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Fiction reviews


Helen Daniel (ed.) - Expressway

21 October 1989

edited by Helen Daniel

Published in The Age

Perhaps on the principle of "I'll try anything once", two dozen of Australia's best writers, and a few of its worst, accepted Helen Daniel's invitation to write a story based on their reactions to Jeffrey Smart's 1962 painting, "Cahill Expressway", which depicts a fat man in a blue suit standing on the verge of the aforementioned.

Daniel's Introduction explains everything one could, should and probably will experience in the reading, and thus could, should and probably will be skipped. Equally dispensible are the instructions at the end of each story:

Countertheme: go to Rodney Hall
Fugue: go to Kate Grenville's "Joan Makes History"
Discord: go to Amanda Lohrey

And so on. When the MSO gives us Bach in chapters, paragraphs and sentences we may need to fight back with literature arranged in musical schemata. Until that evil day, however, such impropriety should probably be avoided.

But some of the stories are very good. On the first reading, my two favourites were Rod Jones' The Ulcer and Morris Lurie's Art is Dangerous, Not So? Jones' story - narrated by a man in a mental institution - confirms the rare talent that the first half of Julia Paradise promised. His psychological intuition - his unself-conscious exploration of the shadow side of human life - have set Rod Jones well apart from the pack at the outset of his career. Lurie's story is a bit of half-bridled lust which is erudite (it happens in an art gallery) and uncommonly witty. Lurie's story appears at the beginning and the end of the book. The first version is narrated by a man, the second by a woman, and they present some nice insights into male, then female, sexuality.

Gerald Murnane fans will, as usual, need to see their hypnotists after reading his contribution: but Finger-web is as funny as it is entrancing. David Malouf's Second Time Round is more a vignette than a story. Lucky, the narrator, rambles on about his weight (considerable), his marriage (dead), his son (hopeless) and Relativity (tricky). Toward the end it reads like Con the Fruiterer musing on the nature of time and space. One presumes the author knocked this one over between putting on his pajamas and switching off his bedlamp one evening. But that's alright: I'd probably read David Malouf's shopping lists if they were published.

The authors who don't ignore the expressway altogether generally touch on it obliquely. Only Peter Corris rejects subtlety - it's not his bag anyway - and gives Expressway Man a role, as opposed to a cameo: that of a drug dealer. His account of a coke-snorting tennis pro helping the police to nab Mr Big is the best-plotted, and most inventive, in the book. Barry Dickins is in his usual good form. He writes about fiftes Melbourne - a bottomless subject if ever there was one:

Mrs Robertson loved everyone and she was sacked for reasons unstated by Mr Hall, the Head of the State School... She was also sacked from the Sunday School. She also killed herself.

Barbara Hanrahan's story, on piles, will have proctologists riveted. Michael Wilding is, as usual, easy to underrate at first, but ultimately rewarding. Garry Disher's Love and Grudges is the most ambitious story in the book, and so difficult to read that I initially wrote it off as a failed experiment. Disher's tale of a man-woman-child trio trying to disentangle themselves from criminal relationships is impressionistic (i.e. it leaves out facts that writers are not meant to); is sometimes written like a film treatment, and sometimes not; is written from alternate points of view; and contains several alternate endings. All of which seems a recipe for disaster. For me, however, a patient second reading was like a revelation: Disher's jagged modernist symmerty is quite beautiful - and confirms, at last, that he is heir to Hal Porter's mantle: that of the best short story writer in the country.

Although Expressway seems to contain its fair share of first drafts, rejects and drunken scribblings, it could possibly be used as a primer for Australian literature, such a cross-section of our writers does it cover. Helen Daniel envisions something Even Larger:

I recognised that I was looking at a new kind of fiction, perhaps a new literary form... The man in the blue suit I see as a multiple character who keeps appearing and reappearing in different forms and guises, like a series of metamorphoses or a chameleon figure who changes colour and shape... A figure full of contradictions and paradoxes, he exists in many locations and dislocations at once... this chameleon character was created by twenty-nine writers, each one...part of the writing of a collective novel.

The Introduction contains much hyperbole of this kind. This is what really happens: The man in the blue suit hardly rates a mention from story to story. In this very disparate collection there is no common theme, plot or character. Some stories are interesting, and about three can truly be described as excellent. A large minority, when you consider the trees that fall annually to support the Australian book industry, are quite environmentally unsound.

Daniel's strong insistence that we do not read the stories in order reminds me of of similarly "mind-freeing" exercise I once endured at a performance of my daughter's drama group. In the name of audience participation (a.k.a. spreading the blame) parents were forced to embrace one another in various changing, gymnastic poses. I ended up in a clinch with a four-foot-six Greek widow, clad in black from head to foot - whose opinion of my navel seemed to approximate my own of her bun. Whilst the experience undoubtedly hastened my progress to therapy, and hers to the family crypt, it confirmed for me that people cannot be forced to enjoy themselves.

I don't normally think litterateurs have any more right to inflict their experiments on us than scientists do. However with an editor who is (for all my whingeing) as well-read as Daniel, and a collection of writers of this calibre, it would be churlish to say it shouldn't have happened.

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