I’ve been told that my new short story collection, Portable Curiosities, is part of a new wave of satire in Australian literary fiction. Prior to hearing this, I had no idea about the existence of a new wave. How did I even get into a wave? I’m not a beach person.
Is there really a new wave? I’m not entirely sure. I’ll leave the analysis to others, mainly because I’m a near-total ignoramus when it comes to the history of literature. After my first year at university, I dropped English and took up a double major in politics instead. You can ask me about nuclear deterrence, but you won’t get a satisfactory answer from me as to where I fit in terms of Australian literary movements.
My writing has been compared to that of Nic Low, Sonja Dechian and Marlee Jane Ward – and it’s true that, right now, high-concept works of fiction involving a mix of satirical and spec-fic elements are getting well-deserved attention in lit circles – even if they only add up to a coincidental spray from a handful of solitary lunatics like myself, typing away wearing fingerless gloves in our own private hellholes. The similarities among us, however, may not be enough to tie us into the same wave. The instances where my collection veers into spec-fic are, to me, incidental. I’m interested in taking ideas to their absurd extremes through my fiction, and sometimes this requires moving a story into the near future.
If there is indeed a new wave of literary satire, it would make sense – at this point in history, Australia lends itself well to the genre.
Or maybe I’m at the intersection of this wave and another – one that’s tied more broadly to humour rather than just satire. In Australia at present, anything that differs from the dominant kitchen-sink Australian realism, particularly humorous work, tends to be lumped together as “experimental” and left in a dark corner to laugh maniacally and die. I’ve been surprised that my collection has also drawn comparisons to the work of Patrick Lenton – a good friend but also a writer whose fiction I’d never considered similar to mine. I had a serious Twitter discussion about this with Lenton and Ryan O’Neill, and we decided that if we are to be part of a new wave based around the fact that we like cracking jokes, we will call it “Kanganoulipo” – a new wave of Kangaroulipo, which O’Neill describes in his forthcoming historical parody of Australian literature, Their Brilliant Careers.
If there really is a need to see where my style and influences overlap with other Australian writers, I can reverse-engineer my fiction for you. I’ve been most directly influenced by Tom Cho and Eric Yoshiaki Dando, neither of whom would probably identify as political satirists (although Eric did write Oink, Oink, Oink: A Savage Modern Fable, so maybe he’d be happy to be classified as a casual satirist). Jonathan Swift, Mikhail Bulgakov, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Heller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño have influenced the absurd, satirical and political parts of my fiction. Influences on the surreal aspects of my work include Boris Vian, Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. It’s terrible that these influences are so male, but maybe I redeem myself by addressing sexism and misogyny in my writing. I could be here to beat the guys at their own game.
Some of the stories in Portable Curiosities have a bit more heart than regular satire. I’ve spent time reading about the structure and devices of fairytales – and thinking about why Roald Dahl was so compelling to me as a child – because I want to give readers an experience that is simultaneously nostalgic and new. I want them to feel like they’re kids again, reading stories at bedtime that are not only dark, funny and fantastical, but that also address adult issues.
If there is indeed a new wave of literary satire, though, it would make sense – at this point in history, Australia lends itself well to the genre. As Gary Shteyngart said at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago: “Satire is best when evil and stupidity collide.” Australia is an island continent rife with racism, still struggling to come to terms with the fact that our nation was founded on the back of an invasion. We are extraordinarily obsessed with our own borders, happy to flout our obligations under international law in relation to deciding who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. The great national project of egalitarianism and racial harmony that I’d perceived to be a fixture of my childhood throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s has been abandoned in favour of an elitist political culture that thrives on a widespread, deep-seated fear of the Other.
Some of the smartest kids I knew at school and university left the country at the earliest opportunity. Of those of us who remain, many feel trapped – trying to achieve the increasingly stressful, increasingly unaffordable urban Australian dream of settling down, having a rewarding, stable job with sane hours, paying off a mortgage on a nice house, and raising a couple of kids. Those who don’t share this dream feel locked out of – and radically disenchanted with – a society where social worth is determined by how much you earn, which suburb you live in, where your children go to school, and what type of vehicle is parked in your driveway.
There’s plenty of fodder available for writers who like to make readers snort and bawl simultaneously.
The increasing inequality we are witnessing as a society is the inevitable consequence of our religious adherence to a fundamentally flawed neoliberal economic ideology, which cannot properly account for the true value of the environment, the arts, and even – these days – crucial scientific research. We are so entranced by this ideology that we apply it inappropriately to other aspects of our lives: we date like we’re in a marketplace, and women, reduced to the sum of their body parts, discover that their shelf-life is more limited than they originally thought.
None of these insights are new. My point is merely that there’s plenty of fodder available for writers who like to make readers snort and bawl simultaneously.
How long will I continue to write satire? That remains to be seen. For one, it’s becoming more difficult to stay a step ahead of the news headlines. Once a country has had a prime minister who takes bites out of raw onions, and an election campaign slogan identical to one from Veep, what more can a satirist do? There’s a story in my collection called ‘Satirist Rising’, which is about satire being replicated in reality, and I do wonder if that story will ultimately be my final comment on the relevance of the genre in a world that is itself spiralling beyond the boundaries of reasonable thought.
Nevertheless, I’m still taken with the idea of this new wave. I want a wave to exist. I want to ride it with my new satirist friends all the way to shore, if there is still one left to receive us. And if there is not, we will hold out our hands and lead you, laughing, into the abyss.
To celebrate, we have 5 copies of the book to give away to KYD subscribers, thanks to UQP. To enter, send your name and email address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Portable Curiosities’ before 9am AEDT Monday 20 June.
Portable Curiosities is available now at Readings.