Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Red Queen

Damien Wilkins launched Gemma Bowker-Wright's debut collection of stories The Red Queen. We're grateful to be able to share his launch speech.

It really is my great privilege to say a few words about Gemma’s extremely fine first book.
Of course all books are hard to write, let’s face it. But I’ve always thought that a book of short stories comes with some unique and fairly punishing challenges for the writer. Novels, you know, work through accumulation, more of the same, another scene, another scene and so on. Novels are word-count and momentum, a distance event. After a while, if you’re lucky and good, you feel the thing rise up and it’s running and you’re running alongside it.
Set out to write a collection of stories and at first, if you’re lucky and good, it’s running, you’re running, maybe even quite fast—hell, you’re sprinting and a wonderful light comes on, you see everything—then a hole opens up and you’re back in the dark—oh, that’s the end of your story—your first story—and you need to climb out of the hole and start running again. You need to do this eleven more times, in Gemma’s case, before you have the book.
The short story is a kind of interrupted art form. It’s always stopping you in its tracks. The writer, as much as the reader, submits to a greedy world of beginnings and endings. Always starting again, books of stories work through periodically—about every 15 pages or so in Gemma’s case—aiming blows at the reader’s brain and heart. It’s best to read one and walk away; read more than two and you’ll need a concussion test. Because the best collections do feel like contact sport: bursts of feeling, incident, illumination, exchanges between people that look like one thing but somehow generate meaning far beyond those moments.
The Red Queen, Gemma’s book, is full of all of the above. It details a dozen different scenarios—and Gemma is brilliant at openings that state plainly where we are and what we should pay attention to; she’s a natural at getting us underway—and then in deft strokes, worlds are summoned: the world of university students, the world of couples, of scientists, trampers, radio announcers, broken families, recovering families, abandoned children, hesitant adults. And even though I said you have to take breaks between stories, you also start to feel the deep pleasure and often the productive disquiet of returning themes across the stories, of shared concerns, the lingering sense of unfinished business which marks the real writer.
Real writers, as we know, don’t have themes, just obsessions. In this public forum I won’t say what I think Gemma’s are—you need to buy the book and work those out for yourselves. But in one of the stories, the narrator observes of her relationships with others that ‘Something had changed between us—a slight repositioning that I couldn’t put my finger on.’ Gemma’s terrific achievement is to dramatise this ‘slight repositioning’, to communicate how change in our lives occurs on a sliding scale—there are massive movements but also the smaller shake-ups and who’s to say whether we might not register love or separation, beauty or terror in surprisingly minor ways.
Searching his memories for a full picture of the father who left the family years ago and now returns awkwardly and loudly for birthdays or holidays, the young man in the terrific story ‘Cowboy’ remembers the time when he was fifteen in a bar and his father tried to show him how to pick up women. The father fails and the son feels ‘intensely lonely and yet buoyant at the same time, as if he could float up off the stool. It seemed, then, as if he was watching his dad from a great distance, like he was up there suspended below the ceiling, looking down at his dad’s head, all that way below him, balding and unprotected.’
Gemma knows how to calibrate the pressure of her prose so that we always feel a finger is being put on some tender spot.
Sometimes these spots are great undercurrents of emotion; at other times, these spots are simple isolated images: I love lots of the noticing in this work, as say when a daughter during a funeral describes her father’s knee jiggling ‘throughout the service, like a dog running in a dream’; or when a woman sees that the back of a man’s knees are hairless, ‘the skin a silvery colour’. Turns out Gemma is a poet of knees.
The core of the collection was first written in 2011 during Gemma’s MA year and I haven’t read the work since—I was struck by how firmly their atmosphere, which frequently rests in a haunted version of our outdoors—hills, gardens, bush—had stayed with me. I only had to read a few sentences and I was back inside these worlds. That also makes me think these stories will stick around inside your heads.
One of my favourites here is an 8-page story called ‘The TakahÄ“’ about two young women, students, on an island in the Sounds for a research project monitoring weta. But what they really want to do is see a takahÄ“. There are two DOC rangers on the island and one of the students get obsessed about their lives, if they’re a couple, if they’re having sex. It becomes clear that the two students are out-of-their depth, unsuited to each other, consumed with an appetite for experience, poised on some terrible edge. But the fierceness of this longing is contained and compressed in the telling. Nothing much happens but the slight repositioning feels momentous. Amazing.

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