True? Short Stories by Michael Botur
Whangarei: Michael Botur (2018)
RRP: $25. Pb, 309pp. Available from Amazon
Reviewed by Liz Breslin
‘Truth, Dare or Promise?’ asks an app in one of the sixteen short stories in Michael Botur’s fifth collection. The collection’s preface, from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, reads: ‘A true autobiography is almost an impossibility … Man is bound to lie about himself.’
There are, of course, at least two kinds of truth to stories: the factual kind, and the kind that makes a character, a turn of events or a location resonate with a reader. With this in mind, let’s examine Botur’s stories to see how they ring.
The stories are driven by plot and by premise. In ‘Better than Jail’ a guy learns how the ‘straightos’ also go crooked when he starts data work at a finance company as his first job out of jail. In ‘The Sword of Damocles’ a burgled man turns bully on the woman shifting his son’s bike as stolen goods. ‘Because I love him’ sees a teenager collude in the ransacking of her parents’ house while her mum is otherwise busy at her dad’s funeral. ‘Schrödinger’s Scoop’ is the story of a journo who sets out to destroy the career and reputation of a politician who is pretending to be more Moriori than he actually is.
Many characters are involved in the three-way trilogy of sex, drugs and violence. The guy on a detox in the back of Aussie beyond. The anaesthetists locked in a harder faster destruction race. The summer of student debauchery. This could be fascinating stuff, and there are interesting situational set-ups, but, whether written in the first, second or third person (all of which are used in different stories across the collection), these stories fail to hit the mark.
There are some indications of Botur’s poetic leanings – here, for example, in choppy fragments:
Fire at the airport. Norovirus in the Beehive. Korean popstar threatening to jump off the Harbour Bridge … Latte, long black, Americano, green tea, black tea, Pepsi, vodka, Red Bull, Burger King, Burger Fuel, Murder Burger, Velvet Burger. Your face melts into the palm holding your head above the keyboard. (‘Schröedinger’s Scoop’, p. 94).
But the writing is often too authorial, poorly proofread and possibly offensive.
Offense can be a truth when you’re writing irredeemable characters. Clever writing can give you a chance to explore and even empathise with the complexities of lives. But here it is unclear where the division between Botur and his characters lies, giving the impression sometimes that it is Botur’s own viewpoint we are reading. The daddies’ rights clanger at the end of the collection, for example, is practically polemic. ‘That Tingling Sensation’ (which has some of the best dialogue in the book if you disregard the capitals every time someone shouts) dispatches people with disabilities:
They did a gig for the Special Olympics. Some sort of 11 year-old disabled child became too clingy for JT. The kid said, ‘You’re the best daddy’, about a hundred times before JT barricaded himself in a portaloo until security took the kid away. (‘That Tingling Sensation’, p 300).
Read in isolation, this sentence may not offend. However, the cumulative effect of pages and pages of casual, barely-disguised disability-bashing leaves a pretty sour taste.
So too does Botur’s treatment of the newly-famous:
24 year old born Miranda Lilith Pruitt – the same lass who’d begun her poetry career at our trite tavern get togethers reading entries from her journal in a voice so frail she struggled to be heard over the sound of people sipping the foam off their beer – was to be presented with the People’s Choice Award. With the award came a cheque for $10 000, budget to publish a hundred-page poetry collection, and she would have her name engraved on a roll of honour at the English department up at the university. (‘The People’s Choice’, p 229).
Though the writers’ group decide to show up and cheer Miranda on at the awards (big of them), there’s a disbelieving contempt that runs through this story, of this woman, of this industry, of these awards. And it’s hard not to read it as coming from Botur himself.
It’s another writer, recently-separated-Sallyanne, who gets another of the precious-few happy endings in this collection – she starts attending a local writers’ group run by young, tortured alcoholic novelist Jeremy. Sallyanne takes over the running of the group, gets together with Jeremy is offered a newspaper column which magically skyrockets in popularity. She declines international syndication – not wanting to be pigeonholed. Truth?
The stories here could be engaging and provocative. The groundwork is laid. Botur knows how to set up a situation. But the job of a writer is partly to shine light on the broken bits. Here, there is scant light, and it’s hard for the reader to move beyond offensive cliché and find a place of empathy. As it stands, this collection does not make me want to go and seek out more writing by Botur. The reader deserves better. The characters deserve better. The stories deserve better. They deserve true.
Liz Breslin writes poems, plays, stories and a column for the Otago Daily Times. Her first collection of poems, Alzheimer’s and a spoon, was published by Otago University Press in 2017. www.lizbreslin.com