‘Stories, Memes and Freddo Books: a review of Max Olijnyk’s Some Stories’, by Rebecca Varcoe

I first heard of Max Olijnyk through my ex-boyfriend. I would have been maybe twenty-one, or twenty-two. Max was a skateboarder, which sounded cool. I heard Max made jeans, which also sounded cool. My ex-boyfriend was not involved in the heavily insular Melbourne writing scene, but he was supportive of my writing, so as an offer of solidarity, I assume, he’d often say his friend Max did writing stuff, too. Again, that sounded cool. My first real crack at writing came in the form of a break offered to me from the Melbourne-renowned Penny Modra. Then editor of Three Thousand, Penny rejected a pitch of mine, but encouraged me to come along to their editorial meetings and pitch again. While I don’t know Penny well, she will endure in my memory as the hero at the start of my tiny career as a writer. My experience at Three Thousand is what gave me the confidence to try other things, like interning at writers festivals and trying to understand the writing community in Melbourne, from which I always felt isolated. I felt my silly writing on activities, food, and books for The Thousands paled in comparison to the serious fiction my peers were writing, their criticism for literary magazines, and opinion pieces in the pages of university journals.

Years later I launched my own small publication, Funny Ha Ha, and was looking for places to have it stocked. At this stage, Penny had started The Good Copy with a couple of other writers and editors, which at this time was a copywriting company, writing space, and small shop run out of Collingwood. I emailed to see if they’d stock my magazine. Max replied, and said they would. It felt very nice to have someone take a chance on a small, weird thing I’d made. I signed up to The Good Copy newsletter, where Max would write about the happenings in the shop, and run interviews with people whose work they stocked, or with people they just thought would be interesting to their readers I guess. It’s the only newsletter I got in my inbox that I always read, because Olijnyk’s writing about the happenings in a shop I never really got to visit all that often was warm and interesting and the kind of writing I liked to read. They even printed some of these newsletters and called it The Gaz. It’s really great.

Keeping in mind Olijnyk’s involvement in all these things I found so important to my own career, it’s a real joy to say that his debut, Some Stories, is something I wish I had read when I started writing. It’s a book I wish had been written, and stocked, in places I had access to.

It’s a really simple book. It’s small – there’s only five stories in it (they are biographical, I don’t think any of the stories are tall tales.) One of the stories is about a day out skating with his mates. I liked reading it even more than I liked reading the newsletter. There’s stories about attempted Gumtree purchases; kids names; chicken puns; a group of bikies on a boat. Of course it’s about more than these things. Like all good stories, these stories are about other things too. Friendship. Love. The fears and joys of parenthood and being an adult, money—terrifying fucking money—and just the small funny moments in one’s life.

One of these stories, ‘Bright Colours’, is only one and a half pages long. It is the one that reminded me most of David Sedaris’s work – the way he can take the most insignificant observation or conversation and spin it into a story that makes me wanna sit and think happily about small things. It details a quick visit to an op shop, in search of vintage records. It describes the two shop ladies and the ten quick sentences they exchange. It’s a story that you might not even bother relaying to a friend if they asked you what you got up to today, but written down, in this book, it is charming and seems perfectly at home in a collection of similarly quiet musings.

It’s important that when I picked up Olijnyk’s book from The Good Copy stand, it was next to a little book called Roses are Red, and Other Colours, by Rosie Dickens, which I also bought (and which, like Some Stories, was published by Olijnyk’s Freddo Books). This book is odd. I picked it up because the front cover was a bizarre Photoshopped image of a woman’s face superimposed over every member of a family photo. So I guess I got what I paid for, judging by the cover. This slim book is a collection of memes, jokes, plays on words, poorly Photoshopped images featuring Leonardo di Caprio. It’s important because the joy this book produces is quiet but palpable, very much like the joy of Olijnyk’s work. It’s a book you couldn’t find somewhere else, or if you did, it’d be rendered in neon colours, printed in that weird, square, hardcover shape they print all meme-books in. It’s hard to adapt jokes on the internet into books that aren’t coffee table books. I believe it’s a credit to Oljinyk’s wit and appreciation for weird words that he didn’t present the book this way. Rather than the aforementioned neons and zany fonts, it’s an understated book; that, were it not for its strange cover image, would look like any other novella on a bookshop shelf. Presenting it as such helps validate its contents, giving it weight beyond a throwaway joke.

Roses are Red, and Other Colours is a good complement to Olijnyk’s book, and a book that, like Some Stories, doesn’t feel like it could have been published by anyone else. I get the feeling Freddo Books will maybe produce lots of books like this, and I hope that they do. Books that are a bit short, or a bit off, or a bit risky for larger publishers. Because these books are the writing I wish I’d read when I was just starting to write; when I was beating myself up for my writing not looking like everyone else’s, or for not being serious enough. That my simple stories couldn’t be rendered readable, that my jokes weren’t important or useful. That no one else would ever want to hear them. Both these books assuage those fears in the fun-est, quietest way.

My favourite moment in Some Stories is not the gorgeous scene Olijnyk paints about swimming in phosphorescent seaweed, but the bit where he and his friend admit they’re actually kinda over it and would rather just get out and sit at home:

I paddled around for a while, thinking about things I’d done wrong and money and wondering if everything would be okay.

‘This is amazing!’ I said. ‘Yeah, it’s incredible,’ said Pete, a few metres away. ‘So beautiful,’ I said. We floated for a few moments silently. ‘I can see why Sadaf was so excited,’ I said. ‘This is a really special place, isn’t it?’ ‘Yeah, I feel a bit guilty that I sort of want to get out.’

‘Haha, you too?’

‘It’s amazing, I can hardly believe it, but I don’t want to be in here anymore.’

‘Are you cold?’

‘Not really, I just feel a bit bored.’

Sometimes life is less euphoria-as-you-uncover-the-mysteries-of-the-universe-under-the-moonlight, and more quiet-acceptance-of-the-sometimes-boring-reality-of-who-you-actually-are-and-that-it’s-OK. I’m not trying to say Olijnyk is boring, or this book was boring. I read Some Stories in one sitting. Reading Olijnyk talk about a day out skating was as interesting to me as reading many fantastical works of fiction. I suppose that’s because it’s really good writing.

Not only is the artful simplicity of Olijnyk’s writing really enjoyable to read, it makes me happy because Some Stories and Dickens’ Roses are Red, and Other Colours make me wonder if Max will be someone’s Penny. His small stories and publishing of books that might not be given a chance in the sometimes insular and narrow publishing scene in Australia may leave the door open for more timid writers who think their writing isn’t right. I hope it does, ‘cos I wanna read more like this.

Rebecca Varcoe is an arts and culture writer from Melbourne, and the editor of Funny Ha Ha.