Review by Ben Carmichael
There are those who maintain that the principal aesthetic/moral aim of literature is ‘to hold a mirror up to reality’. Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes certainly does this, because a mirror can also invert or distort the object of its reflection. A transformation can take place; objects ‘may be closer than they appear’. Richards’ new collection of short stories is a looking glass presenting a world warped in this way, a reproduction further marred by cracks, clouding, and constellations of spat toothpaste.
Infants appear unannounced on the doorsteps of couples who desire them most. A school advocates the amputation of its students’ limbs. Tourists in a mysterious foreign country are forbidden to leave their train carriages. Charlie Brown appears as a guest on a chat show. At a country high school a boy arrives who may or may not be from the future… Almost without exception, the twenty-one stories of Thought Crimes (published by Black Inc.) feature events of varying absurdity, expressed with an ironic matter-of-factness that seemingly belies the content. Such a style is, of course, not uncommon, and is often referred to as ‘surrealist,’ in a slightly bastardised sense of the term, or as ‘Kafkaesque,’ with even less justification.
The major pitfall of these sorts of stories is a tendency to substitute complexity with novelty, to emphasise originality of concept over originality of expression, structure or atmosphere, to otherwise pursue the unusual premises to their ‘logical conclusion,’ where said pursuit consists of all the same narrative clichés that can be found in ‘regular’ fiction, only in quirkier get-up. The problem, as ever, seems to be the handling of ambiguity; the question of how much strangeness is made explicit, or left brooding in the periphery.
Richards, for the most part, gets the balance right. A couple of the stories (‘Queue Jumping,’ ‘(Favoured by) Babies,’ ‘Astronauts’) suffer from what might be called unambiguous ambiguity, where the mystery, such as it is, seems a little too contrived, and ends on a deliberately atonal note that practically screeches THIS IS AMBIGUOUS; and others (‘The Grease,’ ‘Magnetic,’ ‘The Future Perfect’) are filler episodes, serving only as a breath between the longer stories, or as an outro; but the majority of Thought Crimes’ pieces are creepily-wrought slices-of-life: flayed victims of an avuncular serial killer.
Richards’ strongest writing is when the subject matter is less obviously bizarre, though admittedly in a collection like Thought Crimes, ‘less bizarre’ is strictly relative. ‘Club Selection’ is set in an apparently Japanese resort that caters to Australian tourists/refugees, whose homeland has been torn apart by unspecified violence/wars/terrorist activity. Employees of the resort are encouraged to act as ‘Australian’ as possible, which gives Richards the opportunity to wax satirical about our social mores as observed from a foreign viewpoint:
No one understands what it is to be Australian until they fully grasp the terms of Australian friendliness. For Australians, friendliness is a superstition; a way of defraying the fear of being considered selfish or mean-spirited. To refuse friendliness is much worse than refusing a gift, since refusal is likely to activate the tensions implicit in ‘the friendliness paradox’. The more you try to be sincere, the further you are from true sincerity. If inscrutability is the cliché one attaches to Asians, one ought to approach Australians with an appreciation of their paradoxicality.
The employees’ earnest yet ridiculous cultural imitation shifts, however, from comical to unsettling when it is hinted that they are covering up instances of radiation poisoning caused by the resort’s contaminated water supply. The gradation from innocent absurdity to subtle menace in ‘Club Selection’, is characteristic of some of the best stories in the collection, like the brush with the Kurtz-like missionaries in ‘The Darkest Heart.’ In this answer of sorts to Conrad’s novella, adolescent Ian Hall doesn’t so much go into the jungle as have the jungle come to him, in the form of the Watson family, whose experiences at an African mission have left them incapable of integrating back into ‘civilised’ society. Initially intrigued by these eccentrics staying at his family’s house, Ian becomes aware that their strangeness isn’t altogether wholesome, stemming from obliquely referenced ordeals in Africa, including possible sexual rituals and kidnapping. And while the Watsons only stay for a night, their corrupting influence remains like the lingering kiss Mrs Watson, a nymphomaniac, presses to Ian’s lips, irrevocably initiating him into a world his boyish innocence is unprepared for. Richards’ satire of religious fundamentalism is saved from heavy-handedness by the inferiority of Ian’s understanding of events to our own, allowing the critique to remain implicit and only half-suggested.
Richards’ strength lies in disturbing insinuation and hidden ironies; the less overt the strangeness, the better he is at making the story strange, as also shown by the troubled actions of a German student in ‘Foreign Exchange,’ and in other pieces like ‘Dog’s Life’ and ‘Swimming Across the Rip,’ where a simmering sense of threat is never entirely absent.
Thirteen years have passed since the release of Richards’ Duckness, a collection of short stories and concluding volume of Approximate Life (an ‘autobiographical trilogy’ that also included the collection Letters to Francesca (1996) and novella The Prince (1997).) Thirteen years is an inauspicious enough anniversary, but when considering the twisted pleasure evidenced in Thought Crimes for mischance and foreboding, it seems more than appropriate. So embrace the bad luck, Thought Crimes is a mirror of reality well worth breaking into.
288 pages, $27.95