Here Be Leviathans by Chris Flynn review – luminescent experiments in narrative voice

Reading Here Be Leviathans, I was reminded that everyone – you, me, all of us – will die. Sooner or later, everyone we love, everyone we hate, everyone we’ve never given a thought to: dead.

Mortality and our shared coexistence – these are the elemental concerns of Chris Flynn’s debut collection of short fiction. As a fire says to humanity – if not the universe itself – in Shot Down in Flames: “I will find you and I will devour you, for I am Alpha and Omega. I was there at the beginning, and I will be there at the end. There is no escape.”

A fire? Yep. A bushfire, to be exact. Set on Dharawal country, Shot Down in Flames features not only a fire with narrative powers, but a similarly gifted Buduwangung creek, a fox, and a Remington Model 700 CDL SF rifle (assigned some of the book’s best lines). Since publishing his Commonwealth Book Prize-shortlisted debut in 2012, Flynn has, in recent years, begun to focus increasingly on the non-human: his last novel, Mammoth, was narrated by a 13,000-year-old fossilised example of the species, and led to him writing the “voice” of a dinosaur for Melbourne Museum.

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Humans people his new collection, too. They’re just one of many characters. Not because humans are an afterthought, per se – rather, we are simply another species on a dying planet.

Other narrators in Leviathans include: an aeroplane seat, a pair of sabretooth tigers, a family of genetically altered platypuses, a virus, spaceborne monkeys indebted to Shakespeare, a superyacht, an Alaska bear, a hotel room (in a story which feels something like the video for Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, with added polyamory), and – in the collection’s luminescent final story – aliens, who are closer to us than we may wish to admit.

Australian writer Thea Astley’s influence is discernible across Leviathans. Their styles are, admittedly, different: Flynn’s more streetwise and conversational; Astley’s imagistic, full of modernist inflections and filigrees. Yet both share an ironic sense of humour; and Flynn, like Astley, excels at distilling the idiosyncrasies of our internal monologues. In The Strait of Magellan, Flynn skips between the voices of a superyacht, its crew, and a virus, bringing to mind Astley’s character-hopping narrative voice in The Slow Natives. Shot Down in Flames, by opening with a creek’s memories of the Dharawal before moving on to its primary narrative of two young settler Australians, recalls Astley’s 1974 novel A Kindness Cup. There, the starting point was one of Australia’s largest wars, the 1861 Gayiri massacre in Queensland, with the novel focusing on the recriminations among the non-Aboriginal characters twenty years later.

(In an “Afterword/Acknowledgments/Blame Apportioned” section at the end of the book, Flynn remarks that, unlike Tim Winton, “all of Astley’s Miles Franklin winners are out of print”; luckily for us this is not entirely true – 1999’s Drylands, her final novel, was reprinted in 2018 by Text.)

Speaking of influence, Inheritance – with its Alaska grizzly – poses fundamental questions about our involvement in the lives of others. By writing of animals who inherit the memories of their prey, Inheritance recalls Calvino’s story The Origin of the Birds, in which the narrator describes a primordial encounter with the avian species: “I had seen something very different, I had visited the world of what might have been, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” Flynn, for his part, asks us to inhabit the world, not only of what “might have been” but of what is: a place teeming with lives that precede our own, and which continue to proceed alongside us.

Flynn is a restless experimenter, a fabulist. In the excellent final story, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, his sinuous prose takes the reader through the underground tunnels of Las Vegas. Foregoing all forms of punctuation, the story introduces us to JKa, a woman who has endured an abusive past. She is vulnerable but remains open to human connection, forming a relationship with a character named Cagney, whose gender exists – as gender always has – on a spectrum, tops and tails and everything in between. JKa’s story, narrated in both the first and third person, shows how humans can be objectified and transformed, treated poorly and hurt, yet survive.

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Our shared ecologies, as Aileen Moreton-Robinson reminded us during her opening address at the Melbourne writers’ festival, are all we have. Sometimes this dependence is literal, as in the case of JKa and Cagney, consigned to the margins of society in Las Vegas. Sometimes it means anthropomorphising animals and objects – not because there are no differences between us, and not because Flynn wants us to ignore them, but because doing so might help us to better respect and care for ecological diversity; to recognise our implication in one another, and in all things.

Because the fact is this: our planet is dying, our bodies are vulnerable, our lives are fragile, and there is no time left. We share much in common with the world but, in a sense, the world has nothing to do with us. In deep time it will go on. As Mercè Rodoreda wrote: “One morning you’ll get up thinking that the things you carry within you have died, but it won’t be true; when you think this has happened it’ll really be you who has died a bit. Things don’t die, they continue.”

So perhaps I was wrong. Everything dies. Yet not everything dies.

  • Here Be Leviathans by Chris Flynn is out now (UQP, $32.99)