in the code, a catch in the gears, a dissonant clanging – or should we say “clangouration”?

Cohen has an original imagination and his longer exploratory fictions can be very funny. His first novel, Tourism (1992), is a clever mocking guide to the small towns of Australia, and his most recent, The Antibiography of Robert F. Menzies, won the 2015 Russell Prize for Humour Writing. The stories here are original enough but they’re not terribly funny. They are, to quote Cohen himself, “badly distinctive”. Perhaps this collection of orts and sweepings is merely a preparatory purge before he tackles some more daringly eccentric project.  JR

UQP, 248pp, $22.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Bernard Cohen, When I Saw the Animal". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JR