Nicholas Playford - now
Polymorph - is a masterful writer. His fourteen tales of the
imagination, of bizarre transformations, are in the tradition of Poe
and Borges. Fringe citizens of Australian society are revealed in ways
which haunt us. His microscopic vision of how the senses affect his
characters transforms our perception of their lives.
looked at Curtis’s face, examining the pores of his skin and
bristles on his chin. On a scale of millimetres the phenomenal world
These stories are subtle and innovative. They are
and have a miniaturist visual style. His Canberra, Melbourne and
Adelaide are places we have not yet seen. The ontological flux of the
everyday is suddenly revealed as overwhelmingly fantastic.
Prisoner Gains a Blurred
is the work of a rational being contending with the tumult of emotion.
If his world is seen through a magnifying lens, that lens is also
trained on us.
The Prisoner Gains a
was the first title released by Black Pepper.
Encircling the Rose Garden
The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours
The Unbidden Prism of Desire
Orientation of the Cinder-track Horizon
Examining the Audacious Edifice
Through a Magpie Come Words on Fears of China
The Skimmer Upon the Perceptual Sea
The Fragmentation of Tyres
The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin
Brenda Walker Australian Book Review,
journey entry had a lasting influence
on Samuel Beckett. In Deirdre Bair’s book on Beckett the
‘Last night I wanted to get up. Dead weight. A leg hangs
a trickle runs down my leg. I allow it to reach my heel before I make
up my mind. It will dry in the sheets.’ The scrupulous
bodily sensation which Beckett enjoyed is also one of the unusual
qualities of Nicholas Playford's first story collection, The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin.
The style is less concerned with intimacy than with cumulative detail,
with precision. There is often a scientific rather than an emotional
conviction in this work, though the work does have emotional depth.
Playford also has some of the stylistic flamboyance, the pleasure in
the texture of language, which is like Beckett's early fiction, before
he moved towards austerity.
My favourite story is ‘Whale’,
dominated by the great and
shape of a terminally ill grandfather. The grandfather is part of an
experimental drug program. The side effects of the drug have already
killed two participants. These side effects are a physical
manifestation of the horror of ageing: primarily skeletal growth and
distortion, as if the very structure of the loved body must finally
grow huge and twist. The bulk of the dying is more than physical. The
observing grandson cherishes and resents the dying man. There is tact
and resilience in the grandson’s conclusion: ‘I
looked down at the
water and the wooden supports beneath the long ramp of the pier and
wanted to hug him but could not. I clutched the tough fence.’
‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in
Vapours’ is another strong
time about labour, physical deprivation and significance. Three
exhausted workers sort unidentified pellets in a shed in the Adelaide
hills. They are isolated from the factory and the community - from the
sites of production and consumption. They have no idea of the
function. An industrial accident poisons the atmosphere, which seems to
liquefy, then harden into stone. Having refused an underhand rescue
offer from the son of the factory manager the workers are enclosed in
stone. The last narrator defies a final, ambiguous consolation:
substance hardened I
lose the sensation that it was pushing against me. It was as if we were
floating in another dimension, bereft of all senses save touch and
pain. I was not thirsty, and my hunger had left me. There were no
disasters left and no expectations, just the stone, come from some
reckless folly beyond our understanding. The world narrowed to the
warmth of my comrades and the beat in their blood vessels, things
The irony of course is that in this atmosphere bodily
change, the workers will die.
Solidarity occurs in a fatal industrially misproduced
blinds, deafens and prevents movement, indeed, workers ‘lose
sensation’ of resistance. Escaping with the bosses is
if workers are invited to escape, yet worker solidarity is not
Several stories explore situations of helplessness. One
‘Examining the Audacious Edifice.’ Sub-headings
indicate the emotional
Suspicion, Inertia, Difficulties, Apathy, Action, Future, Perplexity, Loss and Catastrophe. Each
heading has a
brief quotation from what I assume is a Tarot guide, as if to suggest
the inevitability of the imprisonment etc which follows. There is an
ironic play, too, between the fantastically exotic Tarot predictions
and the more prosaic story:
crowns him; in the
reversed, a naked woman holding two scrolls .floats in the sky, tresses
of her long hair suspended in ignorance of gravity, surrounded by a
wreath and partially hidden by an unfurled length of snow-coloured silk.
He lay on
his bed and wished
could sleep. He liked the accommodation but was concerned that he was
too dissimilar to the two women who lived with him. Both were office
workers and less than twenty years old.
Though tactically prosaic, the story is not uneventful. A
uncomfortable with his house-mates, they have little in common.
Misinformed police raid the house, looking for narcotics. The door is
smashed, possessions are exposed not only to strangers but to a fierce
and authoritative dog. The tentative hopefulness which the character
has brought to the household is fractured, there is to be no social
place for him and he leaves for the isolation of a hostel. Like much of
the writing in this collection. ‘Examining the Audacious
Edifice’ is a
tense, sad, powerful story.
Many of the stories are about sexual estrangement through
betrayal, indifference or complete misunderstanding. This is where
Playford’s precise notation of sensation is most apparent and
most obviously contributes to the general effect of distancing and
isolation. These narrators are not lovers, they are watchers and
assert my socially defined masculine role; though not brawny she was
strong, and her body stipple. I took in her scent, the celebration o f
her arousal - I knew that we were going to have sex, and with that
intimate knowledge I became conscious of my penis, a hardening tube
within my underwear, minimally wider at its base, and touched the
roughness of the brim of my tongue to hers, tasting her saliva.
In another story the narrator claims that ‘The
rush of the
overwhelmed me.’ There is no sense of overwhelming tactile
but rather of objective notation. This estranging precision extends to
the non-sexual. In one story the narrator clears his throat,
‘swallowing the gelled secretion of my salivary
glands.’ Here he
scrutinises involuntary interior processes. The final story describes a
man who is so emotionally disassociated that he abandons his species,
becoming a bird.
There is considerable diversity in these stories, yet
common and what they offer the reader is a perception of the actively
fantastic - as in the transformation of species - or the part that
language can play in the edginess of social detachment and Cartesian
internal division. There are dangers in writing about these issues,
including the danger that the fantastic will become abstract or
cryptic, and the notation of estrangement will estrange the reader. Yet
social detachment and internal division are the issues of
early work and it will be interesting to see where they take Nicholas
Science Fiction, The
Australian, 13-14 May 1995
Another debut collection
here, not because its 14 stories are
patently genre (few fit the popular definition - by way of an
experimental drug, mysterious stones, a suggestion of psychic
vampirism, transformation into a bird) but because of a focus, a set of
narrative modes, sensibilities, perceptual postures if you like, which,
as in the work of Borges, David Brooks, Gerald Murnane or in J.G.
bring the reader to a shift in viewing the commonplace fundamental to
These aren't always easy stories to enjoy, with detached delivery
often passionless accretions of detail: ‘Her pink tongue had
visible, the detail of its tissue like cellular stucco’ or
sunburnt hands swung the dimpled steering wheel from side to side, its
oscillations an encoded rhythm, a different map of the city.’
But when the technique works, as in the title story, this intense
objectification - and fantastication - of context does alter
nature of comprehension,’ attuning us to how we each put
together for ourselves.
Still, as the young handyman in ‘Hinges’ reflects,
an audience is ‘a
valuable thing.’ One can only wonder if the audience can be
long enough for any of the book’s very real gifts to emerge.
collection of stories, The
Gains a Blurred Skin,
teases the reader with its sense of dislocation. Many more questions
are asked than answers given. In ‘Encircling the Rose
Garden’, a story
written rather confrontationally in the second person, the protagonist,
contemplating a rose garden while struggling to accept the cooling of
her lover’s passion, is asked by the narrator: ‘How
many thorns can you
see? Thousands? The information is before you but you can’t
it.’ The author’s writerly eye zooms in like a
camera to reveal the
micro world underlying the macro one: ‘The burn marks running
deltoid... tell of when you ate halva together.’
These stories’ sense of physical location is as sharp as the
landscape they inhabit is foggy. In ‘Hinges’,
employed to renovate an old house, is actually being put to a far more
Playford further undermines our belief in his own vividly-drawn
realities by throwing the reader off-balance with metaphysical data
which makes nonsense of certainties. In ‘The Fragmentation of
spectral hitchhiker warns Emily: ‘our minds are potent, they
dream into bland reality’.
to top New Fiction on the Bookshelf
Marcus O’Donnell Melbourne Star Observer,
From the opening tale in this impressive collection of stories we know
to expect the unexpected; we immediately feel in the real world but
slightly askew. Written in an unsettling second person address, like a
letter from an omnipotent stranger never sent, the story charts the
dissolution of Ursula’s relationship with Timothy through the
of a garden where every rose holds a memory of their relationship.
There’s a story of the menage a trois between Regina, Thomas
where Thomas’ academic interest in terrorism imaginatively
Then there’s the story of a schizophrenic cleaner who sits in
cupboard in total darkness for much of her day, watching bizarre and
violent visions. A bungled police drug raid on a Canberra group
household is related through the structure of a Tarot reading, playing
with notions of fate, force and the violence of destiny.
Playford has worked in both state and federal government bureaucracies,
and his family is famous for its involvement in politics, perhaps as a
consequence, his language is often that of a bureaucrat. It follows a
certain precision, as if each word has been chosen and placed for its
absolute correctness. This often works as an ironic counterplay to the
surreal events described, but it can work to undermine the full
emergence of particular characters. There is a sense in which Playford
needs to become more playful and discover a range of voices to suit his
range of characters.
Back to top Paperbacks
The Canberra Times, 22 January 1995
Eerie and disturbing, Nicholas Playford’s The Prisoner Gains a Blurred
Skin consists of short stories as unusual as the
title. Many of them set in Canberra, they reveal characters in
off-balancing and heightened situations, such as dealing with soul
vampires, other people’s nervous breakdowns, weird
changes and strange fantasies.
Playford seizes attention with his exploration of alienation and
perversity and of the bizarre potential of seemingly normal events.
Even though obsessive detail and circumlocution are often germane to
the character - ‘I was unhappy with her presence in the
of my cerebrum’ - there is also a tendency in the stories
stilted expression and striving too hard for effect. He is best at his
most simple, as in a story set in the gardens of Old Parliament House.
One of the first publications from a new fiction imprint, Black Pepper,
this collection of short stories is immediately striking for its cover
alone. It features a painting by the great James Gleeson - visceral,
Jungian, surrealist and haunting. The
Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin is imbued with a similar
brooding and nakedness.
It has several unusual features. Nearly all the stories are set in
Canberra or Adelaide, rather than the larger metropolises. Playford
takes full advantage of the physicality of the locations, and the works
take on the quality of cinema. Interestingly, his super-realism and
strong narrative drive compensate for a use of unsual states of mind.
He makes consistent and teasing references to schizophrenia.
‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in Vapours’ deals with
a near future in
the Adelaide Hills where three women slave under an eternal summer.
They flee an industrial accident which turns the air to sludge, to
something solid, and yet they live. Playford’s concern here
is not to
construct an alternative world but to flesh out metaphors - for the
migrant experience, and the commonality of human suffering. It is a
rhapsody about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of
This collection is strong meat, and requires the reader’s
While the book has its share of sarcasm and pessimism, one is left
feeling rewarded, as Playford is searching for systems of moral truth.
A good start for the Black Pepper imprint.
Tall and lanky, with
hair and steel-rimmed glasses, Nicholas
Playford is a familiar figure among the bohemians and literati that
still haunt, like pale ghosts, the now yuppified pubs and cafes of
Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Intense, articulate and serious, 33 year old
Nick discussed his first book of short stories over a beer at
Rhumberallas. It is a handsome paperback, the first from Black Pepper,
a new imprint publishing innovative Australian fiction and poetry, with
a striking cover painting, the first of his works to be used this way,
by James Gleeson, the now aging master of Australian surrealism. Nick
describes his stories as ‘fantasies about the nature and
being’ that us ‘states of mind bordering on the
illustrate metaphorical ideas.’ His precise and microscopic
descriptions of our constructed urban environment, with its ordered
rituals and stylized sensations, reveal this world to be unreal and
bizarre. When emotion breaks through into this rational universe it
transforms and liberates. In several stories the ending of
relationships becomes a freeing from psychic bondage, from being
‘trapped in otherness.’
The deceptively dead-pan ‘Hinges’ is a sinister
tale of psychic
vampirism. 'The Fragmentation of Tyres’ is a hallucinogenic
in which a woman driving from Canberra to Melbourne is pursued by the
spectres of a lesbian hitch-hiker and a deranged motor mechanic.
Another piece realtistically tells the true story of an unjustified
police raid on a shared household. Anyone who has had this unfortunate
experience, and there are quite a few of us, will relate to this one.
Two stories stand out. In ‘Orientation of the Cinder-Track
infidelity and sado-masochism lead to a revelation of love, and the
title story, ‘The Prisoner Gains a Blurred Skin’ is
an occult tale of
transcendental mysticism, set in modern Canberra.
J.G. Ballard is an important influence, particularly The Atrocity Exhibition
expositions of the
perversions and pathologies latent in modern life. Nick told me that
Canberra, where most of his stories are set, was like a landscape
straight out of a Ballard story, with its ‘antiseptic
obsessively planned artificiality. To illustrate, a few story titles;
‘The Skimmer Upon the Perceptual Sea,’
‘The Birth of Stone Revealed in
Vapours,’ ‘Examining the Audacious
Edifice.’ But if you are looking for
innovative and ambitious modern Australian fiction, this unusual
collection should satisfy.