Books

Cover of book: New Australian Fiction 2022

Suzy Garcia (ed.)
New Australian Fiction 2022

Anthologies such as Kill Your Darlings’ New Australian Fiction have a long and necessary prehistory. In continental Europe and Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “little magazines” were established to showcase writing that disobeyed the public taste – then as now – for mass-market fiction published by large commercial concerns.

Little magazines aimed at a coterie audience. Cheaply produced and irregular in appearance because of financial pressures, they died early and often only to be reborn under another editor or a new name. But in their concentration on experiment and new voices, they proved fertile seedbeds for writers who were to become canonical figures in Modernist literature.

And so it proves today. Kill Your Darlings’ anthology series, drawn from about 300 submissions this year, may be a more handsome object thanks to modern printing technology, yet it still curates new voices that would otherwise face headwinds getting published in a mainstream publishing environment.

New series editor Suzy Garcia takes the reins from longstanding KYD editor Rebecca Starford, but otherwise the method remains the same. It’s female heavy, with 10 women to three men and two queer or non-binary contributors. This is a diverse crowd, both in terms of background and geography.

Jasmin McGaughey, for example, is a Torres Strait Islander who is also African American and currently based in Brisbane. Her story, “Oxygen”, describes the slow crumbling of dignity experienced by a young Black female trainee at an accountancy firm. Narrator Bonnie finds her workplace a minefield of microaggressions and casual racism – nothing overt, just a slow accumulation of toxins that obliges her to first hide deep inside herself, then to flee the office for a nearby beachside cabin and rented surfboard. Out on the water, suspended in that oceanic womb, she recalls the early idyll of her family life on ancestral islands to the north.

If there is a plangency to the simple life recalled by Bonnie in “Oxygen”, the Brooklyn-based Chinese–Australian author Whitney Chen is claws-out savage. “Audition” describes the absurd and humiliating process by which a cast is chosen for a Big Brother knockoff. In Chen’s telling, it’s a parade of grotesquery and virtue signalling – a pantomime for the end times.

Our unnamed narrator is a character deftly pitched between victim and perpetrator. At the story’s outset she has been let go from her job at an artisanal pizza place in North Brooklyn: a turn of events she can take in her stride, since “I am young and hot and able to reinvent myself.” Within a sentence, however, we learn this assessment is second-hand – borrowed from a former boss who once told her she was photogenic as he curled his hand around her thigh.

Having googled her way to an open audition for a show based on a seafront pier house nearby, the narrator describes her day-long efforts to join the cast. There she observes, with equal parts horror and naked ambition, a tug of war between the exultation of selfhood demanded by reality TV and the toxic culture of exploitation that surrounds it. The resulting tale is tense, febrile and occasionally hilarious. But our laughter is checked by the continual sense of outsider status the narrator carries with her. As an Asian woman among a plethora of plastic Anglo beauties, she is “cosmopolitan” and therefore a threat.

Contemporary interest in identity is not the only strand of story-making here. Other fictions, set closer to home, relish experimentation. The anthology’s opener, “The Smaller of Two Tomatoes” by Elizabeth Tan, imagines an ordinary Australian Sunday during a heatwave, in which the suburban streets of an unnamed city begin to fill with the risen bodies of children who have died by misadventure.

A young woman eating salad on her verandah is stunned by the mass visitation. She helps one boy in his journey back to the home he disappeared from years before, and in doing so is obliged to ask why her own dead child – the result of an unwanted early pregnancy – has not returned.

Perth-based Tan manages the difficult task of making this large-scale necromancy seem a perfectly natural occurrence. By soft-pedalling the story’s more fantastic elements, she leaves room for authentic, real-world emotional states to be shown with fresh clarity. She intensifies feeling by understating its other-worldly inspiration.

Jack Vening explores darker and more ludic territory in his “Goodbye to the Body” – a story that reads as if Franz Kafka were brought in as a last-minute script doctor for Weekend at Bernie’s. It’s an account of a drunken dinner at a Chinese restaurant involving the narrator, his weird cousin and a corpse, which descends into karaoke and murder by drowning. It’s one of those stories where the ideas deployed run slightly in advance of your ability to synthesise them. There is meaning, but only glimmering beyond the narrative horizon.

Some of the strongest pieces come towards the anthology’s end. There’s Will Cox’s quietly paced yet unpredictable tale of sobriety and rekindled love, “In the Room”. And Bobuq Sayed’s fable of thieving jinns in suburban Perth is powerfully felt, even in its craziest moments. Melanie Saward’s “Grace” has, in its small story of local ecocide, an earthy, eloquent command of Strine.

If we’re looking for a future Katherine Mansfield or Ezra Pound, however, we should turn to Melbourne poet and author Chloe Wilson’s “Lifestyle Creep”. It is a story carefully lacking in earnestness told from the perspective of a deluded aesthete with a love of Italian leather shoes, a serious credit-card problem and a caravan for a home. He has no redeeming features, in other words; or very few. But the story – sly, poised, furiously lucid in its unfolding – furnishes all the virtues its narrator lacks and many more besides.

Kill Your Darlings, 215pp, $24.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 10, 2022 as "New Australian Fiction 2022, Suzy Garcia (ed.)".

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