I think probably my three least favourite words in Australian English are “bloke”, “mate” and “footy”. Call me un-Australian, but these three words to me represent a culture of masculinity that gives me the horrors (Australian masculinity, for instance, might yell “faggot” at you from a car while you’re holding hands with your boyfriend while walking down Toorak Road. For instance). So when I opened Shirl to find it was in large part about Victorian blokes hanging out with mates thinking about footy, it’s safe to say I didn’t think we would get along.
But to my delight inside I found 14 whimsical, absurd and fairly transgressive short stories, very much in the spirit of the gorgeous cover. They’re the kind of stories you might hear in a country pub, full of exaggeration and blokey humour. But each of them undoes masculinity, often fantastically.
So in Cod Opening a group mates go for a fishing weekend on the Murray River, only to have it come come unstuck when one of them hooks a mermaid. In A Night Out, our narrator meets his mate’s new wife Shirl, who turns out to be his ideal sort of woman: silent, if not exactly human. In The Telexican Brides, a man takes part in a new mail-order bride program, except the women come from an alien planet that has recently been colonised for its oil deposits.
There’s plenty about the relationship between the Australian man and woman in this collection, and it’s fun to see some of them get the comeuppance they deserve. Marshall also pokes fun at “sports, cars and drinking”, those masc obsessions “that came at the detriment of everything else”. In Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball, Nicholas Gibson goes to more and more absurd lengths to create a theme park as tribute to Australian sport, until he reaches Mona-like levels of extravagance. In The Hearing, a man is condemned to the guillotine for doing something unthinkable: crying.
In Warrentopia a small town is forced to give up alcohol for three months. The government sends in the army, commanded by a mad public servant. It sounds absurd, but it is a discomfiting reminder of the time the Australian government really did send in the army into Aboriginal communities, under the pretence of weeding out violence and child abuse. While always firmly tongue-in-cheek, many of these stories creep into such uncomfortable areas, such as The Magicians, which tackles rural drug use.
Others capture something wonderfully nostalgic about country towns – such as Bruce, a delightful short short-story about a shark that ends up in a swimming pool; The Magpie Game, about a group of boys facing off against their avine enemy; and The Yowie’s Visit, when a mythological creature drops in for a singles night at a country hotel.
There’s something performative about the masculinity of the men in these stories. They’re so bound up in their obsessions, their mates, their booze, it began to remind me of something very unlikely: queer classic Priscilla and its story of three drag queens driving a bus through country Australia. Australian masculinity has always been a bit camp (think Crocodile Dundee, Russell Coight, and Steve Irwin), but Marshall almost turns it into drag performance.
All this is upended when you come across the incredibly moving Levitation at the heart of the collection. The tone shifts, it’s more confessional, more specific. It’s about a man diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012 who joins a radical support group and begins to write outlandish stories about sharks ending up in swimming pools. Marshall himself was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2012; but the narrator of this story is Tom Bishop. Later on, in Weekend in Albury, what appears to be the memoir of a man who wins an unpublished manuscript prize for a short story collection (as Marshall did) will play a similar game with what’s real and what’s not, a game that extends beyond the acknowledgements page. Significantly, it is this final story that comes closest to addressing the women sidelined by the men in these stories.
This game with the truth – and the idea that “everything is a story, that is all” – reminded me of The Boat by Nam Le, which used a similar framing device to juxtapose fantastical flights of imagination with stories that seemed more grounded in the author’s experience. I love a story that pulls the rug of reality out from under you, so I very much enjoyed this layer of the collection and how it binds it together into a whole and satisfying picture.
Gay rating: not gay.
Shirl is published by Affirm Press.