I confess I expected the title story in this collection of Beth Spencer’s writing to be concerned with half-truths in private or public life. Near the end of the story, though, I read “in the 70s Fibs bras were all the rage, made in crazy bright new colours – purples, greens and reds”. I should have known “fibs” would have more than one meaning.
The story’s narrator, Angela, both naive and knowingly witty, is recalling the fraught transition into puberty in a time of “big changes all round”; Gough Whitlam announcing “It’s Time!” and the “very educational” television series Number 96. Silences, euphemism and adult attention transform embodiment into something absurd, threatening and promising.
The Age of Fibs is subtitled “stories memoir microlit”. Individual chapters aren’t categorised as fiction or nonfiction. The stories that are ostensibly fictional seem informed by experience, while the nonfiction pieces are complicated by a scepticism towards memory. Spencer isn’t so much concerned with “white lies”, but with the ways in which stories, once told, take on lives of their own, amplifying the possibilities of the imagination or of violence.
In “Fatal Attraction in Newtown”, the narrator has a disconcerting experience watching the 1987 film at the cinema, then finds its central characters appear in real life. Set in 1968, “Daydream Believing” stars a nine-year-old girl thrown from a vehicle and “through the roof of an inconspicuous-looking suburban house”, which “just happened to be the house where The Monkees were staying, incognito, while in Australia”. Just as playful, but much more uncanny, is “The Death of Mr Propinquity”, which follows an archetypally boring man who becomes aware someone is writing a story about him.
Spencer’s writing is most affecting in the longer stories, where the sudden, lyrical shifts of focus – the narrator constrained by conflicting emotions and an ethical reticence – highlight the complex web of patriarchal and familial mythology.
“The True Story of an Escape Artist” is an expansive, ruminative account of growing up and reckoning with inherited roles. The youngest of six, Spencer is “the quiet one, the knitter, the runt of the litter, the skinny one. The one if she turned sideways would disappear”. But it is also about where alternative stories come from. As a child, she crawls under the house “where the earth is polished and dry like the bones sucked clean by the dogs”, a place of safety from which to dream.
Spineless Wonders, 180pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "The Age of Fibs, Beth Spencer".
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