The novella: an intriguing form of writing. Not a short story, yet not a full-blown novel either. Long enough to get your teeth into, yet you can finish it in one sitting. An antiquated form that will surely enjoy a joyous resurrection, thanks to e-readers and an urban population that must endure a long daily commute to work.
The vast herd rises at dawn and trudges through heatwave and thunderstorm alike to the spiders’ web of public transport leading to the city centre.
I am one of them.
What I’ve noticed over the years is a shift in how people amuse themselves along the way.
In the 1970s the morning newspaper came as a broadsheet. The format was designed so that very large men could spread their limbs wide, with the newspaper held in between, and take up AN ENTIRE TRAIN SEAT. The newspaper was a curtain, an invisibility cloak that sealed them off from the crowd. Other passengers would hold their tongues (as polite Australian commuters used to do) while STANDING UP the whole way. If you were lucky, you’d get to sit in the seat opposite the Great Wall of Paper, where you could read the front-page headlines and the back-page sports report.
In the 1980s I drove to work. We’d moved to a regional centre where public transport was like the Yowie or the Loch Ness Monster, a mythical beast that was believed to exist, yet no-one had actually seen it. Driving in peak hour in a country town was like just like driving in the city … at three o’clock in the morning. The roads were deserted, save for an elderly person driving at twenty kilometres per hour and the odd stray dog.
Then in 2000 we moved back to the big smoke and I started catching the bus. To be precise, it was the 411 bus from the university to the city. Otherwise it was known as The Friendly Bus. People TALKED to each other. Perfect strangers at first, soon I came to know my neighbourhood. They were an eclectic mix of professionals and academics and semi-retired people who spent their weekdays in town. Bus buddies. When the Council threatened to change the timetable and close the route, we banded together and fought and won. Always there’d be a familiar face waiting at the stop, or greeting you from the back seat of the bus.
Then came the MP3 player and the iPhone. The older commuters retired and younger people took their place. Everyone stopped talking to each other.
Now I catch the ferry to work. I gaze out the window at the swift-flowing river and the wispy clouds scudding across a bright sub-tropical sky. All around me, passengers are engrossed in phantom worlds of their own making. In silence they brush fingertips across small glass screens. Plugged-in and zoned-out. Isolated from the sights and sounds of the real world.
And so we come to the brave regeneration of an old artform. A shortish read on a backlit screen. The story you download for next to nothing will amuse you quietly for the entire trip. You’ll forget where you are and who you are until your feet touch reality at the end of the line.
Long live the novella!