The Teeth of a Slow Machine by Andrew Roff

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The author of this varied and entertaining collection of short stories is the award-winning Australian writer Andrew Roff.  The intriguing title of the collection perhaps has its origins in a quote from a Greek philosopher – ‘the mills of the gods grind exceeding slow’ – meaning one’s destiny may not come quickly but it will come.  This is quite apposite when you consider some of the stories in this collection.

Andrew Roff has crafted a significant collection of short stories which differ in style and theme but all share a sense of the absurdity – and often the pain – of everyday life.  He has been described as an ‘advocate for experimental, playful, silly Australian fiction’ and these stories reflect one or other of these qualities – and sometimes more than one.  While readers may not necessarily enjoy every story, most will enjoy many of them.

The three stories selected below are quite different from each other – one provides a satiric glimpse of a rather dystopian society; another focuses on risk-taking children in a small country town; and the third is a fantasy centred on a computer game.  But each tells an engrossing tale.

The first – ‘Bock Bock’ [the sound of a happy chicken and also, ominously, a secret password] – concerns two guardians of the intellectual capital of a fast-food conglomerate.  Dixie and Penny [not their real names] are with Enforcement Special Wing, Dark Meat Division.  They spend their days chasing down small operators who are suspected of ‘stealing’ the Recipe for the conglomerate’s chicken meals.  However, in the dystopian world in which the story is set, the consequence is not just a ‘cease and desist’ letter from lawyers but something far more drastic – and frightening.

In ‘Home Stretch’, four young children play a dangerous game of ‘train dance’.  Benji and his five-year-old brother Max and their friends Ella and Rory are playing Super Nintendo when Benji’s mother orders them outside to ‘get some sun’ [157].  Bored and listless, Benji suggests a game of train dance where each child stands on the railway track until the last possible moment as a freight train bears down on them.  Driving the train is Mick who has already experienced two ‘Track Obstruction Events’ which Mick calls ‘killings’.  With an inevitability matched by the unstoppability of the train, the story moves to its conclusion with the evident terror of the children as Max – the youngest – stands frozen in fear on the track.

‘Reality Quest’ sets out the playing of a computer game of adventure where the player chooses his/her own path – both physical and moral.  Not very different from real life, perhaps.  But in this story, the protagonist is a young girl purporting to be a 22-year-old-man.  The choices confronting her are beyond her experience and maturity; as the story progresses, there is a rising sense of panic and fear from the girl as she flounders with her choices but is unable to break away.  Finally, the game ends and she is given a score of 15 with the added comments – ‘You lived an unremarkable life.  You did no great deeds. No-one will remember you’ [156].

The Teeth of a Slow Machine is a fine collection of modern short stories told in a very Australian way.

Andrew Roff’s short stories have appeared in MeanjinOverlandGriffith Review and Going Down Swinging, among others. He was the winner of the 2020 Peter Carey Short Story Award for Bock Bock and the 2018 Margaret River Press Short Story Competition for Pigface, as well as having been shortlisted and commended in many other short story prizes. In 2016, his first novel was shortlisted for the Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award at Adelaide Writers Week.

The Teeth of a Slow Machine

[2022]

by Andrew Roff

Wakefield Press

ISBN 978 1 74305 891 6

$29.95; 207pp

 

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