TEXT review

A malfunctioning heart bared to the scalpel

review by Helen Gildfind


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Anthony Macris
Inexperience and other stories
University of Western Australia Press, Crawley WA 2016
ISBN 9781742588704
Pb 230pp AUD24.99


Anthony Macris’s collection of short stories is grouped into two sections, ‘Inexperience’ and ‘Quiet Achievers’. Together, these sections offer a sophisticated and compassionate analysis of masculinity in a modern, consumer, capitalist world.

‘Inexperience’ gives a young man’s first-person recount of travelling overseas with his partner, Carol. He immediately asserts how they’ve scrimped and saved: money – and middle class aspiration – is thus signalled as a primary concern of the book. Thereafter, he describes how their desire to escape Australia’s ‘shabby modernity’ (3) has propelled them to ‘mother Europe’ (7), a place where even the toilets have more ‘style’ than home (7). For the Antipodean traveller, ‘culture’ is something to be sought in the old world (7), a world which associates Australia with nowhereness and the bland suburbs: a Frenchman describes Brisbane as a ‘nowhere’ place (58), and an English girl seems to think Australia is further away than the moon (83).

This Antipodean couple’s middle-class, self-consciousness points to a theme that reappears throughout the book: ‘authenticity’. As they struggle to view a painting through a throng of tourists, Carol says: ‘enjoy the experience for what it is’ (39). ‘A real inexperience’, he replies. ‘Something you’re an expert at’, she snipes back (39). This sideways argument about what constitutes a ‘real’ experience exposes the intense pressure each feels to re-invent themselves, as if their ‘real’ selves are suppressed and need a ‘right context’ – like the newness and Otherness of a relationship and travel – to emerge. In this story, it is Carol who becomes ‘more herself with every passing moment’ (53), whilst he remains his old self – a non-self – trapped in the gendered stereotype of the ‘regulation-issue boyfriend’ (53).

Discarded, he soon meets an English girl, the ‘anti-Carol’ (79), Heather. He has a ‘one week stand’ with her. The contrast between the two relationships reveals how each character struggles to navigate traditional and progressive discourses on gender. When he takes Carol to see Napoleon’s sarcophagus, they riff about the hyper-masculine grandiosity of his shrine surrounded by angels. Heather wonders if he took her there because of ‘boy hero fantasy stuff’ (72). He admits this possibility, but points out, ‘If you’re a boy, you have to be a hero, or you’re nothing’ (73). The significance of this statement is lost on Heather – but it is key to the whole collection: What’s it like to be a man who has ‘failed’ to be the masculine hero he’s meant to be?

His relationship with Heather only emphasises his confusion over gender roles. In bed, he suggests they ‘make love’ (96). She replies, ‘No way. Fuck me harder... But not too hard… I like giving myself over. Sometimes’ (96). He says that’s ‘old school’ and against everything he’s been taught (96). She claims it’s what he believes. He denies this. She replies, ‘Bullshit … C’mon Mr Feminist. Fuck me hard’ (96). How, the reader wonders, is this guy meant to work out what ‘fuck me hard’ but ‘not too hard’ and only ‘sometimes’ means – literally or metaphorically?! Heather is really just as lost as he is. She’s engaged to a boring, rich Englishman (again, the coercive pressures of money and class are ever-present), and her struggle is most poignantly revealed when the protagonist awakens to her lovely face, cleansed of the heavy make-up she uses to create her sexy, goth-vixen image. Later, looking in the mirror, his own face seems covered in bruises: but the bruises are hers, for it is her make-up, her feminine mask, her cultural bruising that is smeared on his skin.

The second series of stories, ‘Quiet Achievers’, overtly explores the text’s preoccupation with a ‘moneyed’ sense of self. The first story uses stream-of-consciousness to express the self-flagellation of a man who’s determined to grow himself a nest egg. This distressing monologue of self-loathing expresses his sense of feeling ‘trapped’ (140) inside himself. He wants desperately to see himself as he ‘really’ is:

Like a surgeon I’ll see myself fully exposed, a malfunctioning heart bared to the scalpel. Then I’ll be able to put an end to this life of aimless excess, to plug the leak of precious lifeblood, money. (141)

Again, the spectre of an ‘authentic’ self haunts these characters. Whilst he recognises that compulsive consumption does him no good (‘I’m … consuming myself an impulse at a time,’ 141) he, paradoxically, believes his true self must be bought: his savings will let him ‘do anything, be anything’; he’ll never know what he’s ‘really’like till he’s saved enough money; he aspires to ‘become’ money itself (141-143). Objectifying himself (as his culture surely does) by suddenly referring to himself in the third person, he finally shows himself some pity: he sees a ‘half-starved rat in a maze’, trapped in an experiment overseen by the ‘ruthless faces of grey-suited men’ (165). Though he knows it’s foolish to pretend he’s ‘untouched’ by this ‘structure’ that ‘defines’ him (166), he still feels that he can and must be self-determining.

This paradox between knowing and feeling – of yearning and striving for the impossible – is common to all the characters, and is further explored in the final two stories. ‘Triumph of the Will’ powerfully evokes the terrible humiliation of a small shop owner. The masculine ‘hero’ motif re-emerges as this character faces the great ‘nothingness’ of his public failure. If he can’t be the hero of his own life, of his own little shop, what is he? He lies in bed, musing on his personal failure even as he damns the monstrous shopping mall that has put him out of business. In the end, he feels he is ‘freefalling’ (177), consumed by the blackness of his insomniac night. ‘The Quiet Achiever’ recounts the story of a student visiting this shop owner in a mental hospital. The student sees, in his friend, ‘total subjugation to an external force’ (182). The tension between the macro and the micro is thus reasserted, and the motif of the masculine ‘hero’ figure reappears when they discuss a Superman movie. They focus on a scene where people fall into an ‘abyss’ knowing they’re all ‘going to die’ (185-6). While this scenario reads like an evocation of Nietzschean, existential angst, the shop-owner envies the ‘wonderful feeling’ of freefall (186). The reader wonders if this freefalling self is the coveted ‘authentic’ self, for it is the only self who is liberated from the delusion that it has control. Though the massive shopping mall can be seen from the hospital grounds, the shop owner still believes he is wholly responsible for his failed business: ‘You can’t blame others for your own failings,’ he says, ‘I’ll try again... I’ll get another shop. And this time it’s going to work’ (188). The shop owner’s exhausting struggle to be anything in a society and economy that treats him like he’s nothing is ultimately symbolised by his ‘blind’ and desperate attempts to draw a self-portrait: ‘angry, desperate, helpless’ (192) he soon gives up.

‘Inexperience’ offers a beautifully and sensitively written insight into the modern man’s struggle to navigate a world where gender roles are opaque, and where money is – always – the ultimate signifier of value. This collection forces readers to feel the anxieties inherent in every individual’s struggle to exist as an authentic ‘self’ in a capitalist, consumer culture that depends on both promising and denying the very possibility that such a self can ever be realised.



Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published in Australia and overseas.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste