The State of Australian Reality: Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories

Posted on September 19, 2017 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by David Thomas Henry Wright
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

Roanna Gonsalves’ The Permanent Resident and Anthony Macris’ Inexperience and other stories are both short(er) story collections. Both were published in 2016 by University of Western Australia Publishing. Both explore contemporary definitions of Australian-ness and all that does (and does not) entail. Both highlight the importance and necessity for the short(er) story form as a requisite cultural space to reconfigure and reimagine the kaleidoscopic possibilities of Australian reality and fiction.

Australian permanent residents are holders of a P.R. visa who may remain in the country indefinitely, but are not citizens. Such status is the circumstance (or goal) of the numerous Sydney Goan Catholics of Gonsalves’ collection, The Permanent Resident. These characters include: a recent divorcee who has a boozy night out; a medical receptionist who debates taking the blame for a doctor’s mistake, and a woman who struggles to find Sichuan peppercorns at a local shopping centre on Easter morning. To summarise these stories is to reduce them to a list of everyday events mixed with a few scandalous headlines. Yet Gonsalves has an incredible ability to make these seemingly mundane actions utterly surprising: not only her protagonists’ choices, but the moral judgement she bestows upon them.

‘Curry Muncher 2.0’, for example, details the events surrounding Vincent, an international student from Bombay who is brutally beaten at a train station. Beyond the cruelty and kinesis of the violence, it is the perspective and eventual epiphanies of the narrator (also an international student, a co-worker in the same Indian restaurant who lives in the same Sydney suburb) that inflict the deepest impression. Reflecting on Vincent’s physical and verbal abuse, the narrator undermines the insult ‘curry muncher’, noting: ‘The way I understood it, curry, being a liquid, could be eaten with rice or one could even drink it as one did rasam and even sambhar. But there was no way one could munch curry as if it were a biscuit.’ (59) Later, when attempting to find a police station to report the crime, the injured Vincent refuses to let her walk home. The narrator notes: ‘I could not argue with the chivalry of a victim’. (62) Such narratorial wisdom, the delivery of which fluctuates between humourous and heart-breaking, pervades all stories in the collection, conferring them with aching poignancy. Tragicomic observations mixed with the occasional impressionistic metaphor illumine her characters’ entire souls. In ‘CIA (Australia)’, for example, the narrator describes the Aussie accent ‘like a waterfall, unable to be captured as it rushed over a rocky precipice’. (93) On occasion, this combination of specific detail, confident minimal action, intimate perspective, defamiliarised locale, and a penchant for the mot juste matches Alice Munro at her best.

‘The Teller in the Tale’ depicts the difficulty (literally and figuratively) for immigrants to comprehend and incorporate the narratives of their parents. The story echoes (or rather, is a variation on) the events in Nam Le’s Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice (2012).[1] The collection also includes notable experiments. ‘Christmas 2012’, for example, is a wry portrait of an Australian-Indian family sitting down to an ‘Australian’ Christmas dinner. ‘First Person’, a piece of flash fiction, scrambles text from randomly selected tourist websites providing information about Indigenous culture. The result is an effective meditation on the fogginess of contemporary understanding of Indigenous communities.

For the most part, however, Gonsalves’ collection opts for realism (in the Chekhovian sense of the word), and in this regard The Permanent Resident is a resounding success. In Two Directions for the Novel, Zadie Smith writes:

In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene. These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.[2]

Like most of Gonsalves’ collection, Macris’ Inexperience and other stories begins with a similar approach towards lyrical realist narrative, but mid-way abandons these conventions.

This is a curious work that defies typical classification. The first half of the book, titled ‘Inexperience’, depicts the relationship struggles of a middle-class Australian couple as they attempt to travel through Europe. The second half, titled ‘Quiet Achievers’, is broken into three ‘other’ stories. The first, ‘Nest Egg’, details with great pedantry and relentlessness the narrator’s plan to save (or hoard) money. The second, ‘Triumph of the Will’, follows a shopkeeper’s struggles as a recently erected mall steals his customers and devours his profits. The final story, ‘The Quiet Achiever’, depicts the visits to a clinic where the narrator’s cousin has been driven to a nervous breakdown by the failure of his business.

The acknowledgements page reveals that the text has been assembled from works written and published in various journals (Southerly, Australian Writing Now, Antipodes, etc.) over the course of several years. The novella ‘Inexperience’ convenes three short stories: ‘The Ham Museum’, ‘Cloudscape with Cassette Tape and Duracells’, and ‘Sydney-Madrid’. While at times the bricolage is noticeable, the novella follows the conventions of traditional realism. An Australian couple go to Spain (via Aeroporto Leonardo da Vinci) and then Paris. Upon arrival, the narrator delights at the stylish Italian toilets, relishing his ability to piss in and on style. But European tourism, like his relationship and ironic sense of humour, fails to deliver. On the level of drama (and indeed, on the level of travelogue), the work is satisfying enough. But when contrasted with the accompanying short story cycle, the first section takes on a deeper sadness. The magic of Inexperience and other stories lies in its wider construction and contrasts.

Towards the end of ‘Inexperience’, the narrator writes: ‘you didn’t have to work so hard to be middle class in Australia. Being middle class in Europe looked like a real chore, with bad weather to boot’. (107) In a traditional novel, this would be the end of the first act of a romantic tale or a potent educational moment in the development of a Bildungsroman. In Inexperience’, however, the story simply ends with a bittersweet tierce de Picardie as the narrator recalls happier moments from his failed relationship. In the stories that follow, romance as well as classical notions of ‘character’ are abandoned. Inexperience and other stories describes itself as ‘a novella and accompanying story cycle’. Certainly, the works that follow ‘Inexperience’ provide accompaniment, or perhaps counter-melodies, to the initial refrain. The voice that emerges, constructing the hypothetical ‘nest egg’, can barely be regarded as ‘fiction’; it is reminiscent of the paragraphless prose of Thomas Bernhard or William Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape (2002), an extended bombast of stream-of-consciousness that depicts ‘the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look’.[3] One even wonders if the protagonist of ‘Inexperience’ is still narrating. Is he also the subject of ‘The Quiet Achiever’? Or does the text simply have an evolving style and force of its own?

‘Triumph of the Will’ differs again, depicting a down-on-his-luck character, similar to Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, [4] though the beauty of the character seems absent. As Bellow’s novella (and indeed, The Permanent Resident) shows, the classical conventions of literary realism still have much to offer. The ‘Quiet Achievers’ half of Inexperience and other stories, however, is decidedly not romantic, thus setting up contrasts within the work as a whole, making it all the more tragic.

While The Permanent Resident displays the power of lyrical realism as a mode to depict Australian reality, Inexperience and other stories hints at new perspectives for the literary form. In addition, the daring combination of tradition and experimentation displayed in both collections emphasises the extent to which the short story form is taking the forefront in leading Australian literary culture.

 

[1] Nam Le, The Boat. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2008.
[2] Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind. Hamish Hamilton: London, 2009, 71.
[3] William Gaddis, Agapē Agape. Viking Penguin: New York, 2002, p 2.
[4] Saul Bellow, Seize the Day. Viking: New York, 1956.

The Permanent Resident
Roanna Gonsalves
UWAP, 2016
280 pages, $24.99

Inexperience and other stories
Anthony Macris
UWAP, 2016
230 pages, $24.99

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David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly and Seizure. Recently, he was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards inaugural Digital Literature Award. He was also shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award, the Viva La Novella Award, and the Overland VU Short Story Prize. He has a Masters from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China’s top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. He co-edited Westerly: New Creative and is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch. Find more from David at his website.

 

 

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