Collected Stories by Peter Carey (2001) 328 p.

Peter Carey has rapidly become one of my favourite authors, so reading some of his short stories seemed in order. He’s had a few collections published; this 2001 edition is, I think, the most comprehensive, combining his previous volumes The Fat Man in History and War Crimes, and adding a few extra stories which had previously been unpublished.

Although most of them take place in no particular time or place, the majority of these stories were written in the 1970s, before Carey turned his hand to writing novels. Carey was self-admittedly suffering from cultural cringe at the time, and therefore he usually avoids naming the setting, despite the fact that nearly all the stories are clearly set somewhere in Australia or an Australian-like nation. The effect, when combined with his usual surreal and magical style, is to create a sort of fantasy Australia – a land of dusty country towns and strange cityscapes built around anonymous harbours, stifling factories at the edge of the desert, bleak motels and seedy bars, secret rivers and dark forests. It actually reminded me, in a wonderful way, of the artwork of Shaun Tan – clearly Australian, yet also strange and fantastic. I said in my review of Illywhacker that I loved the way Carey took Australian place names and turned them into something beautiful and lyrical, but there is equally something marvellous about the mythical not-Australia of his early fiction.

As in any collection, I have varying opinions on the stories. Some of my favourites included Kristu-Du, about an architect building a monument for a third-world dictator and turning a blind eye to his role in the dictator’s human rights abuses; Crabs, a strange story about a man who becomes trapped in a drive-in theatre in a sort of post-apocalyptic world in which possession of a car is paramount to survival; A Windmill in the West, about a soldier guarding a fence in the desert who becomes confused about which side is which; The Puzzling Nature of Blue, about an Australian who must confront what has actions have wrought upon a tropical island nation; Exotic Pleasures, about an alien bird which gives intense pleasure to all who stroke it; A Schoolboy Prank, about an act of revenge and intimidation a group of alumni perform upon their former teacher; and The Journey of a Lifetime, about a clerk obsessed with travelling on a luxury train.

Carey’s prose is brilliant as always, and his stories range across a variety of post-modern anxieties and unease: Australia’s relationship with America, the stultifying effects of consumer culture, the lip service people pay to the notion that physical beauty isn’t important. Sometimes these themes can be buried deep within complex allegories – beautifully written allegories, but nonetheless difficult to extract. I can’t say I enjoyed every one of these stories, and I do still think Carey is a better novelist than a short story writer. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Collected Stories a lot.