Australia is a big country but a small place, so when Nam Le’s 2008 short story collection The Boat won nearly every major literary prize in the land people were going to notice.
While prize-winning is taken seriously enough, it could have been a one-off – the short story isn’t new, neither is binding a bunch of them together. Different this time is that the success of Le’s collection has come in the middle of a digital revolution, where information is sprayed at us as if from a fire hose. It’s an age in which the rules have changed, and so story and the ways of storytelling are again up for discussion. Whether it’s because of local or global trends, a symptom of the modern times or a combination of both, the short story again has the attention of publishers, and the Australian reading public.
One of the proponents of short fiction in Australia is Affirm Press, who has made a commitment to publishing small, stylish books of short fiction. The seventh book in their successful Long Story Shorts series is Irma Gold’s debut collection Two Steps Forward.
Gold’s collection opens with the ironically titled ‘The Art of Courting’, a story about new love in middle age. The main character’s clumsy but charming wooing of a neighbour is juxtaposed with her teenage son’s blossoming relationship. As his relationship ends, she “can’t help wishing that love could be easier.”
The story is striking for several reasons. Firstly, it aspires to Realist heights the rest of the collection doesn’t always reach:
You notice how thin your lips have become, how the flash of greasy fuchsia looks almost crude. You pull at the loose skin on your neck, and the spongy puffs around your eyes filled with lines, the skeleton veins of a dead leaf.
Maybe Gold simply felt a ‘warts and all’ approach was more appropriate for a story that is essentially about aging, but it gives the story authenticity and succeeds as a result of it.
The story also stands out because, as you’ll have noticed in the quote above, it’s written entirely in the second person. It’s an ambitious way to begin any collection, let alone a debut, but it quickly becomes clear that Gold is at ease writing in this point of view.
The second person is used again in ‘Your Project’. If there was any doubt the first time, Gold again proves to be adept in this mode. This time, however, I would suggest the choice of point of view is much more strategic. ‘Your Project’ tells the story of a pregnancy. The main character is at odds with her husband Nate over the issue, until she falls pregnant and he is forced to accept it. The use of second person gives the story pace and forces the action on the reader; we experience the main character’s experiences of going through pregnancy as Nate’s interest – and, as a result, her isolation – waxes and wanes. Finally, in this state, they must deal with tragedy. The story is both sensitive and unsettling; ‘Your Project’ and ‘The Art of Courting’ are Gold at her best.
Dualities are common in Two Steps Forward. Many of the themes are treated twice – something which isn’t always necessary. Not even ‘Refuge’, a discerning and compassionate story about a social worker struggling to deal with what she is confronted with in a refugee processing centre, is thematically unique.
Arrivals and departures – literal and metaphorical – are also a regular occurrence, either opening or closing a narrative, or fuelling a narrative’s life force. In the final story, ‘The Anatomy of Happiness’, the main character Julia and her daughters arrive in Australia to live with Julia’s sister. After a difficult start, Julia’s life in the new country simply begins to work – finally, a character can take a redemptive two steps forward.
In ‘Sounds of Friendship’, the collection’s longest piece, Gold examines love and youth in a caravan park. She tells the story of a summer shared by Abby, one of the park’s residents, and Sid, a local boy who is made to clean at the park for his misbehaviour.
In the collection, Gold takes the line that new relationships are bliss and old ones can barely be escaped. Running parallel to Abby and Sid’s relationship is that of Abby’s mother, Fran and her boyfriend Mick. She takes the kids to live with Mick in his caravan – that sleeping arrangements haven’t even been thought of is telling. Perhaps this could be the typical focal point of a story such as this. Instead, the narrative is given depth by following Abby and Sid as they grow closer and Fran’s abusive relationship unfurls in the background:
They are oblivious to her, caught up as they are in each other, and Abby catches the cold-barrelled words Mick fires at her mother.
‘You’re under my roof, slut. Remember that.’
Abby tries to loop her way around to the toilet block in a wide arc, but Fran catches the slink of her.
‘Hi love,’ she calls out, pasting on a mask.
‘Hi,’ Abby mumbles, and keeps walking.
Gold’s narratives are the kind that usually take place somewhere offstage, arcing around the grander ones being played out in the foreground. She examines moments in the life of a single parent trying to reconnect with a daughter, an elderly woman in a nursing home and a drug addict who is confronted with his adult son. Her stories shirk the complexities of a digital era, instead giving the simpler things a leading role. Gold seems to be saying that it is these things – the connections we forge, starting anew, simple freedom – that are of real and lasting importance.
Back to Australia being a big country but a small place. The stories in Two Steps Forward seem to prove this, as they tell tales of familiar characters grappling with familiar situations. These stories could have all taken place down the road from you; they’re a peak into a neighbour’s living room (or into yours). And that’s fine – it’s what binds the stories together, and makes for an even collection. But Gold’s precise prose, assured use of voice and deft treatment of private tragedy left me wanting to see her explore not only the familiar but more of the unfamiliar within the familiar, to take the reader somewhere new.
Two Steps Forward is published by Affirm Press, 192pp, $24.95