Fearless - Jennifer Mills’ short fiction
- Genevieve Tucker
The Rest is Weight by Jennifer Mills
UQP, 2012. 252 pp. $Au 19.95. ISBN: 978 0 7022 4940 2
Much was made of the astonishing range of Nam Le’s first story collection, The Boat, and with good reason. Jennifer Mills has a similarly fearless confidence in tackling other voices and places. The Rest Is Weight is Mills’ first collection, and it arrives on the back of a growing reputation in Australian short fiction, distinguished by a steady application to her craft. This reader eagerly turns to the latest Mills story in an anthology or magazine, and is delighted to see these works living happily together between covers at last.
Despite the subject matter, there are moments of happiness within these tales. The Rest is Weight contains Mexican drug-dealers, truckdrivers, a hitch-hiking prisoner, gay country-women who meet with violence, an Aboriginal man whose family is ‘too big’ for the in-laws, and a mentally ill gay man living in a demolition zone in Beijing. Such a list of subjects expands all too quickly into a catalogue of considerable depth, with a welcome focus on the marginalised and dispossessed.
Mills’ aptitude for balance in matters of style and content is apparent throughout, so that one hesitates: how to write suitably, without effusiveness, of these sometimes sombre, but always beautifully actualised stories? There is a tensile strength in Mills’ prose which has been there from her earliest stories. It holds up over the longer distance (Mills has published two novels, The Diamond Anchor and Gone), but it’s in short fiction, and over a period of more than a decade, that this depth of tone has been fully developed. This is a considerable achievement for someone who is still a fairly young writer.
What I have always admired in Jennifer Mills’ work is the ring of truth in it: she’s a keen observer of the world, and she has imagination and skill enough to introduce the roads less travelled to any reader. I admit to a partiality for this kind of dirty realism, shot through with poetry. I think any of these stories would sit easily in an issue or two of Granta.
Readers in this country have a disturbing tendency to take such writers for granted. We have a tradition of realist rural writing, and those who work that vein consistently are presently in danger of being sidelined for the more fashionable urban fable (which Mills creates as well, often setting them in other countries). We should be more excited about this collection than reviews might suggest.
“Look down with me” is the opening story, told by a mute farmer’s son who performs his own intervention in race relations somewhere in nineteenth or early twentieth century Australia. The collection opens, then, with two lines that collapse tragedy into a brief poem:
There’s one swinging tonight, but only one. It’s all they could catch. In the stable I water the horses and I take my time about it.
Mills’ silent protagonist Alfie makes sense of this very Southern (though not American) strange fruit on his parents’ tree by associating the eventual rot of the body with the moon, “which is swelling to full like the gut of a dead kangaroo filling with maggots”. This is a story that, like Alfie, walks in its own blue shadow, to brooding and devastating effect.
‘Prospect’ is an early story - a courageous, Texan riff off a well-travelled Carver tale which succeeds easily in paying its dues. It’s a wise inclusion which also serves to show other writers the value of fearlessness.
“The wind and other children” exemplifies a method Mills is mastering, that of layering larger stories, tile by tile, on small or socially diminutive subjects. In this case, a small girl in a red coat wanders into the local hospital in search of her dead grandmother. In this very fine example of that method, we get a demotically deflated high point, a bright tile grounded by grey spackle, if you like:
She thought that stars fell in the night sky as leaves fell, only to be replenished.
Down below new life will spring. Down below.
She is dizzy looking at the earth’s surface. Heaven is the sound of lasers, their precise incision, the scent of electricity and death, bleached to neatness. Bell would take another form and break the peeling eggshell walls, release heaven from its firmament and let it sail to earth. Its colours, piled up by gardeners, would make a good thing for a smallish deity to kick.
But in the stars there is no autumn, stars don’t fall like leaves. They fizz and burn like sparklers and will not return. And she’s not a deity. She’s just a kid.
One of my favourites, “The air you need”, approaches the question of difference to Ballardian effect. The main character is an autistic man, an ‘absurd fish-boy, terrified of air’, whose ritualistic life takes on a fabulist tone. I read this as a remarkable poetic equivalent for the lives of many affected by severe autism. In this story, shades of Ballard merge effortlessly with Mills’ achingly well-weighted realism, all the more affecting for its beautiful poise.
Here, the narrator (another parent of a young boy with a speech disorder) speaks of the fish-man’s mother:
“I imagine she is glad that the painful trial and error it took to reach this routine will never have to be repeated…We all leave like this at some point. It is a question of displacement, of taking the volume of air you need. I imagine the fish man knows this better than anyone. My imagination is my greatest ally.”
Mills is not simply a disciple of the dirty realists (who are often victims of their own brand of saccharine lyricism) she can also do hydrochloric corrosion:
I love you, I think. It’s a selfish prayer. It’s the way we speak to the dead.
This line is from the harrowing “Jude”, a story of a family rent by mental illness and carer guilt.
I know many of these stories, having read them several times over the past few years, and I have enjoyed returning to them for this review. I am rather surprised this book hasn’t been greeted more noisily. Nam Le lifted the bar, but Jennifer Mills has certainly risen to it, with a tough, unsentimental grace and storytelling gifts to burn.
- January 2013