Published: October 2012
Publisher: The Lifted Brow
Genre: Short story
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ – 5 Stars
I love Ryan O’Neill’s approach to writing stories and this short story is no exception. An Australian Short Story is compiled entirely of lines from other stories, 149 to be exact, and all Australian authors and poets with works ranging from 1850 to 2011. The idea a story could be created with snippets and lines from others is one that seems so simple and yet sounds highly complicated all at the same time. The effort and research that would have gone into this is certainly admirable and at the end of it it is actually quite a good narrative.
The story, which first appeared in Issue 14 of the Lifted Brow, is of a husband and wife on their property, a writer without words to write, a frustrated wife, and a relationship that neither is committed to admitting out loud isn’t going very well.
Like O’Neill’s other short stories a lot is told in a short space, and a marriage, a life, and a yearning is captured well within these borrowed words. The story flows seamlessly and if it were not for the citations you would not know that this wasn’t a pure piece of original fiction. The works O’Neill draws from are vast, with Henry Lawson, Peter Carey, Amanda Lohrey, and Patrick White being just a few.
As wonderful as this sampled story is though, it is highly perplexing. Where I would normally commend O’Neill on the excellent image provoking description of a writing desk, or that eloquent and captivating description of wine, or imagery of a disintegrating jacaranda, I find myself commending Christina Stead, Damien Broderick, and A.G. McNeil instead.
Do I adjust this by saying I commend him on his choice of words, that certainly can mean a few things. And I think there needs to be a commendation about this. The way O’Neill arranges his narrative is one that engages you and makes you feel a sense of pity for those involved and the lives they choose to live. As you read you don’t know they aren’t original lines, they are certainly original moments and original scenes, and once you’ve read the story you are then able to return and admire the effort in construction. There is however one line in there sampled from O’Neill’s Flinch which was a particularly fine sentence, so perhaps only 148 works are truly borrowed from.
Avid fans of the sampled works may one or two familiar lines, but what O’Neill has managed to select are in the majority of a combination of nondescript, common, and seemingly ordinary sentences, and yet has managed to weave a telling story as a result. Personally I just knew that that specific “Yes” was from Morris Lurie’s 1979 Running Nicely even before I looked, you could just tell.
An Australian Short Story is yet another example of O’Neill’s marvellous story telling ability and capturing moments in time with skill, creativity, and unique characters.
You can read the story on The Lifted Brow website