The Best Australian Stories 2008, ed. Delia Falconer

End of year anthologies are a more complicated proposition than they immediately appear. On the face of it, selecting “The Best Australian Stories 2008” would be a simple matter of an editor or editors considering a wide selection of eligible candidates and choosing their favourites. Yet there are challenges in each word of the subject, barring only “The”.

“Best” is naturally a matter of subjectivity and we trust in the editor to apply their own preferences, in the hope that they will overlap sufficiently with our own. “2008” would be simple, were it not for the necessity of compiling several months out from year’s end and the vagaries of multiple publication dates. Still, only the serious nitpicker will take much issue with the inclusion of material from more than 12 months prior.

Progressing to the more challenging definitions, the editor of this anthology has taken a narrow interpretation of “Stories”. Delia Falconer’s inclusions are short fiction pieces only: no creative non-fiction and no excerpts of longer works. The most difficult issue is defining “Australian” in a world where authors are notoriously mobile. After all, when a story is set overseas, featuring non-Australian characters and is written by a recent émigré (Nicholas Shakespeare) or a recent departure (Nam Le), is it an “Australian story” at all?

Falconer doesn’t bother herself too much with this detail and it’s probably for the best, especially since Shakespeare and Le’s efforts are among the most distinguished in the collection. Her focus is on literary quality, rather than thematic or stylistic unity or even common geographical provenance, narrowly defined.

As a consequence, Falconer’s array of Australian stories does not hold together perfectly. The Best Australian Stories 2008 is less a Nick Hornby mixtape, with each selection ordered just so, and more akin to an mp3 playlist, inviting the reader to dip in and out at leisure. This is not to say that Falconer has no method to her ordering — merely that it is not always apparent what the method is.

This kind of thematic looseness is to be expected. As Falconer observes in her introduction, the potential diversity of “Australian stories” is astonishing. Long separated from the world by isolated geography and a narrow social focus on “home” in Great Britain, Australia is now truly a part of the global economy. This is strongly evident in the stories, which show a flexible concept of national identity. Very few are focused on Australia and many of the Australian-based stories are not tied here, in the sense that they are universal. Falconer clearly has no interest in the nationalistic myth-making of the recent Baz Luhrmann film.

Nevertheless, Falconer has selected an eclectic and interesting assortment of tales. Her tendency is usually towards black humour — stories with whimsy and wit but a darker edge. The best moments in this collection verge on the downright creepy, particularly since Falconer’s selections often eschew the classic short story plot twist for ambiguity. Emily Ballou’s “On the Splice”, about a woman whose life begins to mirror a French film, and Claire Aman’s “Jap Floral”, following a glass obsessive, are steeped in barely controlled chaos. Davina Bell’s “All the Things You Couldn’t Say” is alternately heart-warming and psychologically brutal.

At their best, these stories are extraordinary. Whether exploring complex family relationships (a common theme in many) or delighting in light-hearted fantasies like Robert Drewe’s or Tim Richards’ entries, the prose is vivid and alive. Many of these writers take the advantage afforded by short fiction to revel in a sea of words.

Unfortunately, this collection is not without low points. A small fraction of these works read more like undergraduate creative writing exercises, or early drafts of better pieces. Sentences are sometimes jumbled and stories fail to cohere. Patrick West’s “Natural History (World-Swimming)” is better than some, possessing a poetic thrill in repetition and movement, but it’s hardly a “story” in any sense. Bernard Cohen’s “War against the Ungulates”, a dystopian vision inspired by foot and mouth disease, is just ungainly.

It would be a rare anthology where every critic and reader was in agreement with the editor, so it’s fair to say that Falconer’s hit rate is high. As a reflection on the state of the art in Australia, a time capsule of where we are in 2008, it’s highly encouraging.

Falconer notes in her introduction that Australia lacks a real culture of short fiction — either through effective literary journals or support for single-author collections. Many of these pieces are sidelines for their creators: a chance to explore outside of the expectations of literary agents and publishers. If these are merely weekend experiments, then these authors’ “proper” works deserve significant attention. Each year that collections like this are released, we can only hope that local publishers see the untapped potential.

RATING 7 / 10