Kyra Thomsen reviews Strange Objects Covered With Fur: 2015 UTS Writers’ Anthology
by University of Technology (Sydney) Students
Reviewed by KYRA THOMSEN
If the Greek poet Meleager considers an anthology as a garland of flowers, Strange Objects Covered With Fur is an outrageous arrangement of pastel-petal roses alongside long-pronged fern fronds and outrageous birds-of-paradise; its contrasts in theme and structure create a book that leaves the reader stunned and slightly unsettled. In the foreword, Ceridwen Dovey warns us that this anthology is “not a pretty bouquet… Some pieces are fetid or a little poisonous, unafraid of revealing their furry stems or filthy roots”, and this is true for a number of stories and poems within the collection.
I found myself being lulled into the fiction with the depth of characters and contemporary language only to be stumped by a plot twist at the last second; I found myself inspired by the non-fiction to the point that I discussed it with my work colleagues; I fell into the poetry and didn’t want to re-emerge. Reading Strange Objects Covered With Fur, I was in a constant state of flux, of knowing that nothing was quite as it seemed, that things here were indeed a little bit strange.
Striking language, such as that used in the prose piece ‘The Buzzing’ by Harriet McInerney (“He is feeling bruise. Black and blue. Sitting on the floor hugging himself as Mum is soothe”), is one of the first indications that Strange Objects Covered With Fur is going to be a book full of modern writing and intriguing challenges. One story, almost entirely dialogue between two men, ‘Yeah’ by William (Sam) Patterson takes the idea of talking-head characters and gives it an edge, having the two discuss their criminal convictions with language that is fast-paced, honest, and familiar to any modern Australian:
—First offence, assault, guilty, no conviction recorded
—Six fucking months
The poetry, too, embraces play in language and structure, such as Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s ‘She Imagines They Hold Hands in Silence’, which uses punctuation and repetition to create a stunted rhythm and emphasise key concepts surrounding love and relationships:
he-he does not understand this guilt/pleasure
the loved-she she tried to make him feel
and she succeeded—for a while
While such rule-bending and technical play may, in some other modern texts, feature as pure postmodern experimentation and lack any literary depth, the pieces in Strange Objects Covered With Fur always manage to balance story and character with contemporary form, artfully and with purpose.
Not only were there surprises in the structure and language of particular texts, but the content of the book itself is rich with labyrinthine turns. As with any collection, you’re not sure what you’re in for from piece to piece, from corner to corner, but this anthology leaves no safe place. Just when you think you’ve settled into a simple, contemporary story you’re presented with somewhat outlandish scenarios.
Benjamin Freeman’s short story ‘There is a Tide’ is a good example. A young male protagonist is coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis and attends a friend’s party. The story is written with realism, following him as he skirts around the party guests as an outsider, meets a girl and goes for a midnight swim, and disappears to his friend’s bathroom to cut a mole out of his face. Freeman confronts the reader with visceral imagery of sausage meat left of the serrated knife, ending on a note of madness to contrast the subdued realism of the rest of the piece, and providing a shock factor.
Another story, ‘You Cannot Comb A Hairy Ball’ by Emma Rayward, begins simply enough and then sinks into a strangely surreal narrative of a woman who eats a man, and the man who then eats the woman in return: “You fucking bitch, he says, as the last of her toes go in, I’m going to teach you a lesson in respect. Oh whatever mate, she says, you’re not the only one who can turn into stone… She has to decide where she wants to go. Jump in his ears and snap the hairs like tinnitus…Perhaps she should flamenco in his colon.” What is clear is that Strange Objects Covered With Fur aims to confront the reader at every step, to challenge our suspension of disbelief and our concepts of comfortable, ‘neat and tidy’ literature.
The non-fiction essays, too, were surprising in content by taking the most everyday objects and making them interesting. Shamin Fernando’s ‘The Oblong Mandala’ is about the hidden intricacies and history of the humble paperclip. Fernando’s metafictional style of writing (“When I submit this paper the last thing I will do is slide a paperclip onto the corner of it”) creates a fictional feel to support the anecdotal facts about the simplest of stationery: a clever way to frame an essay piece.
It is important to note that amidst the prose, poetry, and non-fiction there are two pieces of script writing. It’s generally less common to include script in printed anthologies, so coming across the stage directions and almost-distant feel of both ‘In The Deep End’ by Dale Alexander and ‘Pirate’s Play’ by Nicole Lame was another shock to my readerly system. The translation of commands and prompts to the written page is a unique one, where the reader begins to imagine the scenes playing out without the need for prosaic descriptions or poetic language. ‘In The Deep End’ is a surrealist piece, so it not only confronts the reader with its script structure and technique but also its Lynch-like scenes:
3. INT BEDROOM-NIGHT (SURREAL)
Luminous blue moonlight casts a ghostly hue on the MAN and the WOMAN entwined in and among rippled white sheets. The area of fabric around them is vast, so that they appear to be asleep in a kind of ocean. The couple are close in the space, yet they lie separately.
Though I was warned in Ceridwen Dovey’s apt foreword (“here is literature, in all its furry, heartbreaking strangeness”) I was still in wonder of the weirdness that was this anthology. While all the pieces are of a high quality, some do border on the stale side when compared with their playful and quirky counterparts; there is a level of risk when realism is published alongside fantastical writing; some pieces will stay with a reader for longer than others, and there may be unevenness.
That is not to say that the book, as a whole, was not impressive enough. Written by students from the University of Technology it is challenging, confronting, literary, and thought-provoking. In this, all the authors featured should be commended for their talents. Strange Objects Covered With Fur is a wild thing, a temperamental Venus Fly Trap ready to snap, or ready to be tamed.
KYRA THOMSEN is a writer and editor from Wollongong, NSW. She studied at the University of Wollongong and was the winner of the Questions Writing Prize in 2012. Kyra has worked with several literary publications, has been published numerous times both in print and online, and is Deputy Editor of Writer’s Edit.