#10: Formaldehyde, by Jane Rawson

If our body is just a vessel—meat, bones, and sinew to carry our consciousness through space and time—then how does one explain the word visceral? Those deepest and most urgent of feelings, felt not in the brain but in the body, and often with the power to override logic and reason? Given the title and cover of Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde, one might expect the creepy, the horrific, perhaps with a clinical or scientific edge; body parts in jars, preserved in formaldehyde, perhaps trophies or tokens of the macabre. Instead, Rawson has written a novella that is funny and uniquely structured, but drawing from the visceral, where amputation functions as a metaphor for loss and disconnection, disorder, being out of time and place.

Jane Rawson’s debut novel, A Wrong Turn at The Office of Unmade Lists was published by Transit Lounge in 2013, and won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change. The first draft of Formaldehyde was written while Rawson lived in San Francisco, before Silicon Valley gentrification reached its current levels, a vibrant urban setting of apartments, buses, and streetcars transporting characters like “a girl dressed as some kind of rabbit in bondage”. The setting shifts between the years 2000 and 2022, and it’s the choice of 2000 as the earlier time point that perhaps betrays this book’s long path to publication. With Australian publishers largely unwilling to touch a manuscript of novella length, we are lucky to have competitions like Seizure’s Viva la Novella prize and Griffith Review’s Novella ProjectFormaldehyde was one of three winners of Seizure’s 2015 Viva la Novella prize.

The book begins with very short chapters—almost vignettes—that in addition to flitting across the two time periods of 2000 and 2022, also shift between the perspectives of four characters: Paul, Derek, Amy, and Benjamin. Each chapter is headed with the character and year, and while this is not an uncommon form for a novel, it at first seems to work against the idea of tight focus usually associated with the novella. Differences in narration keep each section distinct: Paul is narrated in the first person present tense from the year 2022; Derek in the third person past from the year 2000; Amy in the first person present from the year 2000, but also featuring direct address to a second person “you”—her ex-lover; and Benjamin, a third person “she” covering both time periods as the story progresses. Does this time- and character-hopping challenge my conception of what a novella is? No. As connections slowly crystallise between the characters and their timelines, and through Paul’s first-person perspective that anchors us in the ultimate “present” of 2022 (and that takes up the by-far longest chapter), the plot ultimately converges on his story as the primary through-line.

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#9: Welcome to Orphancorp, by Marlee Jane Ward

Welcome to Orphancorp was one of three winners in Seizure’s 2015 Viva La Novella prize. I hope to review each of the winners—and the previous years, many of which I’ve already read—but at my current rate it could take awhile to get to all of them.

Update: Marlee has won the YA category in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016. Congratulations to Marlee and to the winners in all categories.

This novella is an intense blast of dystopian speculative fiction, full of attitude and a crackling energy that makes it a quick and easy read at around 26,000 words. The scene is set with an evocative prelude that introduces Mirii, the first-person narrator who is being transferred from one Orphancorp to another in Sydney. Mirii’s spirited and rebellious attitude is clear from the start and her strong voice is really what carries the whole book.

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#8: Whale Station, by Megan McGrath

They said there were no more whales but I’d caught one.

Megan McGrath’s Whale Station, published in Griffith Review 46: The Novella Project II, opens with the protagonist Rick chasing down and harpooning a whale off the coast of Brisbane. The novella takes us back to Tangalooma’s history as a whaling station that operated from 1952-1962, a history that I was only dimly aware of as someone who grew up in Brisbane. Located on Moreton Island, Tangalooma is now a tourist resort known for offering hand-feeding of dolphins and whale watching. I’ve been there just once, when work took me there for a social outing; it’s clear from McGrath’s evocative prose that her personal connection to and sense of this beautiful place is stronger than mine.

Whale Station is available to read online, but please do buy either the print or ebook version of Griffith Review 46. Reading from websites doesn’t work so well at a length of nearly 22,000 words.

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#7: Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

Strangely, this novella turned up on a Halloween list of “Spooktacular” books by The American Scholar. Spooktacular? Not quite. Not at all. It is a tale of bloodthirsty revenge, but to me it reads almost like a fable, with the moral made explicit from page one:

Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man would have been thought the very model of a good citizen. In a village that still bears his name, he owned a farm on which he quietly earned a living by his trade; the children with whom his wife presented him were brought up in the fear of God to be industrious and honest; there was not one of his neighbors who had not benefited from his benevolence or his fair-mindedness—the world, in short, would have had every reason to bless his memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer. 


So this is a tale of a search for justice taken too far; or, as the blurb describes it, “that of the honourable man forced to take the law into his own hands […] one of the most stirring tales ever written of the quest for justice”.

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#6: Former Glory, by Cate Kennedy

What are Australia’s forgotten stories, those tales from history that don’t get enough of an airing? This 17,000-word novella by Cate Kennedy is the first of five that were selected for Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories (The Novella Project II). The subtitle promises fiction with a historical bent, but also something that strays from the well-worn beaten paths that Australian history tends to tread.

Former Glory is a quick read that felt shorter than it actually is, almost like a long short story, and it can definitely be read in a single sitting. It’s told from the present by Ed, a first-person narrator, so it doesn’t have the dusty texture that some might expect from historical fiction. Instead, it’s about an attempt by two artsy out-of-towners to restore the pub in a dying country town, with Ed’s reluctant help.

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#5: Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Jen Craig

In her Calibre Prize winning essay, Staying With The Trouble, Sophie Cunningham writes about walking:

Percy Grainger walked to avoid self-flagellation. David Sedaris walked to placate his Fitbit. Virginia Woolf walked the streets of London, and later the South Downs, endlessly: because she loved it, because she was walking her dogs, because she needed to think clearly.

In Panthers and the Museum of Fire, by Sydney writer Jen Craig, the protagonist—also named Jen Craig—spends the entire novella walking from her home in Glebe to a café in Surry Hills. She has in her possession a manuscript—also titled Panthers and the Museum of Fire—written by her recently-deceased friend, Sarah, and is walking to return this manuscript to Sarah’s sister, Pamela.

The physical space of this novella could become a two-dimensional prison, a line tracing a simple journey across inner Sydney and yet, as in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it’s the expansive mental space of the protagonist that has the power to free us from the physical; a simple journey in time and space becomes a complex layering of different times, places, thoughts, characters and anxieties.

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#4: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

I haven’t read Moby Dick, and I sometimes wonder if I ever will. I hadn’t actually read any Herman Melville until now. From the large box of unread novellas, this slim volume caught my eye for the single quote placed on the back:

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.

 

 

The blurb for the Melville House edition of the book states that “Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism”, and for some reason the phrase on the back cover had me expecting surrealism. Or absurdism. I expected that Bartleby would, in fact, disappear into thin air: something that I’ve wanted to do on more occasions than I could possibly recall.

But no, not quite. In fact not at all. Bartleby hangs around well past his welcome.

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#3: The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist

This is one of five novellas titled The Duel in Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, and possibly the shortest of all of the novellas, regardless of title. Yes, that’s why I chose it! It comes in at a slim fifty pages, which I’ve estimated to fall just shy of 10,000 words.


I’ve never read any work by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811), best known as a playwright, poet and writer of short narratives—collected along with The Duel in his Gesammelte Erzählungen (Collected Short Stories). This could be considered a long short story, or perhaps a “noveltini”, as per the Tiny Owl Workshop’s recent call for submissions. It definitely can (and should) be read in a single sitting.

This new translation by Annie Janusch is a joy to read with simple yet richly descriptive prose. At over 90 words, the opening sentence is digressive and packed full of character names, drawing us in with terms like “enmity” and “clandestine marriage”. It’s sheer density is enticing, but it’s somewhat difficult to follow and I was glad that things settled down from there on in.

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#2: Feathered Glory, by James Lasdun

“Feathered Glory” is a seventy-page novella by James Lasdun, published in the latest issue of The Paris Review (Issue 212, Spring 2015). I’d never heard of James Lasdun before, and I didn’t have this novella in my planned list of conquests, but I do read The Paris Review, so I came across it by accident, as a pleasant surprise.

Following the serial publication of Rachel Cusk’s novella Outline last year over four issues (to be covered in a future post), I didn’t expect to find a complete novella inside this issue of the magazine. At this length though, which I estimate at around 25,000 words, it’s very manageable and doesn’t dominate this issue, which also includes many other stories plus poetry and interviews with both Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis and Elena Ferrante.

“Feathered Glory” follows the marriage of Richard, a school principal in a small town 100 miles north of New York, and Sara, his wife who dabbles in weaving and animal welfare. Their quotidian existence is contrasted from the first page with that of Richard’s friend Victor, a music journalist “leading the disorderly and, in Richard’s private opinion, increasingly depressing life of an ageing bohemian.”

At nearly 50, Victor is recently married to a younger woman named Audrey; they are raising a young daughter. We learn about Audrey from Richard’s perspective, defined in relation to Victor rather than in her own right. Lasdun’s narration privileges the men in most parts, and I was ready to fault him for this: the women are talked about in the opening pages, but the men decide to go out for dinner alone—”Sara won’t mind”—and it’s through their conversation that their stories are presented. However the perspective does shift to Sara in the middle of each of the novella’s three chapters, and it’s in these sections that the prose shines most brightly (while also providing the opportunity for some enjoyable moments of dramatic irony).

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#1: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

I first read The Awakening as part of an undergraduate Narrative Fiction course, and so far it remains my favourite novella—if not my favourite book. I’m currently working on a stage-play adaptation as part of a Script Adaptation course, so now is the perfect time for a close re-reading.


Written in 1899 by Kate Chopin, its publication was met with charges of immorality, ruining Chopin’s literary and social reputation in a tragic example of life imitating art. While it retains some aspect of Chopin’s earlier work (short stories that were often trivially described as “local colour”), The Awakening moves beyond these, into what were deemed socially unacceptable areas—particularly for a female writer—and contains an early-modernist style that at first holds readers at a distance but then gradually draws us into Edna’s psyche, a shifting narration that formally echoes the shifts in Edna’s own situation.

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