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.