Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father
By Tristan Foster
Reviewed by Daniel Davis Wood
In one of the pieces near the end of Tristan Foster's début collection, there's a guest appearance by the late John Berger. The narrator catches a glimpse of Berger at Malpensa Airport—"alone, legs crossed, sitting deep in a lounge chair and reading a book on Goya"—and is surprised to see him because, at the time of the encounter, "[h]e had been dead for at least six months." But it's unlikely that readers of Foster's collection, Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, will be equally surprised to come across Berger here. The book is infused with his spirit. Call him its patron saint. Like Berger, Foster weds a globally conscious, high modernist sensibility (invoking Kafka, Coetzee, Josipovici) to accounts of experiences in provincial locales. And, like Berger, Foster favors tinkering with a multitude of literary forms, trying them on and shrugging them off, depending on the effect he's aiming to achieve in any one particular piece.
There's usually something shady about describing a book as a collection of "pieces"; the word is too nebulous, too non-committal. But the contents of Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father could hardly be described otherwise. Versatility and variety are of the essence of the book. It contains twenty-eight short texts that run the gamut from freeform poetry (not exactly free verse) to prose poetry to more recognizable stories, although even these eschew conventional narrative structures. It also contains fragments of prose, some of which disintegrate into smaller fragments, some of which take shape as a sort of bricolage of fragments, plus sketches and anecdotes, epistolary texts, and sentences that stutter into bullet points. As the title suggests, there's a dash of metatextuality, too, and there's a clear thematic interest that recurs throughout the book: troubled relationships between fathers and sons, particularly where the father is absent or overbearing and disruptive. Yet while this theme unifies most, but not all, of the contents of Letter, it must be said that the book is at its best in the pieces that escape its reach.
Foster's signature move, again and again, is to flag a subject, suggest that it has some sort of meaning, and then deflate or revoke the suggestion. Sometimes he does this by signaling that a piece is "about" something and then carving out spaces in which it isn't "about" that thing at all. "Stories About You," for instance, takes form as a series of discrete, inscrutable statements about "you"—"You remember the dead and rest your head in your hand, or against a wall. Then you remember something else"—until the fifth one appears inexplicably to be scrubbed of human presence, containing no "you" to which its meaning could apply. Likewise, in two pieces both titled "Neighbourhood Myths," accounts of extravagant suburban folklore ("Friend's dad killed friend's brother in law") subside into two paragraphs of pure, stirring description: a tranquil summer breeze, the interplay of shade and light, no scandalous rumors whatsoever.
At other times, Foster bores holes into the meaning of a text by withholding contextual details that would make the piece intelligible. "Alive and Well" takes the form of a letter that starts with these words: "In response to your notice from 04/09: I believe the individual you are referring to is me." But while the text comprises the letter writer's reply to the notice, it offers few clues to the references that apparently prompted the writing. Striking a similar note in the collection's title piece, another letter writer begins: "Dear Sir, I send it anyway, but I hope this letter fails to reach you. A failure here seems only right." What follows is a letter written in response to an earlier letter intercepted and read illicitly, the interception implying that the original didn't reach its intended recipient. This letter, then, opens onto a textual hall of mirrors, each text addressed explicitly to readers who are or will be deprived of its meaning.
Foster is perhaps best known as co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine, a publication with a record of supporting the talents of writers who have gone on to publish impressive story collections. Probably the most highly regarded of the 3:AM alumni are Joanna Walsh and Eley Williams, and Foster's collection is very much of a piece with books like Walsh's Vertigo and Worlds from the Word's End as well as Williams's Attrib. Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father has the same cool intelligence—a little aloof, a little arch—and the same interest in invoking conventions of literary form in order to establish expectations which it proceeds repeatedly to dash or evade. To these qualities, however, it adds two new ones: a sense of expansiveness, both spatially and temporally, combined with a contradictory sense of constriction or compression. Put these new qualities down to its geographical idiosyncrasies. Foster is Australian, and most of the pieces in his book are set in his native country. Especially in the many pieces that deal with the incidents of a free-roaming youth—throwing stones, petty theft—Australia comes across as an unbounded place of unstructured time, a place where whims can be followed without obligations to any kind of authority, even as broader existential possibilities are circumscribed by suburban squalor, alienation, and the languid, life-sapping heat.
While a couple of pieces in the collection are overlong or stylistically tame by comparison to the others—"The Taipan," for instance, or "Ten Days in Delhi"—there are at least half a dozen real gems, every bit the equal of Walsh and Williams at their best. "Music for Church Organs" and "Stone Fur Fish Skin Blood" are both daringly structured; they find subtle, graceful ways of braiding together an assortment of distinct images and incidents by more means than just an associative drift from one to the next. "Black Chalk with Touches of White on Brown Paper" moves fluidly between past and present, and reality and fantasy, as a romantic relationship decays under the weight of an accumulation of lies. Its aesthetic virtuosity is a perfect match for its emotional ballast; in structure and in substance, it is a story of devastating force.
"Then God; or, The Daily Torments of the Devil" showcases Foster's signature move at its most accomplished. Here are seventeen fragments about the devil's adventures as he prowls amongst his human prey ("The devil thinks you resemble your mother, who he knew well, very well, when she was young"), but even though they are numbered from I to XVII in a way that suggests a sequential meaning, they're all inconclusive and any two adjacent fragments are basically non sequiturs. Along the same lines, in the most strangely moving piece in the collection, "Economies of Scale" uses an equals sign to assert a series of unexplained equivalences between phenomena from seemingly different spheres of life: "1 sentence = washing the dishes from lunch," "Tight-lipped, brow set, deciding to carry the burden yourself = a dented oven, a broken photo frame, dirty secrets that are no longer secrets, a burden that deflates when poked," "2 dead birds, cord tying their feet = 1 overgrown temple, where the gods used to gather." The cumulative effect of these fragments is dizzying, exhilarating, as entire novels spring up out of those mathematical symbols and the imperative to derive some meaning from them.
In the opening pages of Here Is Where We Meet, John Berger, or his narrator, is startled to see his mother sitting on a park bench in Lisbon. Like Berger himself when he shows up in Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, his mother has been dead for quite some time. Tristan Foster's echo of Berger's novel isn't just a tip of the hat to an acknowledged master. It also amounts to an audacious invocation of a distinguished literary lineage. Risky business, certainly, but it doesn't overstep any boundaries. Foster's deft blend of formal playfulness and moral seriousness marks him out clearly as one of Berger's heirs, even as his book gives new color to those qualities by blending them with details drawn from his own background and interests. His collection offers many rewards in its own right, showcasing his considerable abilities, but it also hints at ambitions which he seems likely to realize and which mark him out as a talent to watch.