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Paddy O’Reilly, The salesman (Review)

October 12, 2012

I’ve been wanting to read Paddy O’Reilly for the longest time but somehow haven’t managed to get to her so, as is my wont, I decided to read a short story of hers in the Griffith Review. She made her name, I think, with her short stories, but has also written novels/novellas and a screenplay, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s best literary magazines.

I know you wouldn’t expect this of me, but I’ve just told a lie – just a white one, your honour – because I have read a couple of articles by Paddy O’Reilly, and I did read her opening story in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, published in 2010. The story was titled “How to write a short story”. It’s a very short piece, just over a page, but it was my first, albeit very short, introduction to O’Reilly. The piece is presented as a recipe, with a list of steps, such as:

Test whether the story is done by inserting a reader. If the reader comes out clean, the story is done. If the reader comes out sticky, place the story back into the situation for another 500 words.

This story suggested to me that O’Reilly is not afraid to let women’s experience underpin her writing. But, this doesn’t mean that she wants her writing to be labelled “women’s fiction”. As she asks in her recent post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, what is women’s fiction? Writing for women? About women? By women? I’m inclined to agree with her that it’s not a useful distinction. What after all is “men’s fiction”? Categorising works as “women’s fiction” has the potential to (and in fact does already) marginalise, trivialise even, women writers and readers. So, like Paddy O’Reilly, I tend not to think in terms of “women’s fiction”. I do, however, and I’d argue this is quite different, like to focus on “women writers”.  Hence, here I am, reading (more) Paddy O’Reilly …

“The salesman” is set in a working class suburb of Melbourne where there’s 80% unemployment. It features a salesman (obviously), a young woman named Marly, and her boyfriend and his mate. The story opens with the young woman alone at home. It’s hot and life is clearly not much fun. Her boyfriend Shaun and his mate, Azza, spend their days working on cars, their heads “under the bonnet like stupid long-necked emus”. And, the fridge is “moaning”. Such language in the first paragraph makes it pretty clear that Marly is not a happy woman. In fact, we learn a little later on that she has lost part of a leg, creating an effective metaphor for a life that is missing something critical. Pran, the salesman, appears in the fourth paragraph. He’s a Hindu from Delhi but Marly, and later Shaun and Azza, persist in calling him a Paki.

Pran insists he’s not selling anything, but after Shaun and Azza return, we finally learn that what he is “selling” is a free offer! Shaun and Azza, as (stereotypically) men often do in these situations, lead Pran on while Marly is conflicted. Shaun is an “attentive” boyfriend. “She would not do better than this”, not better, she thinks, than a man “who had not once in eleven months raised a hand to her”. But, she’s attracted to Pran, to his “rich burnt-toffee” coloured skin and his “runny dark brown” eyes. It’s not just the physical though.  She senses through him, through her questions about his beliefs, that there could be more to life than hanging around waiting for the men to bring home beer and pizza. She does not want his visit to end in violence as, we are told, has happened before.

I’ll say no more about the plot. This is a story about the underside of modern Australia. It’s about poverty and deprivation and how these result in an arid, goal-less life in which there is little empathy for other. It’s about racism, about how, if you are the wrong colour, years of study can lead you to peddling “free offers” to people who can’t afford them. The ending is clever. While we are told the general outcome, we have to guess what really went down. What we do know, though, is that no-one ended up a winner. This is just the sort of story I like – it’s accessible, it has a clear vision with a tight focus, and it raises more questions than it answers. You can read it online at the link below.

Paddy O’Reilly
“The salesman”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 29, August 2010
Availability: Online at the Griffith Review

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2012 2:36 am

    Sounds like a good story. Bookmarking it to read later when I have the time to concentrate on it. I do so dislike the term “women’s fiction” too. It is so often applied to books about relationships, children, domestic things, as if men had no concern about such topics. It is such a 1950s way of looking at things and only serves to keep women writers on the margins of “important” fiction.

    • October 12, 2012 9:30 am

      Thanks Stefanie … totally agree. Not only does it imply men aren’t concerned with such subjects but the label would discourage many men I reckon from reading books dealing with those subjects. Reading preferences are best served, I think, by labelling by genre – Romance, Chicklit, Crime, Suspense, Adventure, Historical, and so on.

  2. October 12, 2012 6:53 am

    I’ve downloaded the PDF to hopefully read in one of my fits of MUST READ SOMETHING NOW.

    • October 12, 2012 9:22 am

      Sounds good Hannah … don’t forgot as I think you’d like it and would love your comments.

  3. October 12, 2012 9:59 am

    Sounds like a great story. Like Hannah and Stefanie, I’ve downloaded it – just can never seem to focus on reading a short story online. I’ll come back when I’ve read it.

    • October 12, 2012 10:01 am

      Great Andrew … I read my printout too! I need to read with pencil in hand, actually, whether I use it or not.

      • October 23, 2012 7:02 am

        Well, I got to it finally, and am glad I did! Very powerful story, with palpable tension throughout, and, like you, I loved the fuzzy ending. It gave enough information for us to fill in the gaps, but withheld enough to make it a bit of a challenge to do so. As you said, nobody’s a winner. The story does what all successful short stories do – evoke the characters’ lives believably in a short space, make you feel you understand them at least to some degree, and present a crucial period where something changes or at least might change. I’d definitely like to read more by this author now. Thanks for introducing me to her!

        • October 23, 2012 7:27 am

          Oh thanks Andrew for reading it and coming back to comment … Your definition of how it meets the essence f what short stories are is spot on. Glad you liked it.

  4. October 14, 2012 9:43 pm

    I like the sound of the story too, must download. I’m always confounded by the term women’s fiction though I guess it often crops up to define commercial boundaries. Although having recently rubbed shoulders with a lot of successful romance writers, I guess this is what they are talking about. Women’s fiction applied to work of a more literary intent makes me think of the Orange Prize, and its aims to highlight and include, but I realise the term is limiting, and probably serves to pen off women writers and readers, and inevitably lessen the value of their work.

    • October 23, 2012 7:31 am

      Yes, good point Catherine … I think it is romance that they are talking about … But by calling it “women’s” it narrows it and we sense trivialises it, doesn’t it. I prefer to talk in terms of genre or style.

Trackbacks

  1. Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith #WeeklyShorts | Jess resides here
  2. The Factory, by Paddy O’Reilly « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  3. 2012 AWW Challenge: Short Stories and Poetry « Australian Women Writers Challenge

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