If you are happy and what was the fear
If you are happy
What was the fear
Puncher and Wattmann, $29.99
Fiona Robertson’s early life offers us a variety of locations, from Texas to Edinburgh to the glaciers of Iceland, and a range of backgrounds: one story is about a teenage burglar, another about a police officer carrying out a check welfare and another from a polygamous fundamentalist marriage. His characters are sad or lonely, or alone in company; they mourn their partners or had cancer scares, or they want to run away, sometimes putting an end to it all. But they are not necessarily sympathetic, and Robertson does not invite the reader to admire his compassion, or theirs.
There’s good clean descriptive writing, and Robertson is adept at establishing its premise and directing; the small magazine/contest format does not encourage browsing. However, this skill can be too neat. The outside world provides a little too easily metaphors for personal dramas: in Storm, a woman wishing to be freed from domestic boredom falls into a tornado; this woman who was afraid of cancer is going to watch an eclipse; and, in the most literal example, a woman whose husband has divorced sees her house swallowed up by a sinkhole. Matches are offered for grading; once they’ve been noted, there doesn’t seem to be much else to do.
The best pieces are the least resolute, the least tight: in Christmas, a teenage girl at a party with her parents’ friends finds herself in a risky situation with a male guest (no, that’s not what one would expect – and Robertson seems to be aware of what its readers might expect, and takes them elsewhere). And while the title story, about a sad man who finds a baby he thinks needs saving, is brief, it has dreamlike power.
If Robertson sometimes likes to cross the borders of realism into the supernatural, the bizarre is the house of Ben Walter; the first story of What was the fear stars talking fish – talking dead fish, to be exact, lined up on a pier; later we meet equally talkative dead mountaineers. Australian fabulism is alive and well, and Walter, the fiction editor of Island magazine, joins Julie Koh, Elizabeth Tan and Shaun Prescott among writers creating new worlds that shed new light on this one.
As genre permits, pop culture and media fantasies become flesh: Leslie Neilsen of The naked gun fame arrives by car in the suburbs, and in The Economist an unemployed hopeless case decides he’s only going to apply for the master of the universe jobs advertised in The Economist and, fabulism realizing its delusions, gets one of these jobs, only to find that becoming a master of the universe is only a promotion to a higher level of angst. And what might, paraphrased, seem like a downright realistic piece, like Conglomerateabout a bushwalker who falls and hits his head and dies, is made odd by Walter’s dense, sometimes rather mannered prose.