Alex Skovron, ‘The Man who Took to his Bed’ reviewed in ABR
The Man who Took to his Bed - review by Jill Jones in Australian Book Review
This is a playful, intelligent, unsettling series of stories, fourteen of them, collected from publications going back a few decades from 1987 until 2012 as well as, presumably, unpublished work. Due in part to this long span, the book traces back and forth through time. There is even a Sydney pre-Opera House (just) in one story, and various social and cultural artefacts and processes come and go.
For the most part, Skovron uses understated, non-flashy prose rather than, dare I say, ‘poetic’ prose, and these stories are the better for that. He is, of course, much more well-known as one of Australia’s pre-eminent poets. This is his first collection of short stories; he has previously published a novella, The Poet (2005). Not only does Skovron demonstrate talent with prose but he is also an artist; the book’s charming cover illustration, called ‘Clock’, is his own work as well.
The stories are short and play to Skovron’s considerable strengths as a poet working in a more compressed form. Yes, they are narratives, but most are as much concerned with atmospheres and moments as with character or plot. There is relatively little plot, not surprising in a series of short stories, although there are tensions and movement, connections and consequences.
The characters are, however, memorable, often lonely, compulsive, naïve, mostly male, alienated from themselves, or simply delusional. Their dilemmas are sometimes self-inflicted, though there is also a sense in some stories of an overarching series of anonymous and slightly sinister forces at work. This makes these stories sound bleak, but they aren’t; they are disquieting even uncanny narratives taking place within an aura of ordinariness, the everyday matter of instant coffee, dressing gowns, filing cabinets.
The titular story is about a man who, well, takes to his bed, which is both a fact in the story, and something inexplicable:
What is important is what happened to Lucas, and this can no longer be expressed simply. One day Lucas took to his bed. We may speculate that it was a headache or an upset stomach, that he was exhausted and needed to rest … or we may choose to explore an entirely different set of possibilities, but all our conjectures and speculations will remain within the realm of speculation and conjecture, and Lucas in the meantime has escaped us forever. It is the only thing we can know with any certainty.
Thus, an obvious touchstone for some of this writing is the Kafkaesque, which is a literary cliché, so I did think twice about using it. But a number of the stories deal with protagonists finding themselves in situations where the way they have shaped the world or been shaped by the world inexplicably changes, and they struggle to overcome or understand it, unsuccessfully. The first story begins: ‘I opened my eyes this morning and found a strange woman in my bed.’ The story ‘Clearing’ begins: ‘Another house has vanished overnight’ and offers a suburban scenario with sinister appearances of cars and folderbearing officials. Maybe that is also close to a reality. I have never been convinced by equating Kafka with surrealism, and I wouldn’t describe Skovron’s approach in such terms either.
Not all the stories are precisely in this mode, But generally Skovron’s use of certain times of day – say, the way a room at night feels solitary and haunted, or the way ordinary daylight can also hide things – creates tones of doubt, failure, the bittersweet, the disturbing. For some reason, the make and performance of cars feature strongly. Possibly a suburban Australian effect, this works well not just as a cultural marker but, when cars behave mysteriously such as in ‘Clearing’, as a representation of the uncanny.
The places, which are far more than background settings, are mostly domestic, suburban, or urban, actual Melbourne and actual Sydney, or mostly an Australia of some kind. Poland, Skovron’s birthplace, also figures in one of the more directly realist stories.
There is some unevenness in the collection. ‘Stone’s Throw’, which I enjoyed, is about a failed writer who becomes a plagiarist. Yet there was something less satisfactory about it compared to others. It is written as summary for the most part, and details are deliberately omitted. Skovron is a master of detail so it was a puzzling choice in this instance. Maybe it’s a longer story waiting to be told. Another story, ‘Over and Over’, seemed more of an exercise in character perspective, about a relationship, primarily of mother and son, told from various perspectives – son, mother, father, neighbours, etc. This felt a touch staged rather than playing to the more natural strength of Skovron’s writing – of strangeness within the ordinary.
All in all, this is a collection worth exploring for its attentiveness to language and to the nuance of place, the eccentricities, let alone bizarreness, of the quotidian spaces in which we sleep, wake, and move. Skovron locates the absurd in the lives of people trying to make their own strange and mutable patterns in the meanings of everyday rituals and places.
Jill Jones has published ten full-length books of poetry including The Beautiful Anxiety (2014), which won the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry. She is a member of the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide.