March 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Sleepers Almanac No. 4’ edited by Zoe Dattner & Louise Swinn

By Zora Simic

Melbourne-based Sleepers Publishing has been steadily creating a well-deserved buzz around its annual collection of short fiction. Almanac No. 4 is packed with fine writing, and roomy enough to accommodate the intermittent failed experiment without losing overall quality. The editorials, ephemera and odd spots add to the sense of occasion, and the enticing cover design and new, more portable size suggest that the team is in expansion mode.

Another ambitious move is abandoning the themed issue, which is a staple of literary journals, from the stalwart British Granta series to the American publishing juggernaut McSweeney's (with which Sleepers shares a celebratory, though mercifully less smug, spirit). Yet the absence of an official theme results not in chaos so much as business as usual, for the staple subjects of fiction are present: love, family, grief, sex, literature. Of these perennials, grief and sex fare best; Luke Menzel's ‘Etchings', in which a man revisits the hospital where his sister died years earlier, is genuinely affecting, while ‘Jam is for Amateurs', by Rose Mulready, injects a subterranean sexual energy into a children's birthday party.

Stories about writers and other creative types have their pleasures, but they are eventually exhausted here. More engaging are those pieces that introduce the reader to something new, such as the hidden appeal of sanitary disposal (‘The Untouchables', by Bronwyn Mehan), the everyday miseries of cancer (‘Prussian Blue', by Jane Wallace-Mitchell) or the knock-on effects of naming a dog ‘Abo' (‘His Other Master's Voice', by David Astle).

Almanac No. 4 features some well-known authors, including Sean Condon, Max Barry and Steve Carroll. Of these, the latter offers the most satisfying contribution, with ‘The Aunt's Story', a fresh take on artist Sidney Nolan. The editors also prove their faith in new writing by giving lesser-known authors the chance to stretch out and develop characters through longer pieces. In ‘As I was Saying', David Gibb follows two friends from teenage fumbling to middle age, without getting mawkish. And Virginia Peters deserves her double appearance: ‘Good Morning Mrs Edwards' and ‘Remember Sleepy Creek' reveal a talent for astutely capturing both the claustrophobia and the comfort of monogamous relationships. May she have a collection to herself, sooner rather than later.

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