Reviewed by Rod McLary
Someone once said that good book titles should be ‘short, evocative and unique’. On all three counts, the title of Chris Flynn’s new book succeeds admirably. The word ‘leviathans’ itself conjures up monsters of the deep or something large and formidable – but it can also mean something unknown or beyond an immediate understanding. And this, I think, is the purpose of the title. It suggests stories which are highly imaginative and take a unique view of the world. Imagine a story of a hotel room but one told by the room itself which occurs with A Beautiful and Unexpected Turn; or 22F the story of an airplane seat. Both offer an unusual perspective on the human world and allows the author to expose the eccentricities of human behaviour.
A Beautiful and Unexpected Turn – although told by a hotel room – is really a story of a marriage. It is the story of Diane and Hector who ‘were young and did not have much money’ and as the room says ‘I was all they could afford’. The couple decide to come back to the hotel room three years later and the room shares with the reader all of what has happened to it in the intervening years – the sexual behaviour of other guests both couples and singles, money hidden in the mattress, and the more mundane – the room-cleaning and the bed-making. And we learn about the sexual behaviour of Diane and Hector – the waning of desire, the nature of intimacy, and the ups and downs of married life – which later includes a ménage a trois plus one. The story concludes with a heart-warming scene in which Diane returns to the room one final time but now with her baby daughter who ‘did not have four parents. It had five’ .
In 22F, the narrator – the airplane seat – takes the reader humorously through the types of passengers from the ‘winners, losers’ to the ‘somebodies, nobodies’. It is sometimes reassuring and sometimes distressing that the workplace of the airplane seat and his/her colleagues is not very different from that of humans. Then suddenly the story turns and the airplane seat says: ‘This is the story of my final day at work’ .
Perhaps the most moving of the stories is Shot Down in Flames told in four parts by, respectively, Buduwangung Creek, Vulpes Vulpes [Red Fox], a rifle – Remington Model 700 CDL SF, and Windera Ranges Bushfire. It is the story of two children on the cusp of adolescence known simply as Girl and Boy who are friends and regularly swim together in the creek which separates their parents’ properties. It is almost an idyllic existence until Red Fox observes an interaction between Boy and his father. And then ‘Smak goes the sound, hard and wet and sore. … Stop it, stop it, Boy says. Pleez’ . Girl seeks retribution on behalf of Boy and the rifle picks up the story. The final part is chillingly told by Bushfire: ‘I will find you and devour you … There is no escape’ .
The title story Here Be Leviathans is set in what could be a theme park where the mega rich go to play-act being savages, trap wild animals and communicate by ‘grunts and proto-words’. Told from the perspective of a male Smilodon fatalis – a sabre-toothed tiger – the story sets out the comeuppance of two of the mega-rich who believed that they could outsmart the tiger and his mate. The story ends with ‘Use of Smilodon fatalis elongated canines number three: digging’ . The purpose of the digging and its outcome is better left to the reader to discover.
In the Afterword, the author guesses [rather accurately I think] that by this stage of the book, the reader is asking ‘what the hell was that all about?’ He obligingly offers an explanation for each of the stories and in each case brings about in the reader a deeper appreciation of the story and its intent. Interestingly, the explanation for the story Shot Down in Flames [mentioned above] is simply that it was inspired by a Thea Astley short story in which the narration jumps abruptly between characters. When coupled with the intensity of Astley’s landscapes, this has resulted in a story which is moving and emotionally demanding of the reader.
All in all, Chris Flynn has crafted a masterful collection of nine short stories – one or two of which are not entirely successful but all are mesmerising and challenging for the reader. They demonstrate considerable imagination and an ability of the part of the author to look at simple inanimate objects [such as an airplane seat or a hotel room] and see the world from their perspectives. In doing so, the behaviours of humans – whether crass, cruel, disrespectful or simply brutish – are exposed to a scrutiny which may not have otherwise happened.
Well recommended to all readers who enjoy stories which will challenge the notion of story-telling.
Here Be Leviathans
by Chris Flynn
University of Queensland Press
ISBN 978 070226 271 7