Other Stories: Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories collects a variety of short fiction that he has published in literary magazines over the last eighteen (!!!) years. Despite the work’s lengthy gestation, these stories demonstrate an impressive unity of vision, as well as an extraordinary—if uniquely Australian—voice. Macauley is also the author of two excellent novels, Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe and Caravan Story, but, as good as his novels are, Other Stories reveals that he is an even better short story writer.

Macauley’s prose is absolutely beautiful, as the very first sentence of his collection proves: ‘In the dog days of summer, when the earth rolls and sighs and a heat shimmer wobbles and distorts everything in the middle distance and beyond, who has not wanted, as evening falls, to take their mattress and pillow outside and sleep like a well-heeled vagabond under an open sky?’ Here readers can already see Macauley’s humour, and how his stories twist everyday situations into strange, otherworldly experiences.

In this sense, Other Stories is an appropriate title for this eclectic, often experimental collection, but Macauley’s rigorous innovation is always inflected with mordant satire, resulting in work that is both affecting and hysterically funny. Consider the story ‘Bohemians’: here, a real-estate agent in a once-hip inner-Melbourne suburb faces a problem; local housing prices have skyrocketed to the point where artists and intellectuals can no longer afford to live there. The solution, of course, is to rent bohemians from a dealer; the entire story consists of a letter written by this bohemian-dealer in response to the real-estate agent. Many of his stories have similarly absurdist conceits; in ‘The Man Who Invented Television’, a man named Henry Walter invents the television set in Melbourne in 1855, and, in an even more unlikely turn of events, his TV broadcasts current programs, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show. In my favourite story, ‘The Bridge’, a soldier is stranded in a remote outpost and his claustrophobic circumstances recall Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And this is what is interesting about Macauley’s work: although his formal experimentation might bear the influence of international writers like Beckett and Kafka, his work also suggests the local inheritance of Henry Lawson and Peter Carey’s early short stories. And Other Stories ultimately is a book that is uniquely and particularly Australian. Not only does the book possess a wry, laconic tone, but also figures from Australia’s cultural history are a signal fixation in Macauley’s work: Adam Lindsay Gordon, the dig tree, the inland sea and Melbourne’s trams all play a key role in these stories. In this sense, Other Stories presents an excellent model for a truly Australian literature. While its aesthetics are influenced by the great traditions of world literature, the content remains recognizably Australian.

Wayne Macauley should be recognized as one of Australia’s best living writers – that he isn’t is an indictment of Australian literary culture. This is one of the best books by an Australian I’ve read all year.