My reaction to the first story in Andy Kissane’s collection?
Kissane, ya killin’ me here!
Killing me softly with a rare Montagnana cello and a little girl named Katherine. ‘In my Arms’ is a story of grief told with exquisite rawness. The narrator is selling his cello with its “scroll curling down to kiss itself” (11) and we cannot understand why.
At first, I think it is the narrator’s fear of failure that’s urged him to put a ‘for sale’ ad in the paper. Or does he have too many other commitments? Later, I wonder if fatherhood saps his creativity. Does his wife not give him the encouragement he needs? Has his room of one’s own been set aside for some other purpose? I want to shake the narrator: ‘But this is your life!’ I cry. ‘This is what you’ve worked for all these years’. Why, why why?
There are spots of humour providing relief from the sadness: a lost condom, a sexual tension to rival Elizabeth Bennet’s or Diver Dan’s (the narrator’s benchmarks), the embarrassment of an important conversation via mobile phone on a train with one arm around a cello, the crazy purchase of fuel when there’s a baby urging to be born.
But ‘In My Arms’ will leave you breathless, hollowed out and exhausted despite its final note of hope.
I have previously read two of the eleven shorts featured in the Swarm: ‘The Fibbing Bird’ (The Sleepers Almanac, No 7. Sleepers Publishing, 2011) and ‘The Elusive Tenant’ (Escape: an anthology of short stories. Spineless Wonders, 2011) and there are others acknowledged as having appeared in different versions in other publications.
Kissane captures a multitude of voices in this collection.
There’s a doting bogan of a brother with a souped up Monaro and a reckless abandon in ‘Vanilla Malted’.
In ‘When the Television Died’, Justin is a bored husband waiting for his wife to come home (later and later) from work. “Eight thirty. Nine. Nine forty-two. Ten thirteen” (37).
In other stories, we hear the voices of – variously – a father, a friend, an actor, a cheating husband. Each central character unfolds through a subtle yet insightful pinpointing of voice.
Art imitates life in stories like ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Going Underground’. In the former, three actors from NIDA meet up after a hiatus, and an awkward moment is “like a pause in a Becket play” (65). In the latter, a daughter, feeling smothered by her parents, ditches her commerce studies to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
I aspire to be Frida Kahlo: to make Kandinsky weep, to paint faces that Picasso might have marvelled at. These artists are dead, but in my studio they offer advice, they talk back to me. (109)
The runaway artist is immersed in creating a series of paintings of Rosa Luxemburg. The penultimate canvas features Rosa in bed with her lover Kostja:
I paint Kostja so he looks elated, but the scene feels too glib, too simple. It’s only when I introduce Rosa’s cat, Mimi, that the paining acquires some spunk, and I become excited and a little infatuated with my creation. (112)
The art/life juxtaposition features again in ‘A Mirror to the World’ and, despite not being overly fond of writers writing fictionally about writers (which usually come across as being self-indulgent and a bit too twee), the plot and subtext were so cleverly entwined, that I warmed to it.
Kissane’s stories play to my synaesthetic core. He colours his worlds with a wonderful stimulation of the senses, bringing art and music together with the written word so that I can touch the music, hear the painting, feel the words in my heartbeat. It’s a rare gift in a writer. I read that he is the current Coriole National Wine Poet and his poems feature on their latest Cabernet Shiraz. Sounds like a poster-boy for synesthesia to me.
I was delighted when a favourite character from one story recurred – or at least got a mention in passing – in another, giving The Swarm a coherence, and a sense of reality, of authenticity. In particular, I loved the circularity of reading about Michael and his cello named Jacqueline from an entirely different perspective in the last story, thus leaving me with the poignancy of that first story (which of course I just had to read again).
Kissane, Andy. The Swarm, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, Australia, 2012.
Distributed by Inbooks, it is available in both print and e-book formats.
This review is cross-posted at ANZ Litlovers.