TEXT review

Off days in the real world

review by Tim Tomlinson


Julia Prendergast
The Earth Does Not Get Fat
UWAP  2018, Crawley WA
ISBN: 9781742589572
Pb 192pp AUD24.99


About writing fiction, Flannery O’Connor said, ‘You can do anything you can get away with. But,’ she added, ‘nobody has ever gotten away with much’ (O’Connor 1969: 64).  By that I understand O’Connor to mean that slavish devotion to the ‘rules’ will not serve the writer, but a healthy respect for them will. A couple of fundamental rules include: a) use a consistent narrative voice, and b) be more concerned with what happens next than with what happened before. (In that regard, another O’Connor – Frank – said that the short story begins where everything but the action has already taken place, see O’Connor 2004.) In the novel The Earth Does Not Get Fat, Julia Prendergast eschews these basic tenets. How does she get away with it?

The Earth Does Not Get Fat is divided into fourteen chapters that feature three major voices (a fourth voice, Geoff’s, appears in the form of a letter in one chapter only). The voices belong to Chelsea, a teenage girl, Annie, her afflicted mother, and Pelts, an old intimate of Annie’s.

Five of the first six chapters are Chelsea’s and in these Prendergast comes closest to the Frank O’Connor dictum: everything but the action has already taken place. Questions based on present-action conflict arise early in these chapters. The narratives that follow work towards answers. In this sense, the first three, in particular, function as short stories. In ‘Colour me grey’, Chelsea must move her pill-and-booze sodden mother from the sofa she’s passed out on to her bed: will she manage? In ‘Sundowning’, Chelsea needs to deflect the do-gooder outreach of a meddlesome teacher: will she succeed? In ‘Sawdust’, Chelsea needs to attract the attentions of a sexy arborist who’s trimming a neighbour’s tree (and then distract his attention from her wreck of a mother and grandfather): will she gratify an appetite and avoid humiliation? In these stories-as-chapters, Prendergast is at her best: the suspense is tangible, the narration restrained, the pathos searing, the language razor sharp. ‘Sometimes Mum is already sinking when I get home from school’ (1) begins ‘Colour me grey’, When the legs of her unconscious mother hit the floorboards, they ‘thud … like old potatoes’ (1), The sensory precision is spot-on. The overweight teacher in ‘Sundowning’ is ‘as rude as her doughnut ankles’ (10) are unsightly. And in ‘Sawdust’, Chelsea observes that ‘even in nature one thing is another’.

Geoff, a schoolmate with his own set of problems, provides the first shift in the novel’s voice. In the form of a letter, Geoff explains to Chelsea why she fascinates him. It’s a moving account that sets up the next narrative development while fleshing out the book’s characterization of Chelsea, whose own voice has been concerned more with the management of present-action problems than the provision of a full self-portrait.

Shortly after Geoff’s appearance, the novel takes a turn. First, the voice of Pelts appears, and Chelsea becomes a peripheral observer and, like the reader, a listener. Pelts is an old intimate of Chelsea’s mother; he knows how and why she became the current mess that Chelsea cleans up after every day. Here’s where the narrative momentum encounters a problem: Pelts narrates what has already taken place, and past history becomes more important than present conflict and future resolution. When a writer takes this kind of a risk, she better pay off in some other way, because, as Flannery O’Connor tells us, ‘nobody has ever gotten away with much’ (O’Connor 1969: 64).

What carries the Pelts chapters is not the drive forward into crisis-climax, but the music of the voice deployed to unpack the past. And what a voice! Slang, jargon, dialect, and laugh-out-loud narration that recalls Sam Shepard’s half-drunk fully-aged cowboys stumbling through the American west. At this point, the reader might find herself reaching for an urban dictionary – if definitions are necessary for speech that functions on the level of notes in a score. Because Pelts isn’t explaining; he’s scatting, riffing, vamping. But he’s more than just the music of his voice. He’s also an exponent of a world view, and that view is suffused with a sympathetic, hard-earned compassion: ‘In the real world, and that’s where I live, everyone has an off day’ (82).

It’s one off day in particular that preoccupies the novel’s final third, where Annie’s voice takes over. Like Pelts, her accounts involve the past, and they begin with a kind of tour-de-force dramatic hilarity that I haven’t seen since the Women’s War Council in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. In ‘Bygones’, Annie recalls the day she attended a reunion of old girlfriends, all of whom live two or three rungs above Annie on the socioeconomic ladder. The fun and games ensue when one of the bygone friends announces a sex quiz whose questions she reads from a sheet of paper. ‘Stand up’, Gen says to the ladies in attendance, ‘if you’ve taken it up the arse’ (110). And off we go. One can imagine the nervous confusion that follows with questions that probe for same-sex experiences and/or close encounters of the S&M variety. The quiz functions as anthropology as well as character development, and it’s another exercise of Prendergast’s enormous gifts with dialect, and with the balance between comedy and drama. As a raconteur, Annie equals Pelts in both vision and colour: ‘My exercise is my work because my life is non-recreational’, she says, and, ‘Alcohol is the root of all evil and all that. Cheers!’ (115).

In the end, Julia Prendergast’s The Earth Does Not Get Fat is about words, phrases, expressions, and their etymologies. Each chapter title is accompanied by a definition that functions as epigraph. ‘Sawdust’, ‘Driftwood’, ‘Mercy’, ‘Sowing the wind’, precede passages that echo their meanings. Some of the characters do bad things – we understand why. Some of them suffer bad things – we wince at their suffering. Because in this real world the neglect, the indifference, or the exploitation of the ‘mainstream’, as Chelsea calls it (we might call it the free market, or capitalism), guarantees an overabundance of off days. And on off days, one can almost hear Prendergast saying, You can do anything you can get away with, but…


Works cited




Tim Tomlinson is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He is also the author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poems) and This is Not Happening to You (short fiction), both published by Winter Goose. He is a Professor in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker