Jessica Yu reviews Almost Sincerely by Zoe-Norton Lodge
by Zoe-Norton Lodge
Reviewed by JESSICA YU
I grew up in a quiet and oftentimes dingy suburb in the outer north-west of Melbourne called Gladstone Park. Whenever someone asks me where I grew up or moved away from, I’m surprised if they have heard of it. What strikes me most is that I have no way of characterizing that suburb to outsiders. Tropes, stereotypes and ridicule are expected but nostalgia has softened my memories of the two-hour commutes to the city; the cat-calls and overt racism from passing cars; the lack of anywhere to go. These memories are the ones that I tell people about because they lack specificity but then there are the ones I don’t talk about: finding a thin, brown snake curled up amongst the tanbark of the playground and dreaming of it for months; the huge and beautiful bike track and the hilly meadows; not being allowed to play tennis with myself against a big concrete wall erected for the purpose in the local basketball courts; an aged stranger saying “Hello” as he pushed on the door of the men’s toilets and I pushed on the door of the ladies; hanging out all day at the local shopping centre for no reason and my brother impressing me beyond measure by buying me twenty-cent potato cakes from the Chicken and Chips shop. They are too private, too specific, too strange and unfinished for small talk.
For the most part, it is this intimate realm of the strangeness in the minute details of suburban life which Zoe Norton Lodge’s new short story collection, Almost Sincerely concerns itself with. Norton Lodge’s quasi-autobiographical/quasi-fictional stories are about the real Sydney suburb of Annandale, “that skinny little suburb that fell asleep between the good suburbs” (Norton Lodge 3). These stories are as quirky, erratic and as plotless as suburban life is apt to be.
Her story, “How Come Why For Did You Call my Friend Denise a Bitch” is beautifully relatable for me in its lack of explanation over the real mysteries of childhood: not how sex works or where the light escapes to at night but why an older girl is mad at you and why she thinks you’ve called her friend Denise a bitch and why her grammar is so bad. It’s also one of the stories in the collection that feels like a well-honed and crafted short story rather than a pleasing dinnertime anecdote told by a verbose and very funny friend who is well-known for exaggerating the facts. The story fits perfectly within the limited point of view of Zoe’s twelve-year old protagonist of the same name who dramatizes this story of her mother bullying a pack of girl bullies who are bullying the Zoe of the story. The humour of this story is not just concentrated within Norton Lodge’s sharp zingers:
Mamma was one strict lady when I was growing up. Playtime at the park directly next to our house was limited to short spurts in high daylight….That’s how I grew up to be in a rare subset of ethnically Mediterranean people with the pallor of jellyfish (41).
The humour is plotted and planned throughout the two major arcs of the story: Zoe and her friends’ wonderment over which of their fathers drinks the most and the accosting of the girl bullies. Neatly, both threads are tied up when, to protect their safety, all of their fathers are ordered by their mothers to supervise their children at the park:
“Mamma made Dad go have his after-work half-bottles of Chardonnay in the park with Sally and Swayne’s dad every day after that. This was pretty good because our Dads were not as good at knowing what we were and weren’t supposed to be doing. Also it made it much easier for us to decide who was the most drunkest every day.” (48).
However, this sense of a nifty conclusion and a steady build-up to the end of this story is absent from some of the other stories in Norton Lodge’s collection. “Petrol” was, for me, as meaningless and meandering a story as a car ride without a destination. A story detailing the fact that Zoe’s mother drives her from place to place and once sprayed petrol all over herself by accident was simply not enough to hold my attention. It seemed to me one of the stories in her collection that sunk into the realm of dinnertime anecdote rather than well-written and truly entertaining piece of fiction. Like “Hats” and some of the other stories in the collection, “Petrol” gave me the distinct impression of a story that would be funny if the writer was reading them aloud to you but becomes rather bland when read alone at your desk. This is of course, a symptom of many of these stories having been lifted from Norton Lodge’s live event, Story Club, in which she and others tell stories with an oftentimes confessional and humours bent to a live audience. A story like “Hats” about the minutia and everyday absurdity of our lives is exciting when told to friends. However laid flat and bare on the page, the story is nothing special without the intimacy of that storytelling experience to engage us. A reader is, perhaps, more sensitive to when a story lacks tension, momentum or real feeling in the words than a listener who can look the storyteller in the eye and hear all of those things in the trembling of their voice.
In the absence of plotting, Norton Lodge should be commended for her engaging and enigmatic characters and blown-up humour in stories such as “Madame Guillotine and the Imitation Samoan”, “The Birds”. “The Devil Wears a Denim Winter One-Piece”, “The Red Light” and “The Old Curiousity Shops.” These stories are flat-out funny and so strange and charismatic that they are utterly believable. “The Birds” made me realize I’ve been telling the story of the place where I grew us all wrong. Norton Lodge knows better than to simply re-write the classist tropes and familiar jokes that have been used to characterize these strange suburbs. Instead she opts for the unfinished and the odd which, as they always seem to in fiction, draw us closer rather than push us away as readers. In the same vein, we realize how many off-smelling untold stories we have inside of ourselves when we read “The Devil Wears a Denim Winter One-Piece.” This hyperbolic tale contains a very funny and memorable villain, LaReine. “The Old Curiousity Shops” is a personal favourite of mine because it articulated perfectly the sadness of the obscure and unpatronised small business on a literal level; while on a metaphorical level, shows that human beings can be totally lacking in self-awareness to great comic effect.
Zoe Norton Lodge’s Almost Sincerely made me think twice about the way I tell stories and the way I listen to them. Norton Lodge probed at the different facets of Annandale the way a scientist probes at microbes in a petri dish. She felt an anthropological curiousity about somewhere that was close to her heart and in doing so, she made me re-consider the ubiquitous for myself. Her humour is not to be taken for granted, it is the result of the kind of extreme close up lens with which she sees and sweats the small stuff in her writing. Almost Sincerely is not without its flaws as a work of fiction but as a book about celebrating and teasing ourselves for our flaws, perhaps Norton Lodge’s is the most fitting way for these stories to be told.
JESSICA YU is the recipient of the Young Writers Innovation Prize 2014 and founding editor of interactive narrativity website, Betanarratives. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in The Best Australian Poems 2014, Cordite, Mascara, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, The Saturday Paper and Award Winning Australian Writing. She is a 2015 recipient of a Grace Marion Glenfern Fellowship as well as a Hot Desker at The Wheeler Centre.