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Fiction reviews


Michael Wilding - Under Saturn; Viki Wright - The Woman in the Picture

17 November 1988

Under Saturn
Michael Wilding
Black Swan Australia

Viki Wright
The Woman in the Picture

Published in The Age

For those who thought drug-induced left-wing paranoia had disappeared in the aerobic eighties, here is startling, and often blackly amusing, evidence that there are pockets of resistance. Michael Wilding's collection of four starts with the title story, which tells of the relationship between Collier, the main character, and Mel, who primes him, over several bags of dope and many pages, with conspiracy theories concerning the CIA, multinationals, and the police. Collier begins the story as a reasonable sort of bloke, but his paranoia escalates to where every bit of telephone static, every noise in the night, becomes a piece in a gigantic conspiratorial jig-saw.

Wilding's more polished second story, Campus Novel, is the collection's best - but also the hardest to pin down. Like its predecessor it deals with one central male character's responses to a developing situation - in this case the extraordinary behaviour of an English professor under whom the narrator serves. There's usually nothing more boring than stories about academics - apart from stories about writers: however here is an exception. The professor, Edmonds, is probably the most complicated character I've encountered in an Australian short story. His verbal ambiguities, and his psychological inaccessibility, keep his colleagues double- and triple-guessing his motives - and puzzling over his psyche - in a kind of fascinated alarm.

Like the story itself, the professor's pronouncements seem to vibrate on the fine line between great insight and the sheerest bunkum. Eventually, he asks the narrator, and the story asks us, to decide if there's much difference. Here's the narrator talking about the nihilistic Edmonds near the end:

He had lined his walls with the great literature of the past so that within them he could play social games over the ambiguous sherry. He stood in the middle of his room with the small glass held in that immense hand, the books stretching out to all history. I had this flash of the horizonless sea, and in the middle a small rowing boat with no oars; and whether you focussed on the centre or the unbounded boundaries, on the minuteness or the immensity, both were true, both were there, each knew the other. The immense infinite turned back on itself through the narrow aperture of the minutely insignificant. It didn't matter which you chose, each implied the other, and neither implied significance.

See what I mean?

Though he dips his lid to stream-of-consciousness on occasion, Wilding is no stylist. His expression is sometimes cluttered:

And he recoiled from the creative world that had come to seem more and more trivial, its self-referentialism no longer discovery of its own procedures but facile replication of an aged narcissism.

However like other mediocre stylists he relies on a cumulative effect: a slow-building portrait, a psychological realism, which engage us almost despite the words.

VIKI WRIGHT is journalist who has made the leap to "real writing" - as a journalist once described it to me - but doing little in the process to alter her style from that required for the Sunday Telegraph and Weekend Australian, where she once worked.

Rosemary Quilty is a thirty-four year-old mother married to a "brilliant" PR man, who dumps her for another woman. The story takes us through her attempts at re-creating her life after the devastation. It's pacy and superficial for much of the time. The post-separation grief is dealt with in twenty-six words:

The coating of grief which, a few months ago, had seemed to settle permanently onto her life was now beginning to peel off like crisp skin.

That's it until, months after the separation - and well into Rosemary's new life - the author takes us back to the separation, and explores her pain in a way which wouldn't have been out of place in a good American feminist novel of the seventies. I don't like the time-jump - too dislocating - but the emotions were getting more real at last.

But unhappily the book often reverts to its early shallowness. Rosemary feels "strange", and cries on occasion. By the time this paragraph ends we have a diagnosis:

Sexual frustration... usually the fate of teenagers, the widowed, the crippled, the aged and, presumably, nuns. Sexual frustration was not anything she'd been required to experience before. [sic] Once she knew she wasn't going to die she began to cheer up fairly quickly.

The breathless brevity of journalism permeates; and its habit of giving everything equal weight. In a novel this becomes blandness, glibness: superficiality. On the other hand, in her better moments Viki Wright impressed me with her grasp of the minutiae of post-marital life. The new job, the search for a man, the juggling of children's affection between parents: all have a pleasing verisimilitude. The business of having the house taken away; the hopeless attempts to deal with lawyers and insurance men; of being all at sea in a system where sharks rule: all this will ring bells for many readers.

The Women's Weekly meets The Women's Room, at last!

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