Pulse: First 2014 (Review)
Now here’s the thing. I’m a librarian by training, so I have certain expectations of how publications are titled, and Pulse, I must say, confused me. However, we librarians also know that publishers and writers don’t care about our rules; they just do what appeals to them! Fair enough. They’re the creators after all. Still, when I see a serial publication titled Pulse: First 2014, my immediate assumption is that the serial’s title is Pulse, and that I have in my hand the first edition for 2014. Not so, in this case. In fact, the serial – here, an annual – is titled First, and the title for the 2014 edition is Pulse! Got it? I have now!
So, what is First? It is “an anthology of creative works by students at the University of Canberra”. It has been published as First since 1995, but it commenced in 1993 under another title, Analectica. The editors of the 2014 edition therefore see Pulse as the anthology’s 21st volume, a “coming-of-age” edition. An impressive achievement I think. I’m not an expert on student-writing publications but 21 years in a world where projects come and go with some rapidity demonstrates a wonderful commitment by the university to its teaching of writing, design and editing.
The volume was put together by an editorial committee comprising students, some of whom feature in the volume. We are assured however that entries were all read blind. According to the university’s online news site, Monitor Online, there were 130 entries from which the final 26 stories and poems were chosen. Two prizes were given, though this is not noted in the volume: Best short story to Andrew Myers for “Neon Snow”, and best poem to Madonna Quixley for “The Archeological Dig”. The Monitor Online article also says that this was the first time all first year design students at the University submitted designs for the book’s cover. Sarah Watson won with her design which suggests “a sharp and energetic heartbeat”. It’s an attractive design, simple but strong, and I like the way a simplified version of the heartbeat (or pulse) carries through at the bottom of each page. Very stylish.
So, the content. I’m always interested in the order used in anthologies. In this collection, the first story, Alex Henderson’s imaginative “Easiest job in the world”, is futuristic, about a new way of creating energy using human power. There is a sinister mismatch between the protagonist’s unquestioning acceptance of his/her role and the reader’s suspicion that this acceptance is dangerously naive. It makes for a powerful start to the anthology. The last story is, fittingly, about death! Titled “Death’s apprentice”, and by Kaitlyn Wilson, it’s a reassuring, somewhat light-hearted, but by no means trivialising exploration of dying. In between is a diverse collection of works including poems, a graphic short story and a travel piece, as well as more short stories. Let’s talk about the poems, first.
Nine, if I’ve counted correctly, of the works are poems. I laughed at Cameron Steer’s “Nuts”, and smiled at the wry but wistful “Love song” in which an uncertain Katherine McKerrow writes to her potential lover, as yet unknown:
I’m not sure you should
look for me.
Try someone made with more
reality, brave enough to sing with the world
I loved Marjorie Morrissey’s short but evocative poem, “Canberra”, in which she captures the life and noise of the bird we love to hate, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo. If you like dogs, you’ll relate to the powerplay between master and dog in Owen Bullock’s “On the beach”, and if you like Murakami you’ll enjoy spotting his books in Gloria Sebestyn’s “Ode to Murakami”. Then, of course, there’s Madonna Quixley’s winning “The Archeological Dig” to which I can certainly relate. It starts:
Called ‘my side of the bedroom’,
it bears imprints of
geological and metaphorical
layers; not necessarily
related to years or epochs.
Books, almost categorised,
files, letters, pretty pieces of
paper that wrapped
gifts, now unclothed,
lie strewn throughout the sediment.
There are attempts at organisation
amongst the dust.
Against this, in the margin, I wrote “oh yes”!
This is an unusual anthology – at least in my experience – for the diversity of forms it contains, the most surprising of which is a graphic short story. It’s “The bringer” by architecture student Christopher Olalere. The art is sure, with a lovely use of colour. Like a few of the stories in the anthology, it has a speculative fiction element, this one to do with a “wishing star” that isn’t what it appears.
I wish, as I’ve said before, that I could comment on all of the pieces, but we’d be here forever, so I’ll just comment now on a few of the short stories. I liked, for example, Kieran Lindsay’s “Emily”, which is a cancer story with an unexpected ending. Ashley John’s “Not a toy” is about an arguing couple in which the apparently down-trodden husband gets his own back in a shocking way, while Rachel Vella’s “The noose” is a surprising story about a rather sour mother-son relationship. Claire Brunsdon effectively builds up tension in “Run”. I enjoyed Niki van Buuren’s “Only silence leads to salvation” about a future world in which music has been banned! Wah! No music? The story itself is a little predictable, perhaps, but I did laugh at the idea of a “Silence Revolution”. Andrew Myers’ “Neon snow” is a father-son story about a father’s concern for his gay son, and his promise to always be there. Nick Fuller’s entertaining “How not to write”, on the other hand, provides some wise advice about writing, despite its “philonoetic hebephrenia*”!
I wasn’t sure what to expect of a tertiary student anthology, but I enjoyed it. Not all the students are young. Some, from the bios, are clearly “mature-age”. Consequently, there’s a range of stories from those dealing with transition to adulthood to those exploring more mature relationships. I was intrigued by the overall tone. Although individual pieces vary and although much of the subject matter – like cancer, the environment, noxious relationships, good relationships under threat, and technology – is serious, there is, somehow, a light touch. Misery isn’t laboured, and yet there is no sense that life is easy either. Interesting too is the fact that several pieces either fall into the speculative fiction spectrum or involve eerie happenings or other-world beings. Does this signify a loosening of genre division, a willingness to break free of the purely rational – or it simply that this is a broad-brush anthology?
Whatever the case, Davis puts it well in her Introduction:
There’s magic, humour, hope, fear, colour, variety, simplicity and complexity in this Pulse: First 2014.
There’s talent and heart too. It will be interesting to see where these writers go next.
(Review copy courtesy University of Canberra)
* “Philonoetic : intellectual” AND “Hebephrenia : a condition of adolescent silliness” (according to Nick Fuller)