Carmel Bird, whose latest short story collection, The dead aviatrix: Eight short stories, I’m reviewing here, has to be the consummate writer. She can turn her hand to fiction and nonfiction, to short and long form writing, to formal and more informal voices, and to both serious and witty or satiric tones. She’s also an editor/anthologist in addition to being a writer. And now she’s experimenting with a digital platform. So, when she hesitantly offered me The dead aviatrix to read and review, there was only one answer, yes.
Her hesitation related to its e-book form. She feared that we Gums’ people aren’t much interested in ebooks, but, she wrote, “they are a growing part of the literary landscape”. Then, using a very Bird-like expression, she continued, “so maybe one day you will write a bit about them, and if and when you do, The Dead Aviatrix will be idling on the tarmac.” Well, how could I resist, even if I had wanted to, an aviatrix idling on the tarmac? And anyhow, as you know, I do read and write about e-books. Annabel Smith’s The ark (my review) is a good example, but I’ve reviewed several e-books here including Dorothy Johnston’s Eight pieces on prostitution (my review).
Like Dorothy Johnston’s book, which was a digital publishing initiative of the Australian Society of Authors, The dead aviatrix is the first Capsule Collection, a new platform by digital publisher Spineless Wonders. Subsequent titles in the series will, the book’s “About” says, include works “selected from The Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award”. You clearly can’t keep a good writer down. I love that this doyenne of the Australian literary scene is still exploring and experimenting.
However, it’s all well and good to explore and experiment with form, delivery platform, and so on, but in the end you need to produce the goods, and this Bird has done with her eight stories. I should say, before discussing them, that all have been published before – in publications like Southerly, Island Magazine, and Review of Australian Fiction.
So now, at last, the stories themselves. They are a wonderful lot. Bird regularly makes me laugh, and she does so again here. It’s not empty laughter though, because her targets are serious. It’s just that she frequently presents her ideas with a cheeky, often satirical approach.
The first story is “The dead aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate”. It’s written in the sort of style Bird used in Fair game, her memoir of Tasmania (my review). By this I mean it digresses or, as she says, becomes “productively sidetracked”. However, as “The dead aviatrix” is “a publishing story”, the opening digression about the prolific Edward Stratemeyer – creator of a childhood favourite of mine The Bobbsey Twins – is relevant in a way (of course!). Actually, it’s very relevant because she finds a quote about an aviatrix in a Stratemeyer book, and uses it to springboard her story. Oh, she’s a character! The tone of the story, like several in the book, is chatty. She talks directly to us, the reader, leading us along, often lulling us into a false sense of security. In this case, it’s a little satire on the publishing industry – on proofs going astray, on distracted publishing interns – but along the way it invokes or references all sorts of ideas, including the Australian aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton who “unlike the great and mysterious Amelia … did not disappear in the skies.” Sometimes it is hard to keep up with Bird (our Bird, I mean!) but I love trying. This story is, partly, about the art of writing stories.
The second story, “The Whirligigge of time brings its revenges”, draws from a Shakespeare quote, and is also a publishing story, this one more satirical about first and second novels, the notion of “literary” novels, awards, and not using agents. Again, it has a similar, chatty story-telling tone. Here’s an example:
The history of this novel (The Heat of Summer) is the real subject of my tale. That, and the wheel of fortune and the quirks of fate. The book takes its first inspiration from Camus’ famous L’Etranger, and its content is drawn from the aforementioned history of Joseph Tice Gellibrand, the disappearing Attorney-General of Van Diemen’s Land. Well, you can see that what Frankie was doing here was risky. It was what is often described as literary fiction.
There’s more delicious satire about publishers and their slush piles, but I’ll finish with a quote about promotion:
The media hype for The Heat of Summer is huge, what with the glamour of Frankie’s Paris life, and the deep fascination with gothic Australian bush stuff and so forth. Based around the tragic life of her ancestor. Smash hit. Frankie turned out to be a publicist’s dream, having, as well as the attributes I have alluded to, long legs, a face that could sell cosmetics and airline tickets, and an engaging lisp.
Delicious isn’t it?
And so the stories continue, addressing issues like missing children (“Cold case”), dying towns and New Age shops (“Cactus”), shallow suburbanites and their prejudices (“The matter of the mosque”), surrogacy (“Surrogate”), and species extinction (“Letter to Lola” and “The tale of the last unicorn”). All the stories could be lessons in writing – in tone, in varying form, in how to make words and language work for you, in being absurd without being absurd (if you know what I mean), in addressing serious matters with a light but pointed touch. I enjoyed every one.
While several stories are written in the chatty, satirical tone of the first two. Not all are. “Dear Lola” takes the form of a love letter from a Spix’s Macaw to his lost mate. It’s sad, and pointed, but the whole idea of a bird writing to its lover gives it a whimsical touch too. “The matter of the mosque”, on the other hand, is written in little scenes, comprising mostly dialogue between two mothers in which it’s clear that whether to use hairspray or mousse is more important than opening their minds to different ways of being. Bird’s control of language and narrative here, together with her use of repetition and recurring ideas or images, makes this a little gem.
Now, I know many of you aren’t short story readers, because you want to get lost in character. These stories won’t give you that. However, what a mind, what ideas, what fun and, ultimately, what heart, you miss by ignoring a book like this. It’s only available in e-format and costs a whopping $4.99! Why not give it a go?
(Review copy courtesy the author, but available from Spineless Wonders)