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The weight of being human.

August 14, 2012

Short stories are a delicate and difficult art. Done well, they can give us finely cut fragments of life, crystallising experiences and emotions in a single moment or snapshot. The Rest is Weight, Australian author Jennifer Mills’s first collection of short fiction, is a skilled example of the genre: her diverse anthology crosses countries and continents, and charts the complex territories of the human heart.

Mills effortlessly draws our attention to the surreal and sinister aspects of the everyday, and to our universal quest for belonging. Her stories follow a panoply of characters and situations, from a woman driving across Australia to visit her estranged sister to a man living in an abandoned shipping container. But what connects these disparate figures—perhaps ironically—is their sense of isolation, and their struggle to negotiate a place for themselves in surroundings that are overwhelming, unfamiliar, or downright unsettling.

There’s a macabre undertone to many of the tales here, and while most are only a few pages long, they linger in the mind, trailing a cold and spindly finger down the spine of your imagination. In the chilling opening story, ‘Look Down With Me’, Mills’s mute protagonist looks to the sky and thinks that ‘the moon will burst when its skin gets too thin and all the flies will spill out of it’; by the night’s end, he’s committed an act that’s both brutal and shocking.

Mills spins thin threads of disquiet through one or two of her later tales, but she never strays into supernatural territory: instead, there’s simply a suggestion of menace, like the dark space under the bed that could be home to whatever your mind’s eye conjures. This is at its most stark in ‘Moth’, when a ten-year-old braces for the arrival of a younger sibling; but when he finally peers into its crib, he sees not a baby, but a Mothling, with ‘sorrow-dark eyes’ and a ‘larval’ body, ‘so soft you could poke through to the guts with a matchstick’.

But there are welcome undercurrents of levity to these tales, and surprising twists in those that appear to borrow familiar tropes: in ‘Hello Satan’, a young boy sits waiting at a crossroads in the dead of night; but his his eventual companion is no emissary of the Dark Lord, but a drunk woman called Jolene whose mouth is ‘a cave of smells, rotten and sweet,’ and whose ‘pointed teeth are stained red with wine and lipstick’. They wait together in the dark, playing truth or dare, while Jolene laments the shortcomings of men. ‘Give it a few years and you’ll be just like the rest of them’, she says, patting the boy on the knee.

Mills teases out universal themes of alienation, identity, desire, and uncertainty. Her stories seek to define the essence of what makes us human, capturing sensations and emotions that resonate across time and space: in Quintana Roo, Mexico, a young girl wonders what her mother does with the mysterious Tall Man who comes at night; in the title story, a Russian-based pilot works for the Orwellian-sounding Weather Modification Office; there’s a creepy sense of the post-apocalyptic in ‘Extra Time’, where the residents of a town count down the days, hours, and minutes until their certain demise.

Closer to home, the Australian outback appears as vast and unforgiving as it did in Mills’s last novel, 2010’s impressive Gone; once again, our nation’s endless stretches of dusty roads—one character notes that the landscape ‘has no edges’—are an apt setting for Mills’s brief portraits of lone travellers, including a truckie and a hitchhiker, traversing a geography that’s both literal and emotional.

Despite the bleakness at the heart of many stories in The Rest is Weight, there are dryly comic gems scattered amid Mills’s prose, laconic reminders of the absurdity inherent in the everyday: a character driving to Adelaide reflects that it ‘used to be known as the murder capital of Australia, but these days [its] the capital of missing persons. Are people getting better at hiding the bodies?’

Paradoxically, it’s the slight surreality of these stories that makes them so resonant, and such clever reflections of the human condition in all its complexity. Mills explores the close spaces between emotions and experiences that are, for all their apparent opposition, intimately connected: love and hate, fear and desire, belonging and isolation. ‘Meaning is only derived from context’, notes one of her characters as he watches a swarm of ants. ‘The re-enactment of history is a genetic imperative. (…) The individual is replaceable, but not meaningless.’

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