by Anna Westbrook
University of Queensland Press, 2021. AUD$29.99
SJ Norman’s debut collection of short fiction is an exquisite exercise in syncopation: each story is decidedly “off-beat” in its disturbance, interruption, or insurrection of conventional narrative heuristics. The titular piece, first anthologized in 2005, comprises just a morsel of curatorial effort spanning decades. Permafrost peels down to the shifting, liminal subsurface of life in apocalyptic late capitalism, deploying the narrator’s performative “I” in a mesmerizing aesthetics of disclosure. Permeated by loneliness, longing, fierceness, desire, and inquiry, Norman’s diaphanous proximity to the auto-fictive suggestion of “real-life” makes this a one-sitting read which will embed in your subconscious.
Identifying as a “diasporic Koori of Wiradjuri descent” born on unceded Gadigal land of the Eora Nation / Sydney, Australia, SJ Norman has worked internationally as a renowned cross-disciplinary artist and writer, predominantly between Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The stories track a peripatetic path from the opener, “Stepmother,” which is grounded in the ennui and escapist fantasy of a suburban Australian adolescent, and weighted with propulsive foreshadowing, to the grownup homecoming “Playback.” Norman shapes mood well, but it is more than that; the writing is cutting, darkly comic, transgressively queer, and not a belated invitation to the beat at Berghain. Norman’s revisitation of mythopoesis—the woods, the shorelines, the liminal space between human and animal worlds—taps capillaries of hauntedness and trauma through a life made of literature, music, and art. “Death, always,” he writes, is “stuffed in a corner.” (8)
The presence of death and hauntedness throughout these stories, brought to mind works by Patti Smith, Kristen Roupenian, and Sarah Hall. In Norman’s stories “Permafrost”, “Hinterhaus” and “Unspeakable” I recall the pilgrimatic meanderings of Patti Smith’s M Train (2015) where Smith visits the grave of Genet and Rimbaud. These stories also echo the terror in Kristen Roupenian’s “The Mirror, The Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” (2019), and the slippery transmogrification of Sarah Hall’s “Mrs Fox” (2013). In Norman’s hands, these moods and tropes bleed concurrent realities, a complication which serves to dissect our treatment of belonging and trespass in the wilderness and the domicile. The reader is made to look over their shoulder as Norman troubles the settler-colonial denialism that finds voice in the Australian idiom “She’ll be ‘right.” (Reader, “she” will not.)
The pages in Permafrost tremble with menace. The complex burgeoning sexuality depicted in “Stepmother” sees the young narrator observed by the stepmother:
Through the slits I could see her dark outline. The smudged hollows of her eyes. Her lips still caught in half a snarl, her teeth underneath, her breath sifting through them. Slowly, like black silt. Her hair was wet; it hung off her scalp, clung to her neck and shoulders. That was the other smell. Rain. I could smell water and mud on her, like she’d been dredged from somewhere deep. (14)
And alongside that menace, a connectedness to the earth and country run strong like the thick rain from the quote above. Currents of tenderness flow too, such as here in “Permafrost” when the narrator describes a crush:
I’d collect as many fragments of personal information from her as I could and run home with them,
pressing each freshly cut specimen between the pages of what – in my mind – was a growing volume:
The Book of Kathryn. (21)
Later, this decayed devotional attachment morphs into a need to literally excise or exorcise that gauche infatuation, when the narrator pursues the crush Kathryn to a squid-fishing village in Hokkaido, getting it, whatever it is, out of the body. Then, in place of the absence of Kathryn, the narrator confronts their abiding loneliness on the shelterless beach.
“Secondhand,” detailing the narrator’s time working in a used bookstore, is a Shirley Jackson-esque triumph, claustrophobic to the extreme.
Books are objects of incredible intimacy, as intimate as clothing or jewelry. People handle books with their hands; their spit and sweat gets on the pages…By the time the books come to me they’re drenched in the essence of the last person to have read them and this residue is transferred to me.” (45-46)
Norman is far from didactic. He is confident—almost luxuriant in uncertainty, like Jackson, in allowing the reader to be perturbed and enkindled…perhaps even enraged.
“Whitehart” is the standout of the collection: the kind of Matryoshka doll short story that I wanted not to end, or at least wind out into a novel. The narrator vacations in an ancient manor house in the UK where they brush up against all the tropes of British folk horror, of “faerie lore” (81). The innkeeper of The Gatekeeper’s Arms is a Green Man figure of lust and appetite, an enigmatic man with facial tattoos of “a different style, delicate and botanical, as if he had vines growing out of his temples. Compared to the sea-dog talismans of the old folk the design appeared either much more modern, or much, much older” (64). The narrator steals fresh apples only to find them rotten in the bag; they cross into spaces of danger to be molested by nettles, and they want the innkeeper with an unbearable intensity:
I carried his scent on me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t rid myself of the sense of his presence. Have no desire to rid myself of it. My only desire, in fact, was to get closer… All I knew was, under the layers of black hide and rough wool, there was a body, and I wanted it. I wanted to skin him. Suck the marrow out of his bones. (78)
Norman is a master of feral eroticism, and the sex is hot:
My nose was buried in his hair. The smell of it was extraordinary. It smelt like the river, like peaty soil and burnt wood. It smelt like piss and semen. It smelt like a crate of apples, stored over the winter, swaddled in straw. It smelt like rawhide. Like an animal’s pelt. It smelt like the forest. I buried my fingers in it and moved them over his scalp. In the swell of drunk, post-orgasmic half-sleep, I thought I felt two lumps on his crown. Strange, twin swellings under the skin. As if some appendage had been cut off, and the scalp had grown over the stumps. (84)
Violence and sex are enmeshed, as if Norman is digging into the Sontag quip about the ubiquity of the fantasy of erotic cruelty, or at least refusing to avert his gaze. “Unspeakable,” about a trip to Oświęcim / Auschwitz, probes spaces of vile legacy, affective intensity, and collective disremembering. The reader follows the narrator and Wojciech, the polish tour guide, around the camp after hours, where the narrator recalls a conversation:
Who the fuck, he had asked me, would want to walk around Auschwitz eating a fucking ice cream? The person in question happened to be a white Australian, and I remember answering him: Do you know how many times I’ve declined invitations from white friends to camp or picnic on a massacre site? Do you understand the first thing about where you come from? (125)
Norman’s writing insists that the settler-colonial Australian reader address our own complicity in looking away.
The return to Australia in “Playback” after being jilted by a lover in Germany, pushes a very precise set of generational nostalgia buttons. The narrator hasn’t spoken to their mother in years yet has a maternal figure in Marta, a powerful Aunty of Māori heritage. The narrator drifts, breaking into the old school to smoke, fiddling with music they’re making, tracking back through memories of childhood piano lessons. Norman makes a poignant allegory of loop pedals with time compression and the shadows of intimacies lost:
Something else my mother always said: It’s possible for a living person to become a ghost. Parts of us break off along the way and become imprints in the places we have occupied, or have occupied us…It’s possible for a tragedy or a loss to shatter a spirit to the point where the fragments are thrown far from where the living flesh stands, walks, breathes, eats, fucks, loves and carries on, reshaped by this absence. (204-205)
The precision in this collection creates the sense that this book was long and careful in the making; a durational meditation on casualty and preservation, carving out negative space. It was worth the wait. SJ Norman proves himself in Permafrost as one of Australia’s most enthralling and provocative talents.
Anna Westbrook is a Sydney-based writer and critic. She lives and creates on the unceded lands of the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation. She teaches writing at the University of New South Wales. Her debut novel, Dark Fires Shall Burn was published by Scribe (2016). She holds a PhD from the UNSW and has lectured in literature and creative writing at New York University: Sydney. Her poems have featured in Voiceworks, Red Room, Scum, Baby Teeth, and The Bastille. She is currently working on a second novel and a feature screenplay.