“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: Six Tenses

Six Tenses
By Ryan O’Neill
Ginninderra Press

Australian short-story writer Ryan O’Neill has now begun to get a bit more public attention—this year alone he’s had work appear in Best Australian Stories 2010, The Sleepers Alamanac, Vol. 6, and Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2. Although I have seen (and enjoyed) Ryan’s work in other journals, as well, I had no idea that he had already published a book of short stories, called Six Tenses, in 2005.
Indeed, 2005 was a year that marked the end of a dark time for Australian short stories; during the early oughties, publishers had become convinced that short stories were not marketable, and, as a result, very few collections by first-time authors were published. With the publication of Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots in 2006, which was soon followed by Nam Le’s The Boat in 2008, publishers started taking short stories more seriously again. There has now been a renaissance of the short story, with more and more collections published over the last several years, but the truth of the matter is that many of these ‘new’ collections have been receiving polite rejection notes from publishers for years; thus, what seems to be a sudden cultural groundswell of short-story writing is in fact merely a reflection of what our cultural gatekeepers determine to be a marketable product.
But O’Neill’s Six Tenses had the (unusual) misfortune of being published at least one year too early, and, as a result, this collection—which displays a compelling virtuosity—has been largely ignored. One of the pleasures of O’Neill’s work is that—unlike so many AusLit authors who are afraid of formal experimentation—Six Tenses displays a deep investment in innovative storytelling. The first story, also called ‘Six Tenses’, for example, is related out of chronological order and is divided into sections based on the tense and aspect of verb conjugations (eg. ‘Present Continuous’, ‘Present Simple’, ‘Future Perfect’ and so on). The story ‘Rasa’ (whose title is probably a pun on the notion of Tabula rasa) is intentionally written in the a-grammatical pidgin of a young Lithuanian woman enrolled in an ESL course, who opens the story by saying, ‘English is very beautiful for me. But I am not good at it. Also, I am not bad. I think I am normal. It is easier than Lithuanian, which is my mother tongue because it is my motherland.’
And language is the seminal theme of these stories; not only do many of the stories discuss language education and explicitly ruminate on grammar, syntax and punctuation, but also O’Neill repeatedly invokes figures of those who have lost their ability to speak, read or write (or else who are—like Rasa—not completely in control of their own language). In this sense, these stories are “metafictional” (i.e. fiction about fiction), but not in a purely formalist or clever sense; O’Neil’s stories are about the importance and value of language in our daily lives, and how language shapes the world that we live in.
That being said, many of these stories do have clever conceits and employ unusual techniques that betray the influence of several authors; Vladimir Nabokov looms particularly large, and ‘Rasa’ in particular could be read as a sort of inversion of his novel Lolita (whereas Lolita tells the story of a European man perverting an American innocence, ‘Rasa’ has an American perverting a European innocence; Lolita tells the story from the perspective of the older man, ‘Rasa’ from the perspective of the girl).
But while O’Neil’s work does have a formalist emphasis at points, his work is also often surprisingly tender and even sentimental. The story ‘A Hundred Words’, for example, opens with the birth of a girl named Lizzie in 1900. We are told the story of her entire life in a mere eight pages, but only at the end do we realise the story is, in fact, a deeply moving and loving elegy written by her grandson. The collection’s final story, ‘The Bookmark’, portrays the strained relationship between a father and son, but shows how words and reading bind together people who otherwise lack the vocabulary to articulate their emotions.
Six Tenses is weird and wonderful little book that—had things been a little different—might be seen as a minor masterpiece of Australian short fiction; anyone interested in the Australian short story who missed this book when it was initially published in 2005 will find much here that is worth both reading and re-reading.

You can buy Six Tenses here (HINT: you’ll need to scroll down to find it!).


Laurie Steed said...

Great to see Mr. O'Neill getting his due praise. I've not read Six Tenses, but reviewed his other Ginninderra title A Famine in Newcastle over at back in August (http://ow.ly/3hrlf) and greatly enjoyed it. For me, it's his ability to balance tender narratives with his more experimental stories that create a truly intoxicating blend of styles for true connoisseurs of the short form.

Emmett Stinson said...

Yes, I read your review of A Famine in Newcastle, and am keen to have a look at it. I agree completely with yer assessment of why his stuff is very excellent!

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