For days now you have been driving across unbroken grassland, which you know you’ll never be able to leave behind forever, no matter how fast you might go, or however deep into the night you persist in your journey. The northern coast of your country is far in the distance and darkness, yet nothing is clearer to you than the knowledge that the plain you once in a while spit into will surely not disappear when it gets to the water. You have faith it will move without interruption through the breakers, even picking up speed across the ocean, until there is no more ocean—and with all the more reality if it takes on a form you could not even begin to comprehend. After so much confusion—the wrack of entire cities on sickening flats of sand—this alone seems certain.
As you fly across the land, constantly accelerating over slicks of water, you are granted once or twice a momentary vision of a greenness of the least degree of intensity, which before it disappears resolves itself into a pale and flowing plain. You see no people on this plain, in the instant before it evaporates, but you can picture yourself there—a vision within a vision—in the easeful company of the men and women you have decided just now to call the world-swimmers. There have been no other cars in either direction for ages. You have nothing left to do but continue. Even the radio falls dead eventually, and in the morning of your last day in Australia, an ungodly silence fills your mind.
On a radio station phone-in program in the Midwest of America, just before dawn on a day never to dawn, a woman is unable to finish reading out the carefully prepared statement she wanted to make on a subject closely related to the death of her husband, a year ago to the very hour. Before the program host can finish telling her, transmitting on a twelve-second delay, that no one could blame her in the circumstances for being reduced to tears, she puts the telephone receiver down next to its cradle, and walks outside into the yard, her last words moving through the icy air of the state on a twelve-second delay.
In a country of the future, a century or more from now, the first of its inhabitants ever to cry is immediately accorded all the privileges of an emperor. She surveys her people through watery eyes. It is said that she has been elevated to tears. Millions of eyes blink all at once in China; for the briefest of moments, an empire is watched over by no one.
Now you are about to come to the end of the beginning of your journey. As its final hours pass by, you wonder even now—the sole occupant of your strangely empty car—how you could ever describe, to a friend or to a friend of a friend, the momentous things that you have already been witness to, along a stretch of road that has never been anything, you feel, but perfectly flat. Entirely new oceans well up in the most delicate furrows of grassland, their waves breaking in and out of being, as fragile as the high clouds of a coastal region.
Once, when you were many years younger than you now are, you sat in a classroom of sunlit air as your geography teacher described the strangeness a plain of grass uninterrupted by roads or cities would have, if it stretched all the way from the boundary of your suburban school—deep in the drowning depths of Australia—to the furthermost point on the earth’s surface. How might one species of grass give way, under the influence of new weathers, as the miles thundered by, to another, and then to another? But think of this, your teacher said, think of this for a moment: is it possible that by a million freaks and faults of nature a single blade of grass of the original variety flourishing between the roads that you, girls and boys, will this afternoon travel home by, could somehow make it all the way—passing through countless species of grass—to where the inhabitants of the most distant region of the world laze and sleep, even in the middle of sunlit days, on soft and nearly pure lawns of velvet?
You have always associated yourself, my driver, with that single blade of grass—a foreign flag of green, born out of your teacher’s late-afternoon imaginings. But you have nothing of any of this in mind now, as the edge of Australia, its vastness awakening to the moon, draws ever closer. Sullenly you are suffering from an almost overwhelming desire to piss, yet you dare not stop the car, and you cannot bring yourself to dirty your clothing. It must wait, you tell yourself, until you can clearly hear the sounds of the beach and the ocean.
In the middle year of a century in China in which the ban on all forms of swimming or water play has once more been lifted, a peasant kneels with bowed head in the middle of a paddy field, to know for the first time around his humped body its slush and splash. After a little while other men come and settle themselves alongside him, their backsides all turned to the sun, experiencing each in their own way the touch of water almost unflowing. The peasant who has set off this communal event is hardly thinking of it as a revolution, as he walks slowly back to his village, long after the dropping of darkness, while other men remain in the paddy field of shallow channels and low ridges, experiencing each in their own way the feel of rice seeds floating between their lips and through the gaps in their teeth. A year later exactly, in Peking, the ageing and weakening Emperor, having just partaken of a lavish meal made up of a single grain of rice plucked from every paddy field in China, suddenly becomes tired of lackeyism and wearisome power. Frightening away the many servants nervously tarrying over the various waters that flow through his palace grounds, he enters the single stream—barely a trickle over grass—that he alone knows will, without a doubt, take him into a river that runs to the ocean. For many days he floats along, the peasants fleeing up the banks at his imperial approach, until he reaches the ocean wherein he wishes finally to die.
As odd waters are swelling within you, the coast comes into view eventually, its sounds rise over the sounds of driving, and you are able to empty yourself of your sour waste at last. It disappears quickly into the earth, and from this you gather that, for every one of the hundreds of miles of your journey, the land has been gradually tapering towards the point where air and land and water must meet, and where the bottom of the land (for such there must be in a place like this) comes to an end. You tell yourself that you can remember even now a firm feel to the ground in the area where you began your trip—an enduring sensation of foundation entirely absent in this place, where even skipping lightly on the spot threatens your old confidence in the security of your footing. What matter lies below this inner-land or under-land, perhaps only inches away from where your car tyres have snugly settled, you do not even begin to think about, least of all when you have the urge to name the ordinary sand dunes you are on—as if you had just discovered them—the Shallows of the Land.
There is no hurry yet to go on. As the strained and pressured parts of your stationary car continue to cool and cool, and the remaining drops of petrol in its tank fly apart like quicksilver, you prepare a bed for yourself, and lie down to begin the most blissful sleep of your life, resting your head on a pillow of weeds. For two days and two nights, you dream of nothing but leaves of grass, circulating slowly through the caves and caverns of the most unknown depths of any of the world’s oceans. Intermittently, you urinate without waking, childishly emptying your body of ancient water. On the morning of the third day, you wake to discover that your car has disappeared, along with all of your clothes, and other belongings. Something once close to you is stealing away. With hands made green by the touching of weeds, you rub the sleep from your eyes. Your face is the colour of a sun almost colourless. Birds fly low and fast through the dry riverways of your veins—wings liquid on the upstroke, pure fire on the down. An ocean, barely tidal, laps at the shelly shore of your heart.
Leaving behind the sandy zone you christened the Shallows of the Land in the last moments before you fell blissfully asleep, finally satisfying your urge to name it, you make for the breakers, where somehow (without your having realised it) things in the long silences of forgotten nights have turned into what they were not. Suddenly you find yourself wading through shallower and shallower wavelets, rather than through water deeper and deeper, and the breakers themselves have become still, as if they were the foothills of the solid sea—holding back the tidal mass of the country—protecting the ocean’s hinterland from death by slow drowning. Depths swirl within you as you begin swimming, easily enough, through rolling waves of grassland. Fish notice, then forget you. The land is calming. You are surprised by its warmth as of blood.
In the final minutes of the eighteenth century, on a damp part of the border between Germany and France undisputed in the course of his lifetime, a young man realises that he has become an official of the State with not a single function left to perform. Immediately, by candlelight, he begins to set down the reasons why he will continue to live and to breathe. His writing becomes salty.
With the coast of Australia not yet out of sight above the turbulence in the turf that forms your wake, you don’t yet have the boldness to call the plain that you are swimming through the Grasslands of the Moon, much as it seems inadequate to think of it as no more than a special region of the ordinary liquid and solid planet upon which you have always lived. You hear a shout once from the shore—a matter of your car, perhaps—but only this and nothing else, and soon the silence enters into the paleness of the place, and overwhelms you. You swim automatically—the Australian crawl—almost as if you have forgotten that you are a man with a man’s nature. Crabs scurry through the dirt; your naked body barely responds to their touch. If you once dived beneath the earth, you would find the roots of the grass swirling and billowing in the currents of the soil. But you do nothing other than swim across the world’s surface, breathing regularly—with nothing left of Australia to bother you now.
The steady rhythm by which your muscles are being exercised goes on without interruption or alteration for many hours, until suddenly you enter into a channel of water that baffles every movement, resisting you rather than, as before, embracing and protecting (like an extra skin grown later in life) every hard and soft part of your body. The comforting swells of the land have given way to wavelets of surface rock, which hurt you in many places, and put sand and grit into your eyes. You think, this is water too thick to be natural. Then somehow you pass through it all, and, as if for you this were a second awakening of the day, you start to think, and to feel, and to act, like a man again.
You concern yourself over a sea shining with every known and unknown colour of the world, green excepted. You muse on an image of the water that collects beneath cathedrals and graveyards, lying still in the earth, it’s said, over centuries—a solace for water-ghosts. You spit a mouthful of dirt high into the air, as you change your stroke to the pull and the kick of the butterfly stroke. The pattern of the wake behind you changes—it’s wider, deeper too—and you can’t help but smile, and shout, and laugh. You are active and free, in a world that is becoming ever more active and free. Seagulls are crying overhead—their tears stinging the ocean into which they are slowly falling—but they are alive, after everything, and you are joyful for it. Every last part of you quickens into greater being, as the waters of your body sustain and nourish the flesh and the tissue of a new season. Young blade that has made it this far—rake, lad, new seed—your body beats the water like a hunter flushing game birds out of grassland.
There are people, the world-swimmers to be sure, not so far off in the distance. The nearest of them, you can see, are surfing on tumbling waves of soil, grass and stones, their tanned faces breaking into brilliant white smiles as they surface through the foaming dirt, their boards wedging into the earth, dripping with sand. For your part, you don’t stop stroking a path through the water, and your view of these fabulous athletes becomes better and better with every rotation of your untiring arms, and with each new pulse and push of your legs.
There is no shore to govern the way the waves form and fall, but there is something that causes them to crest and collapse in the same place every time. Behind this stretch of whiteness, the groups of waiting surfers undulate on what looks to you—as each new wave is born—like a line of hedgerow, or like a rise of thick and knotted grass. Your thoughts rip, then smoothly curl over on themselves (a breaking wave; a still lagoon) and you look closely at just one of the surfers with a changed but settled mind—you see now that he is wearing a wetsuit of ocean mud, with scalloped segments resembling the scales of a fish.
A moment passes away, dies. While still unnoticed, you plunge under, and begin swimming through the petrified remains of ancient city-races—the Melburnians, the Sydneysiders, and deepest of all (of course) the Darwinians—letting balls of water escape from your mouth, and from the pores of your skin, watching sometimes the surfers above you, their legs dangling into the roots of grassland. The sun’s illumination only reaches you like the light from a star on the edge of death and blackness; millions of coming Australian years have blindly passed you by already, down where you are. Somehow all the speed that your vehicle flung out into the plain during your car journey—land kissing water—finds its true counterpart here. You go very much deeper than you expected you would, but within a few minutes you come to the surface of the dry ocean, well behind the surfers, finding yourself among the main mass of the world-swimmers—although, by chance, a little away from the nearest of them. Thus, you remain the unobserved observer, the observer unobserved and secret; a subtle mystery even to yourself; a stain of skin on the green water.
You understand that one of the world-swimmers will have to see you before the night finally comes, and you picture yourself swimming towards them—sometime in the future—clumsily imitating their native stroke. The whole plain seems to be under the influence of a single current now. Beneath a darkening sky, while everything is moving, everything remains relatively as it is. Breasting tiny sets of streaming earth, now and again gently pissing into the grassy water and soil, you give yourself up to the inevitable drift of the land.
Time passes—slivers of grass through an hourglass.
Then the falling sun casts a greenness of the least degree of intensity over the pale and flowing plain, and you notice for the first time a woman looking in your direction, and squinting a little, as if adjusting her eyes to a sight never seen before. Without any hesitation, you start to move towards her, drinking from the sap of the grass that parts before you, thirsty for the world, no more to be a lonely swimmer on the enchanted ocean; the woman is smiling at you, she is smiling and calling to you among the weeds of the water, and you believe that you can see all the way into your future, to the time when you will be known to her and to her many companions as the Last of the Australians, and frequently called upon to talk about the absurd and quaint lives of the peoples of Adelaide and Brisbane and Perth, whenever comparisons are made between the failed societies of the past and the magnificent civilisation of the world-swimmers. And now you are almost into her arms, as stroke for stroke she begins to come towards you as you go on towards her, and her eyes are glowing like oceans of snow, like grasslands of the moon.
* * *
The World-Swimmer is available at selected bookstores and through the author $25.00 postage free: email@example.com
You are noted as saying it’s essential a short story ‘spend time in the foreign territories of the writer before it is midwifed onto the page’. How would you define such territories? What are the roles of time and memory when evaluating accessible life experience versus those moments you’ve yet to fully process?
As a writer I’m happy to receive inspiration and useful insights into creative method from just about anywhere. One book I would recommend to any artist is Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911). Bergson makes a seemingly naïve observation… everything isn’t given all at once. In other words, there is time. But is there really time? Bergson’s point is that our conception of time is such that everything might as well be given all at once. Pre-determining time as a series of static moments, as we tend to do, we always fail to encounter time itself. What is time itself? The existence of time, the fact that everything isn’t given all at once, suggests for Bergson that “Time is invention or it is nothing at all.” The future is always a matter of invention and the past is dead as in “already invented”. On Bergson’s logic artists need to insert themselves into time itself as creation in this sense. To do otherwise is to treat creation as merely the re-creation of the already created, as if, to borrow one of Bergson’s own metaphors, all a painter is doing is returning a jigsaw puzzle to its original state. Great artists tap into the very becoming of time and use it as a resource for true creation. Time, for them, is moment-less not as in without time but as in pure becoming. The test then of originality in all art might be that it produces, out of this flow of becoming, an effect of time never before experienced.
I do not claim to have done anything like this myself! And besides I am only beginning my own adventure with Bergson’s thought as it relates to creative writing. However, I think that I can notice in my writing some indications of what, for Bergson, such an engagement with time itself might consist in—namely, an un-thinking of the usual (time-based) categorisations of our existence. Or an attempt to prise open reality across the grain along which it usually splits. With these ideas in mind I just came across this passage from my short story ‘Nhill’: ‘When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins’. I like the notion of being ‘in sadness’ (rather than simply say ‘feeling sad’) because it opens a chink in sadness out of which may trickle an unfamiliar sense of time. It makes sadness itself into a form of becoming. Similarly, the last part about ‘the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins’ suggests an attempt, at least, to occupy the flow of becoming rather than bear down on it too heavily with timeless modes of writing.
To come back to your question, the ‘foreign territories of the writer’ would by this measure be those places where time is able to go to work on memories by drawing on the resources of that most valuable of things for a writer: his or her own body. Our bodies are an ever-present source of creativity for us as writers. In the simple fact that we are living as we write, we may be put in touch with the becoming of time itself. And, I might add, it is probably in the only half-processed (or apparently so) moments of our experience that we encounter creativity of this order.
How does the body both individuate and collaborate in regards to creative practice? Is writing meditative fiction, in a sense, a solitary writer seeking connection with the reader through the memory of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, and how does the mind shape these senses into a finished story? Equally, how do preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative either help or hinder the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader?
There is an oft-quoted line in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677): ‘The body can do many things by the laws of its nature alone at which the mind is amazed’. What are the limits on the power of the body? Does the body lead the mind or is it led by it?
In your question you mentioned ‘sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste’. These, of course, are all capacities of the body, but in the special sense that they operate as aspects of the interface between the body, any body whatsoever, and the world. In fact, the world is absolutely necessary to the exercise of these capacities. If there were nothing to see we would all be blind…. If there were nothing to taste we could not taste.
In my view, the only creatively useful way to think of the body is in the multiplicity of its possible relations with the world. Even sexual difference is sculpted out of the relations of bodies to the world as a whole. The world, of course, is made up not just of things but also of other bodies: human, insect, animal… and after all don’t we call just about the largest things we can contemplate (suns, stars, moons, planets) heavenly bodies?
How does all this relate to creative writing? It seems to me it’s a question of how and to what extent the senses may be evoked in a piece of writing. Scriptwriting theory tells us that a rounded character is the bridging of the gap between apparent wants and unconscious needs. Perhaps this works in performance, but in writing, for mine, a rounded character is one with a zone of indiscernibility about them. When a reader starts to feel uncertain about where a character ends and where other characters and the world begin, that’s when that character comes to life. Characters then are bodies through and through, as even the mind is woven into the body at every level of existence.
One might even argue that the mind is subservient to the body. Spinoza asks us to consider the case of sleepwalkers and “those things [they] do at which they are surprised when they are awake.” As an aside, I like this idea that creative writing may be like sleepwalking… allowing the body to create art at which the waking mind will be amazed.
Janet Frame warns of the dangers of trying to rid oneself, as a writer, of the demands of the body. In a recent review of Frame’s short-story collection The Daylight and the Dust (2010) I wrote this of her short story ‘Solutions’:
In Solutions, a writer tells of another writer who, ‘bedevilled by the demands of his body . . . decided to rid himself of it completely’. Eventually, all that remains of him is his brain, which, mistaken for a prune, is tossed out by his landlady and eaten by three mice for breakfast, ‘spitting out the hard bits’. In his final state, as pure brain, the writer is left “blind, speechless, deaf”. ‘No one could have divined his thoughts; he himself could no longer communicate them.’ Writers who ignore the contribution the body makes to their writing, Frame seems to be telling us in this collection, might as well be dead.
The absence of body is the absence of the senses (“blind, speechless, deaf”) and the absence of all writing. It is also, as it happens, death.
One reason I like the short-story form so much is because you can do things in it that would perhaps not be tolerated by publishers or readers in a novel. Thus, while I’m not sure how ‘preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative’ could help in ‘the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader’ I don’t regard these preconceptions as particularly a hindrance to such transmission either. (Having said this though, I imagine that there are some bodies out there that do conform, somehow, to ‘preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative’, although for my part I wouldn’t want to be one of those bodies.)
But what of the mind? What is its role? I wonder if mind is what ‘individuates and collaborates’ by seeking connections both within bodies (as in complex characters and complex writers) and across bodies (as in communities of friends, lovers, fellow writers)? For me, creative writing is all about making connections through the senses (in that double sense of using our senses to engage with the world and also allowing the world into ourselves through the portals of the senses… thus becoming in a way what it is that we see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell).
Although, like most writers I imagine, I write alone, and although, unlike many writers perhaps, my characters often appear to be ‘solitary selves’, I am not usually inclined to think of myself or of my characters as isolated or cut-off from the world. There is, if you like, an art to being solitary or alone yet not isolated or cut-off.
In ‘Nhill’ the male protagonist, you could say, is solitary yet not isolated: the sensitivities that connect him to the world and the world to him suggest both other types of non-human connection and, just perhaps, future forms of (better?) human connection. Many of my stories, I suspect, are variations on this pattern.
Sometimes though it goes the other way. In ‘As of Shadows’ the main character is so enmeshed in things—at a certain level—so weighed down by her abject historical situation, that her very lack of a solitary identity makes her isolated in quite a terrible way. She is unable to make connections with others or with the world that would enable her to feel richly alone.
In short, ‘Nhill’ is about being a crowd though being alone, while ‘As of Shadows’ is about being alone in a crowd… only “a counter of countries” in a world impossibly teeming with countries.
Which, in a way, leads on to my next question. What are the limitations of fiction in recreating experience, and do said limitations occur primarily at the point of transcription, or do they surface at every stage of literary engagement, from transcription through to reader reception, and perhaps even literary criticism?
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ springs to mind. Borges describes an Empire of such overweening ambition that it creates a map with a one-to-one correspondence to the territory that it maps. The point of the story is that such a map is useless because it is a map no more. For it has become the unmapped territory itself.
The limitations of fiction in recreating experience are, like the limitations of any map less large than what it maps, quite possibly enabling limitations. Just as the map Borges describes could never be of practical use so any fiction that somehow managed to describe the totality of experience would be useless as a means for reconciling ourselves to experience.
As it happens, my desk is covered with a writing pad that is also a map of the world. The scale of the map is ’1: 64 100 000 AT THE EQUATOR’, whatever that means.
But what is the scale of fiction’s relationship to the world? And do some genres operate on a larger scale than others? Is Naturalism, for example, a closer approximation to the world than say Magic Realism? Or do none of these questions make any sense?
Georges Perec wrote a curious little story, first published in 1979, entitled ‘The Winter Voyage’, about a writer whose work, also called The Winter Voyage, seems to contain quotations from a multitude of famous authors who wrote after him. Perec terms The Winter Voyage a ‘premonitory anthology’.
I am telling you about this story because the name of the author of this fantastical book is Hugo Vernier and a ‘vernier’ or in full ‘vernier scale’ is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, ‘a short movable scale used on various measuring and positioning instruments, by which fractional readings may be obtained from the divisions of an adjacent graduated scale’. The writings that come after The Winter Voyage might thus be interpreted as fractional readings of the ‘premonitory anthology’.
Something similar might apply when we talk about fiction and this thing we call experience. What if there is no experience beyond writing, no world beyond words? What if all writing is like a vernier and/or in relationship to a vernier? What if it’s all just a matter of scaling within language?
My short story ‘The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea’ concludes with an immodest attempt to somehow scale an understanding of experience (within writing, the setting is a bookshop) against the scale of the universe. It could be seen on one level as an attempt to travel to the very edge of fiction in order to ascertain if there is ‘something more’.
On the morning of his departure from Japan, with some time to kill, Mr Simone browsed in the multilingual Narita Airport bookshop. Simultaneously with the first boarding call for his flight coming over the PA, he picked up The Oxford dictionary of philosophy and started flicking through its alphabetical entries. An ancient Greek name caught his eye. He began to read the one-paragraph entry about an inch from the bottom: ‘… is also famous for his proof of the universe’s infinitude’. (A gramophone needle stuck in the last groove of any record, thought Mr Simone, answers this question easily.) ‘The curious man should travel to the edge of the known universe and toss a dart into the darkness. Only two things can happen. It may disappear without trace. It may bounce back. Either way, the boundlessness of the universe is proved. There is always something more.’
Of course there is ‘always something more’, but it is a ‘something more’ that hangs suspended in the sublime abyss between something and nothing. It is a something that could be nothing or anything!
Sometimes I think the fiction we write is like the dart described in this passage, indifferently bouncing back from or disappearing into the maw of experience, telling us very little about what it encounters. Sometimes I think that writing is a very crude instrument for describing or explaining the world or even, as Perec suggests, that it only ever recreates other writings in scaled-down or scaled-up versions, which are geometries that make little sense in the face of the ‘boundlessness of the universe’.
Better writing, though, than a boundless map…
Indeed. And yet despite such constraints or limitations, the written word, at its best, continues to confound, engage, and evoke strong political, emotional, and intellectual responses from the reader. The Oulipo Movement of the 1960’s (which included Georges Perec, as well as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, among other writers and mathematicians) seemed to see writing as both freedom and limitation, and indeed described potential literature as ‘the seeking of new structures and patterns to be used by writers in any way they enjoy’. Here, I’m selling their work criminally short: among other things, they played with palindromes, lipograms, and even chess formulas to create new and exciting narratives.
Your work, at least to this particular writer, seems to take the Oulipo spirit as one of its departure points, and if there’s one thing I noted about The World Swimmers, it’s a willingness to showcase rather than summarise, by which I mean you’re willing to see each story as its own point of departure. In West’s world, there is no necessary need for an overarching connectivity between narratives; your stories hint at both solitude, connectivity, and even the malleable nature of time, but all do this in such different ways that there’s a necessary divide between them.
If one, then, was to accurately sum up Patrick West, the writer, what would be the necessary themes, preoccupations, and motivations to be cited? More importantly, how do you see that particular trajectory informing your work that’s still to come?
At the Melbourne launch of The World Swimmers Paul Carter suggested that, though there is considerable geographic range across the stories of my collection, I am not really writing about places themselves so much as about the senses by which we encounter place. Or by which we encounter anything at all for that matter.
This was something I hadn’t really thought of myself until Paul pointed it out, but once he’d said it, it seemed suddenly obvious. I would add that it is not only senses as in the senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on that are in play here. I realize now, on the evidence of my own stories, that I am a writer interested potentially in all of the infinite number of ways by which humans have sensations of the world and of themselves.
To ‘re-sense’ the world and/or yourself, as it were, one has to do what you suggest in your question: ‘showcase rather than summarise’. For when you ‘summarise’ you take much more for granted than perhaps you should as a writer. Realism as a form tends to summarize in its very foundations. Effectively it says, here is a world that we share, now let’s create a story within that world. The story told may be truly fascinating but it will probably not suggest new ways of sensing the world. It won’t re-create it, make it over. The conventions of language Realism employs won’t allow that.
I like what you say about the Oulipo Movement and writerly experimentation. My writing is sometimes referred to as experimental too (I have a fondness for chiasmus that I couldn’t even begin to explain!). But I hope that what my experimental writing explores is not experimentation for its own sake (something that would be remote from the preoccupations of the everyday world) but experimentation as a way of discovering and perhaps even interrogating other possible ways of sensing.
Experiments of language (which in one very powerful sense at least is all that writers have to work with) may create opportunities for different ways of sensing ourselves and the world of which we are a part. And in these opportunities, to return to an earlier theme of our discussion, there will almost inevitably be new modes of time as an expression of new modes of becoming or being in the world. All of these themes—language experimentation, the sensing of the world, the sensing of oneself, time itself, notions of living—are contained in this paragraph from ‘The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea’:
Mr Simone crossed the room and placed his palms down flat on the window sill. Distractedly, with just the tips of his fingers, he nudged what he thought of as only some value-less trinkets. Finally raising both hands, he took the smallest of these objects into his grasp, felt its lightness. Replacing it in its original position after several minutes, Mr Simone then turned away. He was never to know of this thing’s aliveness. There is a species of insect that hibernates trustingly in the open the length of the Japanese winter. Now, spring was just around the corner. The thing uncurled itself a fraction on the window sill. Pray mercy, the birds …
The ‘point of departure’ for this story is Mr Simone’s lack of awareness of ‘this thing’s aliveness’. I hope and imagine that ideas of what it means to be alive—the spectrum from deepest death to fullest life—will continue to preoccupy me in my future writings. And that, perhaps, if I’m lucky, some odd notions of how to sense ourselves and the world differently will slide off the page and take up their place in the world and in our bodies. To make that happen, though, in my view, one needs to engage in concentrated experimentation. One needs to sweep away the ‘taken for granted’ and, almost, to un-learn the lessons that we don’t even know we have learned. For these lessons obscure the new.
Short stories are their own particular art form. Like poetry, they are often the expression of an idea or a mood or a character. A distillation of a thought into prose. As a result, a collection of short stories can often feel a bit like a rollercoaster. Every few pages everything changes – the tone, the voice, the mood, the narrative style – and can often leave the reader disconcerted, longing for a lengthier narrative and characters with which they can connect more fully.
The World Swimmers, a collection of nine short stories by Patrick West, has this disconcerting nature. The stories are on the whole very short: quick dips in and out of a varied set of lives and situations. Many are thought provoking and disconcerting all on their own, never mind when they start bumping up against each other. And yet, unlike many bodies of collected work, there is a cohesion here, a pattern that emerges as you step back from the individual pieces and consider the whole.
The World Swimmers displays a wide range of styles of narration and voice, many of which border on the poetic and abstract. Most are first person narratives from wildly different narrators (a modern day Australian man, a 19th century Hungarian trainee midwife, a female Japanese research student). Others play with second person but in different styles.
That said, this group of stories is very strongly linked thematically. In almost all of the stories the main character/narrator is an outsider, a person out of their comfort zone or fighting against conformity. In “Greenwood” it is the boy from a “special school for boys” unable to fit in a mainstream class. In “Dear Semmelnazi” the narrator is a would-be midwife in 19th century Hungary shunned after she has to take care of a little boy who himself grows up to buck futilely against the establishment. And in “As of Shadows” the main character starts by telling us that she is “one of those few people born in the country in which I should have been born”. These characters are not alone but they are outsiders, some deliberately so.
West is also interested in boundaries and borders – the area where one thing or place becomes another – and their effect on people. Many of the stories are set on the coast, where the land meets the sea (including a couple of inland seas), or have the coast as a destination. The beautiful “Nhill” charts a walk into Victoria’s little desert “different from the surrounding countryside”. After their walk to the salt lake at the heart of the desert the narrator and his wife are physically “ejected” by the place, reinforcing its otherness. In “Shame” a Japanese researcher is told a story of a rare tree that now only grows within a fence surrounding an American army base. She replies that “this type of tree was now as good as extinct for the Japanese as it is no longer a reality for the Okinawan people; they could neither see it nor touch it.” The main character in “As of Shadows” becomes a border guard but the real border that she wishes to patrol is the border between what people are and what they should be.
There are some breathtaking stories in The World Swimmers and some bewildering ones. “U”, for example, is a palindromic story, set by the shore, its ascending and descending repetition work like a tidal pull. Not all of the stories worked and some defied me, but there is a poetry here and some enduring imagery that make even these worth the journey. The stories that do work in this collection are transformative, changing the way you look at or feel about the world, though not always in a way that is immediately obvious.