Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
‘Did you want me to teach you about galaxies and how a sprinkle of magic could keep them efficient? Did you want me to clap my hands and say: Look at this world. Isn’t it beautiful?’ Zhorr pressed his hands together. ‘This, my son, concludes our history session.’—A Maji Maji Chronicle
Dying & Other Stories is a collection of 16 short narratives by Australian author and 2017 Aurealis Convenors Award for Excellence nominee Eugen Bacon. True to speculative fiction’s promise to make the reader ask, ‘what if?’, Dying & Other Stories goes beyond the limitations of literary definition and expectation. Each story in the collection is vastly different from the next—in voice, setting and length. Yet the book comprises an assemblage of narratives that flow seamlessly from one to the other, with snappy dialogue and striking imagery that roll off the tongue and widen the reader’s eyes.
The first story in the collection asks what if some of the people we pass in the street aren’t people at all? This opening narrative, ‘Dying’, depicts the suffering and frustration of protagonist Bluey, whose life begins to unravel into a frustrating mess of daily deaths and inevitable resurrections. Bluey begins to suspect that the boy he sees riding a scooter on the street might actually be a colleague of the angel of death. ‘Dying’ raises the question: is free will really a thing? Are you sure?
In ‘A Nursery Rhyme’, the character Venus learns the disturbing truth about her little girl, Dee. The child’s paternity and the disquieting circumstances of her conception come to light. Bacon prompts the reader to peer around a crooked corner of reality and ask what if your child isn’t who or what you think? What if her soul is impure, and her actions bloody and malevolent? I wondered how far a person might go to protect someone or something they love.
In fact, Bacon asks the reader how far reality television might go in the story ‘Realtime TV’. Aspects of the story had me asking myself if one of my favourite TV genres already goes too far. In ‘Realtime TV’, a voice in an earpiece instructs a father to pull a knife on his son. The narrative parallels the Bible’s Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac, and had me considering, for a moment, that I just might be an unknowing participant in the universe’s longest-running reality show—again—what if, what if?
‘A Maji Maji Chronicle’ presents the story of Zhorr and his son Pickle, time-travelling, inter-dimensional shapeshifting beings. Zhorr and Pickle are observers of history; they travel between universes to study the nature of humanity and existence. ‘A Maji Maji Chronicle’ compels the reader to consider the uncomfortable, even frightening idea that people, when put to the test, are all the same.
History, mythology and modern-day Aussie life intertwine in Bacon’s Dying & Other Stories. I found that each piece in the collection, whether long or short, is not over until you read the very last word. The reader’s anticipation remains until that final sentence is revealed, absorbed, digested. But if what you’re seeking are neatly wrapped answers tied with a ribbon, Dying & Other Stories of course won’t give you that. It is simply a book that delivers. It will present you with 16 narratives that are satisfying, mind-bending and thought-provoking reads.