TEXT review

Offsetting the mise en abyme

review by Victoria Reeve


Laura Parker and Jacalyn Sinnett (eds)
Samuek Ryan and Alexandra Schleibs (managing eds)
Offset No. 11
Offset Press, Melbourne, Vic 2011
ISBN 9780646563091
Pb 139pp AUD20


Offset is a creative journal produced annually by students of Victoria University’s Professional Writing, Communication and Multimedia program. Its eleventh iteration comprises a beautifully presented volume of poetry, prose, music, multimedia and printed images. The diversity of form makes it somewhat difficult to review, deserving as it does expertise across a range of media. That said, it’s easy enough to enjoy Offset No. 11: a book format with CD and DVD tucked within its covers makes it something to get excited about. The cover illustration by Martin Power is quaintly appropriate – the detail of the work, particularly that of the back cover, matches the bizarre narrative element at work in the stories and poetry that fill the printed portion of this journal: flip it over and a visual narrative unfolds in the clues as to what took place and where – just when the bear lost its head, so to speak.

In terms of the printed matter, there is no stated theme to the journal and yet the contents sit together very comfortably and in a way that urges the reader on to one more story or poem, and then another, and another. I found myself picking Offset up and reading a poem or story at intervals, so it provided the perfect antidote to reader’s block (that form of procrastination where you can’t face reading what you know you will ultimately enjoy). Even reading in this way, rather than in one sitting, it is possible to take in the subtleties of writing that deals with a range of human sorrows. If about anything in particular, Offset No. 11 offers an indirect and diverse reading of human feeling ranging from acute anxiety and despair to that form of humorous sadness Shakespeare called melancholy. And I say that it does so indirectly because it seems to glance at its affective object rather than stare it down. This quality is what makes Offset so readable. Its depths are demonstrated by curiosity rather than clarity. This is not to say that the subject matter is light – some shocking scenarios are portrayed, but in a way that induces a kind of complacent curiosity in the reader.

Perhaps this is because the genres that are invoked, if they can be trusted, promise to lead the reader to a safely fanciful conclusion. Yet the stories develop ambiguities that enable a denouement that is paradoxically anticipated but not necessarily expected, and they do so by maintaining a literal course whilst projecting a sense of aesthetic exaggeration consistent with the range of genres utilised – fantasy, horror and psychological drama, to name a few. The result as often as not is that what seems metaphorical becomes real. ‘Monsters’, by Erin Meadows, for example, builds its horrific scenario so cunningly that one is tempted to read this narrative as the distorted nostalgia of a painful childhood, until it becomes impossible to remain so comfortably complacent. ‘White’, by Jade Bitomsky, casts a similar spell by inviting suspicion of the narrator’s state of mind through her focused attention on blood and pain and the contrasting purity and sterility suggested by the objects that fascinate her. The distinction here seems to serve as a means for the narrator to exaggerate her despair, suggesting an interior state (of mind) rather than an external reality. Yet this psychological horror story leaves no doubt that the events described must be taken as given.

Not every narrative derives from the fantastic. Some offer a strenuous realism that is softened by the subtlety of the prose. Here, the difficulties of life that each piece describes are explored rather than recounted. Perhaps the prose pieces that most demonstrate this quality are G Raymond Leavold’s ‘Stationary’, Lucia Nardo’s ‘Exit from the Roundabout’ and Sarah Ali’s ‘Red’. There is only the odd misstep, and there are many other excellent examples, such as Oliver Mol’s ‘Letter to Yarra Trams’, but it is not possible to do all of them justice here.

The poetry is spread across the journal, and along with the images this produces a comfortable reading pace. To single out a few: Lunabella Mrozik Gawler’s ‘Turn On, Log In, Drop Out’ is a witty expression of virtual life, Emily Manger’s ‘The Sweaty Tango’ addresses a similar crisis, and Teri Louise Kelly’s ‘The Cracks’ shifts from these concerns to a more apocalyptic vision.

The CD has eight tracks. The music is nicely produced, eclectic but with a unified quality that might be described as global fusion. It is both interesting and easy to listen to without being ‘easy listening’. As a compilation of works by different artists, the tracks represent a variety of styles, and yet each song introduces a rhythmical or tonal quality that contributes to the pleasing shape of the music overall. The instrumentals are interspersed amidst vocal tracks that are very different to one another, providing interludes that overcome any disparities of vocal style. Some highlights are the haunting quality of Mushroom Horse’s ‘Home of the Herder’ and ‘Messenger’ by Lorraine Anne. While Anne misses pitch in the vocalese, her performance is otherwise excellent and her voice has the perfect quality for this style of song, whose length (over nine minutes) gives the listener time to take in its stylistic shifts.

There are four documentaries and one short film on the DVD. Apart from ‘A.P.E. Media Interview’, the documentaries and film are united by a common theme, that of identity and, in the case of the documentaries, the real journeys taken toward the experience of being at home in geographical and personal terms. Among these, ‘Calling Australia Home’ presents two very different experiences, its strength being the articulate and insightful accounts supplied by its two interviewees. The only fictional piece, ‘Mighty Paella Woman’, is an entertaining animated film that uses a pleasing array of representational techniques. That said, some viewers may find the moral of fighting violence with violence problematic, even if it is ironic in some sense, given the rather beguiling humour with which the narrative proceeds.

Overall, the documentaries are interesting and informative. Their titles might have been a little more imaginative and, in some instances, more politically savvy, in the latter sense by choosing to break away from terms like ‘new Australian’, which is complexly ‘othering’, and (in the case of the documentary described above) by avoiding the intertextual connotations that link to that well-known sentimental patriotic song by Peter Allen. Allen’s championing of the middle-class ideal of international life and perpetual tourism – an opportunity not immediately available to those Australians who arrived as refugees and who are less likely to acquire the financial freedom to experience the ease of travel that Allen celebrates – reminds me of Australians’ less-than-glowing reputation these days as self-centred hedonistic tourists.

The artwork complements the printed aspect of the journal by introducing a visual element that crosses over to the multimedia. Some of the works are less accomplished, but others introduce fascinating obscurities, adding to the ironic effect of the literal dressed as metaphor, which characterises some of the short stories described earlier. I include Martin Power’s work among these, but Jessica Couchi’s ‘Endless’ would have to be the most conceptually rich in this particular vein, for it seems to reproduce the spiral binding of a book within a book: the scene – a blue sea fringed by a vertical row of balconies suspended over its endless expanse. Whether intended or not, this mise en abyme is emblematic of Offset No. 11, with the promise of multiple textual pleasures nestled between its covers. The journal’s headliners – Kate Holden and π.o – provide some interesting material, but the strength of this publication lies in the new voices, artists and perspectives that it offers.



Victoria Reeve lectures and tutors in English literature at Australian Catholic University and The University of Melbourne.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo