Short and not very sweet, Ashlee Nelson

Julie Hill
Giant Sparrow, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473284060

Michael Botur
Create Space, US$6.66,
ISBN 9781491226650

Julie Hill’s ShameJoy is very much a mixed bag in terms of quality, with some stories incoherent messes and others poignant and perceptive. The less pleasant aspects are found most pronouncedly in the earliest stories. These want to be funny, but also to seem as though they don’t care if you think them funny or not. They’re like the kid in class making annoying and disgusting jokes because occasionally they get a rise out of someone or hit the right note and get the laugh. And, every so often, ShameJoy achieves this. Although “The Pavlova Debacle” makes little narrative sense, there are moments of humour in the way it mocks with equal snark both countries in the New Zealand/Australia rivalry: “We were boring; they were racist. They were big, wealthy, sunny and quirky. We were obtuse, depressed, windswept.” But mostly the humour is drowned out by the uncomfortable, and the stories encumbered by a lack of any sense of structure or plot.

Where ShameJoy shines is in the more personal later stories where Hill artfully uses humour in conjunction with tales that are at times moving and insightful. The shift in calibre begins in the fifth story, “Love Mountain”, which has a mostly cohesive narrative and a defter use of humour, such as when Ping stands up to the philandering Derek:

“What’s not nice,” said Ping, “is drinking too much and embarrassing me at parties, failing to respond to my text messages for days and kissing two other women this week alone. What’s not nice is not being able to remember whether I’m Chinese or Japanese. Added to that, you have some kind of condition where you believe that you are intimately related to God and I believe this might be a form of psychosis.”

“You think I’m psychic?” said Derek.

“No Derek. Psychotic.”

What ShameJoy suffers from the most, perhaps, is its organisation. A casual reader trying out the collection might be tempted to discard it after the first story, not suspecting that there is actually beauty and enjoyment to be had in the quality of the later pieces. I’m not sure that I would have persevered if I had not been reading it for a purpose, and that would have been the real shame.

While ShameJoy is inconsistent in quality, Michael Botur’s Mean is entirely consistent. Unfortunately, it is unvaryingly awful. Mean is billed as “tales of bros, buds and bashings”; the paratext “About the Author” informs us (I’m assuming facetiously) that Michael Botur “is a member of several klans but won’t settle on one particular klan in case it’s not racist enough”; the “copyright” stylises him as “Literary Badass”. From these, before even opening the book, you get the sense that it is setting itself up as so cool, so cutting-edge, that if you don’t get it, well, you’re obviously not enough of a badass.

It is plainly trying its hardest in advance to be offensively shocking. Nor is this impression wrong. However, the stories themselves are not provocative in a thought-provoking or even entertaining way; they merely make you depressed about the state of society. Perhaps one could forgive the disgustingness, were it accompanied by some greater meaning or purpose, or exceptionally well-written. None of those qualities are to be found in Mean. But I persevered, hoping that, like ShameJoy, the collection had better work buried in the latter parts of the book. This hope was in vain, as we eventually arrive at “YOLO”, the cherry on this nauseating sundae. It’s not just the puerile content, but the uninspired vocabulary, the boringly constant use of words like “cock” and “bro” (the milder of the unartfully used slang in the collection). There is no reward to be had for perseverance; potential readers need not bother.

Ashlee Nelson is writing a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington about New Journalism and the 1972 American presidential election.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Short stories
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