Short stories, much like life, always unravel a little hotter or colder than we anticipate. The form itself – closer in its trajectory to a poem or joke and meant to be read in a single sitting, unlike a novel – demands precision and efficiency on the writer’s part and utmost concentration on the reader’s.
Two more generalisations. Good writers give us tangible details. They articulate aspects of our world that, though seemingly obvious, had hitherto remained slightly beyond our grasp.
In Drowned Sprat, a collection of 23 stories written over 16 years, Stephanie Johnson’s prose reaches a fever pitch at times and lowers itself to a whisper at others. Johnson’s talent is on display in a variety of genres here, and her narrators’ voices remain distinct in settings that range from New Zealand to Bali and small-town America.
“Red Lolly”, a highlight in the collection, demonstrates the level that readers have come to expect from Johnson’s work. The narrator, a 55-year-old repeat divorcee, spends her time basking on the beach, displaying her plastic surgery-chiselled body for the benefit of tourists. Her thighs haven’t touched in 30 years, she boasts, though a damaged nerve caused by one of her many liposuctions makes it difficult for her to walk. That’s no matter, since she considers herself as much an attraction as the beach itself.
Here and in several other stories, such as “The Night I Got My Tuckie”, narrated by an 11-year-old American girl, and “Bali, Baby”, set after the bombing, Johnson demonstrates the true meaning of “drowned sprat”, the theme that binds this collection. Nearly all of these characters give pieces of themselves, often half-heartedly, in hope for something greater in return.
All in all, the collection demonstrates Johnson’s inherent storytelling abilities. Some recurring mannerisms seep through these narratives, however, to diminish the effectiveness of this talent.
Too often, the descriptions are imprecise, perhaps because of Johnson’s overzealous desire to unleash sequence after sequence of arresting images, even if it means lulling us into uncertainty. Take the following sentence from “The Colour of Flesh”: “I fell asleep – or at least suspended the peculiar molecules of my being in the closed atmosphere of your car – until you returned, every cell thrumming, and drove us home.” Or the penultimate image from “Striker Lolls”: “Lolling in the polished hollow, in place of the striker, is Mal’s tongue, a dolorous stem of mute flesh, moist and torpid.” The sensory overload of such prose inspires perplexity and gives little assurance on rereading.
This section from “In a Language All Lips” has a similar effect: “Your neck has the feel of steamed fish, a delicate meat. I would like to bite it, but we are surrounded by sweating bodies in cars. If we were alone I would do it, and you would scream. Women like you like pain, each spin of the clock to be a rimless wheel.” These descriptions leave us with too much and too little.
At other times, a more technical confusion creeps into the prose. Near the end of the title story, for instance, Johnson writes, “Outside what used to be the Gluepot he waited for a cab, drenched and shivering.” This other instance also remains ambiguous because of clause placement: “At the pool crèche Lego table was a boy holding a red block in his hand, shiny and big.” In both cases, we think we know what Johnson intends. The construction, however, means that we can’t be certain. And when she writes, “Red, oxygenated blood surges through his veins”, we can only assume that she has mistaken veins for -arteries.
Drowned Sprat is filled with striking scenes and memorable characters, but these and other instances of ambiguity distance us from the material and wear down our senses. Unfortunately for the growing number of readers who have come to recognise Johnson’s talent, this collection runs colder and thinner than expected.
DROWNED SPRAT AND OTHER STORIES, by Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, $27.95).