Christopher Conti, ‘Proofs’ in The Australian

Love and loss

Rebecca Starford reviews Christopher Conti's Proofs in The Australian, Aug 25 2012

Christopher Conti's debut book of short stories, Proofs, is comprised of an exhilarating, absurd and sometimes perplexing collection of catastrophes listed in fictional news articles, notices and anecdotes. With encyclopedic scope, Proofs is an investigation of the human condition, covering miscellanea such as the Australian judicial system, the “Raging Reporter from Prague”, Egon Erwin Kisch, Sinology and Charles Sturt's final expedition.

These short short stories (each no more than a page long) are inspired by Thomas Bernhard's postmodern classic The Voice Imitator. Bernhard, an Austrian playwright and novelist who died in 1989, was renowned for writing about the corruption of the modern world, the dynamics of totalitarianism and the interplay of reality and appearance.

There is plenty to like in Proofs. Sydney-based Conti includes strange snippets from real events, such as the disappearance of Harold Holt and Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic endeavours. Other anecdotes, especially those about China, are very clever. In peking duck (all the story titles are in lower case), a disgraced former tailor and trader of China's state secrets meets with an old associate for lunch at Boronia House in Sydney. An accomplished fraud, the Chinese man manages once again to ingratiate himself, securing a loan and the extravagant bill paid, serving as reminder of our susceptibility to roguish charm.

There's also the affecting forbidden city, about the Sinologist who can't bring himself to visit China. He has grown morbidly afraid of the country – of his own “antique knowledge buried deep inside … which, like a forbidden city, would crumble if brought into contact with the borders of modern China”. It's a shrewd dig at modern academe. Conti takes another swipe at academe in my favourite story in this collection, labyrinth, in which an unnamed couple are invited to dinner by the foremost authority on Franz Kafka. The professor tells his guests that the “so-called Kafka enigma was a mirage conjured by self-important academics seeking tenure”. But later, after series of Kafkaesque outbursts and falls about the house, he begins crying:

Kafka was indeed a labyrinth, the Professor blubbered, still gushing with tears, but one that led nowhere and meant nothing, because its artificer was a trickster who took sadistic delight in leading readers into false discoveries, luring them into traps and down mazes that bore no relation to our world, which, he said with grimacing flings of his head, was a far less sinister place.

As you may have gathered, Proofs is a cunning, rather pretentious collection, but there's enough cheeky buoyancy to carry you through some of Conti's more convoluted stories. Despite the peculiarity, there's commonality here. Hitherto respected professions, such as physicists and historians, are rendered ignoble in a world controlled by unintentional irony and chaos. The mostly male subjects of Conti's stories invariably top themselves – or, in one case (stockholm), are eaten by their dogs. We're increasingly warned of the commercial imperatives overriding innovation in local publishing. All power to Puncher & Wattmann for flouting this trend and producing a unique collection of short fiction that invigorates the form.

Rebecca Starford is associate publisher at Affirm Press and editor and co-founder of Kill Your Darlings.

Read the full review in The Australian (access requires subscription)

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