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The Obvious ChildReview - The Obvious Child
by Matt Shaw
Exile Editions, 2008
Review by Tony O'Brien
Oct 21st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 43)

This is a quirky little book of ten short stories by prizewinning author Matt Shaw. Shaw is a newcomer to published fiction, and with The Obvious Child he brands himself as a distinctive voice. Exile Editions seem to court this sort of idiosyncratic fiction. I recently reviewed A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine by Mark Paterson, another collection of kooky characters and odd situations. Like Paterson, Shaw is not a prose stylist; his method is to start in the middle of a story and just tell you stuff. When he's finished, he stops. It might not be where you want to stop, but Shaw is not one for literary conventions such as the narrative arc. That's not to say Shaw doesn't tell stories. He does, and some in this collection, such as Dreschl and the Obvious Child and Matchbook for a Mother's Hair are pretty much stock standard as far as narrative is concerned. But the situations Shaw describes are odd and eccentric, and he infuses his characters with a strangeness that can be disconcerting as well as compelling.

The ten stories of The Obvious Child vary in length from a few pages to about 25 pages, but owing to the small format and large font even the longest story is quite short. Shaw doesn't need much room to work in. He is able to create his discomfiting atmosphere and peculiar characters in short measure. Over the course of the book you meet a wide range of them: a woman who singes her son's hair as a substitute for smacking, a man who sees a mason jar in all sorts of unusual situations, an office worker whose last day of employment is deferred by a series of elevator related tragedies, and a man who is brought back to life not once, but twice, to satisfy his wife's desperation to procreate. Shaw also likes to experiment with unusual names. Two characters, Tendel and Oslo have a dog called Sophocles. Jurisprudence has characters called Liza and John Baptist. Dreschl and the Obvious Child features Plektos Ersatz.

It's hard to pick a standout story from this collection. The quality is even, and each story, while written in Shaw's distinctive voice, is unique. In The Deportee the widower Polk learns he is to be deported from Canada, although he has lived their all his life. It is possibly this story that led to one reviewer drawing a comparison with Kafka, and there is certainly something in the sense of depersonalization at the hands of bureaucracy that has echoes of The Trial. But Shaw's Polk is a more familiar figure than Josef K, and his concern for his young son Micah makes the The Deportee a story of a more ordinary life. The ending is abrupt, a feature of many of these stories, and there is an element of humor in Polk's confidante Mrs Purse as she sneaks a chocolate cookie and wears a chocolate moustache. Matchbook for a Mother's Hair is a disturbing story of exploitation of a child, but there is something oddly compelling about the situation in which three middle aged women gather at the home of Gordon Ween's mother to play cards. Gordon is actually seventeen, but is described as young and innocent. He's bounced between the women as a sexual plaything, all in secret, and Shaw captures his sense of panic as Gordon is used by each of them. It is possibly this last aspect of Matchbook for a Mother's Hair that allows Shaw to paint such a disconcerting tale with a light touch. Although the women are exploiting Gordon, Shaw has respect for his character, and for his readers, as there is no overstated moral message to this story. Talmud has a fairy story quality that allows Shaw to push the boundaries of narrative and logic. Lilly is introduced as a character who can "contort any fact into falsehood" so the reader is well warned of the series of implausible events that transpire. The story crosses continents, involves a large number of lovers, hair loss, and an unlikely reconciliation that brings a final twist.

Altogether an enjoyable collection, if perhaps a little unpolished. It may be the latter quality that adds to the appeal of Shaw's work; the sense that a new writer is taking some risks and exploring the form of the short story as much as the lives of his characters. Writing requires discipline, though, and writers must be aware of the rules they are breaking. My sense is that Shaw is aware of the conventions of fiction. If his language is not pretty it is clear and descriptive. It will be interesting to see how Shaw develops as a writer, especially if he gravitates to longer work. It is to be hoped that the spark that lights these stories endures, and Shaw can mature to write the sort of fiction this collection promises.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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