Before launching into a series of whirlwind tales that touch on debauchery, murder and madness, The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories offers a quick explanation of its origins by way of introduction.
Starting as a small group of Sydney writers who met every month in a crumbly Newtown flat to share their short fiction, Penguin Plays Rough is dedicated to celebrating imagination, stylistic experimentation and fresh talent. Over time, their numbers grew to around a hundred members as comedians, poets, actors, musicians and contemporary artists joined the foray, spinning their own slant on the short story form.
Visually eclectic and thematically bold, The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories transforms the experience of a short fiction night into a hardback book. Red-inked illustrations, strange photographs and unconventional fonts sprawl across the pages. One story, documenting the hip-hop career of a prawn, is set out as a Wikipedia page; another, lamenting the loss of innocence in the internet age, has been hand-written on scraps of paper and scanned, scribbles and all. The collection is so visually interesting that simply flicking through the pages is a pleasure.
The stories themselves range from the humorous to the brutal. Some leave you unsure of whether to laugh, cry or vomit. They do not fall into the category of high literature; these stories highlight the grittiness of human life.
Thrown into all kinds of times and places, these characters are insecure but hopeful, angry but disarmed. They are frustrated and jaded, but also innocent and afraid. These may not be grand narratives, but every story is electric.
A woman feels her relationship with her son fracture as they murder her abusive husband, Johnny Cash struggles with his obsession for impersonating himself and Miss Scarlett from Cluedo enlists the help of a private detective. Zoe Coombs Marr offers “Genesis 19”, which is formatted to mimic the Bible and retells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in what can only be described as a pornographically explicit manner, with photographs to match.
This is, perhaps, not a book to read in public – at any juncture, the little old lady who glances over your shoulder on the bus could be hit with an eyeful of nudity, or FUCK screaming out from the page in giant letters.
If you have very strict ideas of what constitutes great fiction and the nineteenth-century is your favourite literary age, you may struggle with this collection.
However, if you’re looking for something unusual that is raving with imagination and honesty, The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories is for you.
Also, it comes with a weird and wonderful poster. Win.