Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Review by Helen Hagemann

Arrhythmia – symptoms of unreliability

Arrhythmia is a book that contains twenty-six short stories by a West Australian writer, Richard Rossiter. It is also his first collection published by UWA Publishing. Rossiter is a retired academic, having taught literature and supervised postgraduate creative writing students. He has also judged numerous literary and writing awards (including the WA Premier’s Book Awards). He is a consultant editor for Papers and has been the fiction editor for literary journals Indigo & Westerly.
    There are many well-written stories in this collection, including various generational stories of two families (there’s a family-tree legend in the back of the book), with the main family headed by Samuel and wife Ellen. We are led into their farming life with sons Winston and Jack in the first story called The Brother. It's basically a story about the harsh farm life and headaches. 

    One of the better stories that evokes pathos is The Boy who Lost Time. This story begins with young Jeremy being given a watch by his grandfather, only to find that his father keeps hocking it to pay for his gambling debts. Prior to a visit by his grandfather and grandmother, and not having the watch (it's in its second cycle of use), Jeremy tries to win a watch at the Claremont Show, attending with his friends. After spending all his money, he eventually knocks a gold watch from a spinning glass machine, but it is not silver like his own, it’s too big for his wrist and he knows he cannot show this watch to his grandfather. When the grandparents arrive, Jeremy runs away to avoid the inquisition and a betrayal of his father’s illicit habits.

Writing is centuries old. It is a silent honing, a courageous externalization of the internal workings of memory, experience and our connection with the world at large. It is craft that needs daily practice and commitment. Standards, and certainly a moral compass are needed when we convey certain storylines and archetypes to our readers. They will soon become aware of any amorality or unreliability, for example, towards a female protagonist by those who have crafted a male literature. Female readers are also concerned with stories that have an ordinary voice and possibly from the same consciousness. Over time female readers have developed a gender, race/class conscious “ear”. In other words we can hear the disingenuous language if conveyed about our image, especially in language such as “small breasts, lively nipples… her eyes, dark and intense, conveyed whatever men wanted them to do”.
   Shall we say, then, the male writer who purports to understand the mind and body of a woman takes risks.  Roddy Doyle’s novel The Woman who Walked into Doors is an excellent example of the male writer taking those risks, especially writing from a female point of view. The story is so confronting and heart-wrenching - yet as a woman’s experience of abuse - it is “believable”. Doyle creates a seamless transition from a male consciousness to a female’s – a writer using his moral compass and training.
    In Rossiter’s The Trophy Girlfriend, the main protagonist Laura is problematic. This is conveyed in the ending which appears ludicrous. Laura having been previously touted as a strong and empowered woman, and decidedly collecting her own trophy by cutting off her lover’s two dog ears, leaves in tears after dining with her female companions.  The narrator states, 'she could not control the tears'. This is where the text is incongruous and certainly not a female rationale. As readers we may suspect that either a). The author could not think of a better ending, or b). It is the male narrator’s accretion of the weak, stereotypical female. The narrator, perversely follows Descartes’ mind and body law, provides no criteria by which its scope or reliability can be gauged. (We achieve a moment of consciousness when the narrator is unreliable). There is a rigorous descriptive and fundamentally flawed diversion going on. The male narrator operates from the male mind, psyche, experience, and the academy, and we are thrown off track, brainwashed
again by an androcentric point of view, like “Laura’s going off the rails, Laura’s not a virgin, possibly “frigid”, better still a “sexual siren”. If we are consoling or understand the writer’s possible shortcomings, we will remain like an audience in a silent movie house - complicit, bewitched, beguiled and ….1950s stuff. If we say to ourselves, well, it’s just a story, we will pass-over such phrases as “her body was a commodity” in the face of our own characteristically human traits as women who have been conditioned by this dominant patriarchal consciousness. We will evade the system of existence of a male rationale. We will be fooled by the etymology of the “narrative”, the known feminine “weak” ending. Laura is really not empowered (as we are led to believe), she is weak and leaves in tears. I find this scenario rather at odds with the creation of the character, especially being strong within the paradox of taking her own trophy.    
   In closing, I have rated this work 3 out of 5. The collection does have many worthwhile stories told in the third-person point of view, where the male characters are believable, and that do offer a reliable narrator. Yet the work is spoiled by the intrusion of the authorial voice that seeks to convey a certain weakness in women. Arrhythmia appears to live up to its name when it comes to a subset of pre-feminism (1950s) and gender issues, i.e. symptoms such as weakness, fluttering, dizziness, being light-headed or feeling that your heart is running away.
    Rossiter is a good writer but one hopes that he might stick to what he knows best, stories from his own experience/memory/male consciousness, without the subliminal academic theory.



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