You enter the hedge maze planted with lilly pilly shrubs. Dead end follows dead end as each twist and turn yields more of the same. You begin to get weary. And then there’s something remarkable. Right at the end of the labyrinth, waiting like an oracle or a punchline that baffles comprehension, you discover a live zebra calmly grazing, absolutely content and unexpected.
Well – without wanting to be cute – this is something like the experience of reading Debra Adelaide’s second collection of short stories. The first 13 pieces are alright. They’re simple and practised, with a wry sense of life’s everyday trials. Taken together, though, they can seem a bit facile, maybe a bit too much the same.
The final story in the collection – the title story, which at well over a hundred pages is actually a novella in its own right – is altogether different.
It’s a fantasticated satire about a prime minister who transforms the country she governs then falls in love with her executive assistant, and it’s compellingly bizarre. The narrative goes in all directions or none at all. It drifts on clouds of whimsy, gently bumping along, mixing and matching romantic comedy and political pipedreams and parable.
It’s surreal, it’s silly and it’s splendid fun. And, of course, it has a maze and a zebra: the placid beast is sent to the prime ministerial Lodge by a bankrupt Texan zookeeper, and it radiates benign power like a charm and enchants the country into renaissance.
The rest of the stories are not dull but are less engrossing. There are light and funny magazine-fillers and heavier, more moralistic old reliables. The weakest pieces seem spun from jottings – a sarcastic lament for migraine sufferers is in this category – while the better ones are more immersive and make familiar things seem subtly changed.
There’s “The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise”, for example, about a refugee boy in an offshore detention centre who becomes the camp barber. We recognise the place and the desperation of its inmates, but there’s a kind of weird brightness shining beneath the palm trees and barbed-wire fences that makes us wonder if miracles might be possible.
In most of the stories in this collection a voice of cheerful irony prevails. It’s that of a buoyant middle-aged woman of the suburbs, divorced or wishing she were. One woman dreams with eidetic clarity that she is burying a body in the backyard with her former husband. Another is abandoned at a bar when her date rushes off to buy her a book of poetry. And then there’s one whose young son is admitted to a cancer ward. Even here, though, in the hospital, the voice stays defiant and chirpy:
And the tears, how much could she weep! Would that she would dry up, but no, it was the reverse, as if inside all her cells were bailing water, preparatory to jumping ship themselves.
These characters, whatever trials and tribulations they suffer, are enthusiastic for life and its distractions. They notice the little things, such as the poignancy of an old garden shed or a badly patched crack in a brick wall or an abandoned CD rack outside a charity store. Or this description of the cake-cutting at a child’s birthday, a Walser-like miniature:
We pushed the knife in, knocking the turret down altogether into the excellently slimy moat (green and blue jelly combined). Oscar had supplied Lego maidens which fell into the jelly while all the knights on the wafer drawbridge dropped as one. The kids cheered and hoorayed again.
The second to last story, “Wipe Away Your Tears”, is about a woman who accompanies her sentimental fool of a husband to Gallipoli and there finds herself unexpectedly moved almost to tears by Atatürk’s famous inscription on the memorial at Anzac Cove. Later, after discovering that he may not actually have written them, she feels cheated. But why should she? After all, someone assured the mothers of Australia that their sons had become Turkey’s sons. Does it matter whether it was Atatürk himself or one of his ministers or a Turkish journalist? Perhaps it shouldn’t, but somehow it does.
Even that story, though, with its subtle probing of the relationship between fact and fiction, authenticity and invention, ultimately seems a bit pat. The woman has her epiphany and realises that she’d rather not be with her husband. Maybe she’ll travel by herself, then go to community college.
It comes off as formulaic, too much like the way short stories are meant to finish, and is typical of the overall glib tone of this collection. Even the fact that the stories are grouped according to whether they’re written in the first, second or third person is somehow offputting, as if they were so many five-finger exercises.
“Zebra”, though, has a hypnotic lure that goes beyond craft. It comes off as free and somehow guileless. And it’s funny and deadpan. It has a family resemblance to the slightly cracked fables of Wayne Macauley – such as the novella Caravan Story – but is really one of a kind.
All the incidental characters – the gardener, the cook and the security staff – have politico-allegorical names such as Kerr, Therese, Bob, Hazel and Billy. Lake George seems to be just around the corner. And the neighbour is surreptitiously moving the fence and stealing land from The Lodge. Is this satire or fancy?
Meanwhile, the miracle-multiplying unsleeping leader who still does her own shopping wanders though her sprawling garden like the benevolent potentates of yore, admiring her peonies and her zebra, telling how she stood up to the coalmining industry and crushed the gun lobby, and marvelling at the moistly warm lips of her young assistant whose name is Malcolm.
Well, it’s a fantasy, a progressive utopia that barely connects with the real world. And it’s so airy and mild and unreasonable that you can’t but smile at the joy of it, turning away from the deep feelings of disappointment it must cover.
Picador, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Debra Adelaide, Zebra". Subscribe here.