The Story Behind “Pale Ale” by Mitchell Welch


Today’s post is by Mitchell Welch, whose short story “Pale Ale” appears in our Spring 2014 issue.

Pale Ale‘ is an experimental marriage of two different styles: surrealism and social realism. Readers will notice, of course, that the product of this experiment is nothing like the fiction of the ‘magical realist’ school, which blends these two forms on an altogether different axis. At its core, ‘Pale Ale’ is a simple, moral story about a drunk and a gambler confronting his central void. In Peter’s case, this seems to be his ex (Christina), the Juliet to his Romeo. At least according to his booze-addled, half-remembered and nostalgia-soaked reading of the play. But Christina, absent as she is, is not his central void. Peter is prey to three vices: the booze, the one-armed bandit and the honey-suckle ambrosia of nostalgia.

Video poker machines—‘pokies’ here in Australia—were my starting point for this story. They are a scourge designed to rob the poor and under-educated of their wage, and they are an ideological weapon in the struggle between the haves and have-nots in my community. In Australia, most are owned by the same supermarket chains who own the local liquor stores and, in effect, they subsidize the huge discounts that allow them to maintain a stranglehold on the takeaway alcohol industry. I’m in no position to moralize here, and I didn’t want to be a bore either. Instead, I cached the whole theme within a drawn-out, dream sequence. This allowed me to put a giant, carnivalesque poker machine in Peter’s dream as its central symbol, without the crass judgment that would have been implied if I had simply shown Peter at a bar gambling away his paycheck. Instead of him haunting the bar, we start to understand how the gleaming promise of salvation haunts him through the night. Likewise, I didn’t want to simply demonstrate the negative implications of Peter’s living in the past, and so the hard rubbish collection came into frame as a way of forcing confrontation between Peter and his attachment to the icons and symbols of childhood and youth.

Peter is not a bad person because he enjoys gambling, or because he drinks, or because he lives in the past. He is innocent. Most of us are. But we need to be inside his psychic space to understand his perspective, to really comprehend how cloudy it is in there, and how the interplay of these issues thickens the fog. The first/third person narration here is a way of showing the reader that Peter is indeed capable of standing outside himself and of seeing his own folly, but that he is still beholden to a scatterbrain that at once dissects the world into sickly slices of nostalgia and shadows of unknowing dread. The stream-of-consciousness is more a stream of piss and vinegar. I wanted to show the reader that, even when we know what we’re doing is self-destructive, we can’t always be expected to lead ourselves out of the quagmire on our own. Life in civil society is too complex to sustain the idea that individuals must shoulder total self responsibility, particularly when disadvantage is socially ingrained.

This is what social realism is about: the empathetic exploration of the complexities of social issues. But somewhere along the line, realism fell out of fashion. If there is—as we generally acknowledge—no hope of finding universal truth, how dare we claim our fictions are ‘real’. Well, we don’t. We only try to imagine, and in imagining, try to understand. And if life is, as it seems to be, one big nightmare trip from innocence to epiphany, then that’s what we need to imagine when we’re writing other people’s stories too.

About Mitchell Welch

Mitchell Welch is a writer, editor and poet from Melbourne, Australia. He is the poetry editor of Ricochet Magazine and his work has been featured in a range of Australian and international journals.

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