Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 28, 2010

Like Being a Wife, by Catherine Harris

After a long time in the doldrums of the publishing industry, short story collections are becoming increasingly popular as time-for-reading seems to contract in the 21st century. Over at Whispering Gums, my good friend Sue has just written a post which explains her partiality for the novella and shorter fiction, but for her it is the positives of the short story form which attract, rather than a matter of the form fitting better into her life.  She likes ‘tight prose’ without ‘wasted words’,  ‘long digressions’ or ‘multiple storylines’; and she thinks the short story offers ‘a more intellectual engagement in which our feelings are continually monitored by our brains’.  (Please visit that link to see Sue’s context; I’ve just pinched a bit of her thoughts to contrast with mine and you need to read the rest of her post to get the full picture.  The post is actually about longer novels.)

I, on the other hand, rarely read short stories and novellas because I like the complex development (plot, character, structure and style) that takes place in a novel.   I enjoy ‘losing myself’ in a book and inhabiting the world of the characters (most recently, for example, with Hand Me Down World where Ines is still on my mind even as I write this.)  Short stories nearly always leave me discontented, wanting the author to do more … and no matter how cunningly done, I usually become irritated by the succession of resolutions that take place after the requisite number of pages.   Like train station stops on a suburban rail journey, short story endings punctuate the book till you reach the conclusion, and you read with the foreknowledge that you can get off at any time and do something else if you want to.  Reading a novel is more like taking like a voyage of discovery, where your real life is suspended as you make your way through uncharted waters, and the life of the book goes with you even when your reading is interrupted by going to work, or doing the ironing, or taking the dogs for a walk.  I recognise the skill of the short story writer – just as I also recognise the skill of the sportsman or the fashion designer – but  I’m not interested in the product.

So a short story collection that succeeds in engaging me has done well.  Like Being a Wife  by debut author Catherine Harris is good fun.  The blurber Fay Weldon thought so too, and I can see why: it’s because Weldon also writes subversive books that poke fun at the vicissitudes of daily life.  (In the 1980s I read each successive Weldon novel published and her backlist.) Harris is interested in how people ‘misbehave’ and the internal struggle between the good and the bad self, and her settings in the workplace provide wry opportunities for duality.

The title story Like Being a Wife reminded me immediately of a colleague who had once worked for a phone company.   His tales of the strategies these companies use to massage away customer complaints are hilarious, and here they are in Harris’s story: all problems can be dealt with by categorising, by filing and by parroting empathy with the customer.  There is no need to actually deal with the problem at all.   This same disengagement with the customer features in Our Breakfast Hostess where ‘committed listeners are complaining, calling the station in despair, twiddling their tuning buttons, turning off in droves’.  (p35)

Harris’s characters are Janus-like in these plastic workplaces.  We hear their internal voices saying the unsayable: ‘what I wanted to tell her’ (p14); ‘dodging the issue completely’ (p11); ‘I sit politely through the rest of her spiel’ (p30); ‘ You are quite horrendous at this, I would like to say to her.  You should get another job’. (p39).  The phoniness extends to workplace sex; the bitchery includes baking a Mars Bar cake to sabotage the slim figure of a colleague.

Occasionally the cynicism is savage. The detached tone of the narrator in  A Grand Leap of Stupid Faith tears romantic illusions about love and marriage apart with the same intensity as The First Ten Minutes are Free and the faint desire for something ‘dramatic and real’ seems hollow, just like the woman’s life.  As a window into the lives of young women today, this hollowness is rather sad, but there is something to be said for the strong sense of control these characters have.  Joannie’s duplicity in Mick, Agapanthus, the Unfinished TV Stand exposes with clarity the impotence of her husband.  There is much that these women suppress, but they choose to, in their own interest.

I was intrigued to see how many stories feature food issues, from the droll Milk featuring a wannabe Big M model to the taste-tester for FoodTech in Being Like a Wife, and others as well.  Harris has nailed the contemporary obsession with eating disorders in a very funny way.  Food is a weapon, an income, a transaction that can buy anything from love to hatred.  She’s got raunch culture down to a Tee as well. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun!)

I did quite a bit of snickering while reading this amusing collection, but How Do I Begin to Explain This to You shows the author’s dexterity in subverting reader expectations in more ways than one.  Harris is a very accomplished new writer and I would love to see her develop that dexterity within a novel!

Known Unknowns liked this book too.

Author: Catherine Harris
Title: Like Being a Wife
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2010
ISBN: 9781864710397
Source: review copy courtesy of the author.


Responses

  1. LOL Lisa…I always knew we were a bit chalk and cheese on this one – though I know you have read and liked short fiction and I have read and liked long so it’s a matter of degree isn’t it! I do want your readers to know that, in the context I wrote it, “more intellectual” is not used in “snooty” terms because all reading engages the intellect but in the sense that I think short stories *tend* to engage the intellect first and then the emotions while long ones often do the reverse.

    Glad you liked this book of short stories – it sounds good, and very contemporary. I’ll look out for it.

    • *chuckle* I don’t think you need to worry about anyone thinking you ‘snooty’ Sue, all my readers are your readers too, and they know you’re not. They’re more likely to think I am, and opinionated too LOL. But I’ve amended the post to add a suggestion that they visit your post to get the full context, just in case.
      I think that rather than chalk-and-cheese I think our interests are often mutual and when they’re not they’re complementary, so between the two of us hopefully our mutual readers get an interesting well-rounded view of Oz Lit.
      I think you would like this collection: it’s sassier than Amanda Lohrey’s Reading Madam Bovary, and while it has bite on certain issues, it’s not as gloomy as Nam Le’s The Boat.

      • Yes, you’re right, complementary is exactly how it is and a much better way to describe it.

  2. […] Catherine Harris’s short stories and essays have been published in Australia, Canada, England and the USA. She won the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for short story in 2009. Her short story collection, Like Being A Wife, was shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an unpublished manuscript, and you can see my review of the collection here. […]


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