ES PRESS, an imprint of Spineless Wonders (2022)
Reviewed by Jane Frank, StylusLit.
Beth Spencer’s most recent publication, The Age of Fibs, is a montage of stories, memoir and microlit that, if you’re a reader like me, will surprise, amuse and hold you until the last page is turned. Spencer, a seasoned writer of poetry, short stories, novels and academic works (most recently Vagabondage in 2015 which was poetry, microlit and travelogue) readily admits that this blend of pieces—many published previously in other contexts— derives its power and connection through ‘the energy of crossover’.
The brave, socially observant and intimate pieces in this collection superimpose the author’s personal history over popular culture in a way that makes me think of decoupage. Recollections of events and teen fixations, vividly remembered, are lacquered with her unstoppable imagination. Spencer re-navigates her youth and teenage years in the sixties and seventies through the pasting together of fragments of fact, memory and fantasy. This allows multiple pathways through the work that will resonate deeply with her contemporaries and offer a sharply observed historical window for younger readers.
For example, the first piece of short memoir, ‘Bewitching’[11-12], takes us into the Spencer family’s TV room, Spencer lying ‘on the green carpet, tranfixed’, Samantha the witch using her wiggly nose in Bewitched to show that women had powers and talents that exceeded assumptions made of them at the time. It was one of very few shows with strong female characters that spoke to debates about gender roles, patriarchy and societal expectations. Spencer, astounded that Samantha would ‘willingly trade wizardry for a kitchen whizz’  confides that:
For half an hour every weeknight, I am part of a coven exploring
my Wiccan heritage. This quicksilver world where the galaxy is
one’s backyard, and where men can be a part of it but the feminine
This is more than an enjoyable exercise in memory but of reinterpretation with the added spice of Spencer’s wicked and wry humour.
The witchy theme continues in ‘Fatal Attraction in Newtown’[13-37], a longer fiction story where Spencer contrasts memories of Glen Close’s powerful performance in Fatal Attraction (1987) with her narrator’s escapist life experiences in Newtown ‘in a world not far away / thirty years ago / yesterday’ . Fiction and reality are artfully woven together in this feminist retelling—
‘I guess I wasn’t surprised to see Alex (Glen Close) in the cinema
powder room …. I saw her again a week later on the Newtown
423 bus ….it was funny because when I got on the bus there
were two girls near the door and one said ‘Speak of the devil’[23-24].
Of course, the narrator takes Alex’s side, and the side of all the wronged women throughout literature:
In my house at the end of the street I provide refuge for the unreasonable.
Ophelia, Madame Butterfly, Rochester’s mad wife from Jane Eyre, the
discarded ones, the drowned women, the self-mutilators …
In stories like ‘Daydream Believing: the untold story of the Monkees in Lilydale’[71-76] childhood obsession combines with unreliable narration to great effect. As a nine-year-old girl plotting how she can meet and marry Monkees vocalist/percussionist Davy Jones, the story narrator’s family car crashes and she is (very fortunately)
tossed … through the roof of an inconspicuous-looking suburban
house, landing beautiful and disheveled on the living room floor.
And wouldn’t you know it! This just happened to be the house
where the Monkees were staying, incognito, while in Australia …
My parents and siblings were lying unconscious in hospital beds
so there was no one to know I was missing …. Naturally I lost
my memory in the fall, so what else could I do but agree to stay
and be looked after?
The three epigraphs at the start of the book from Ursula K. le Guin, Alice in Wonderland, and Foucault, which I’ll quote, should have been warning enough—‘The dream deceives; it leads to confusions; it is illusory. But it is not erroneous’. Thus, the title of the volume: The Age of Fibs. Fibs are not quite untruths, but I had completely forgotten that they were also a brand of bra sold in in bright colours back in the 1970s, called Fibs ‘because it looked like you weren’t wearing a bra (only fibbing that I’m that type of girl)’ . Spencer’s story, ‘The Age of Fibs’ [39-54] won the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. It cleverly addresses what it was like to be young and female in the 1970s—personal recollections of awakening sexuality and bra purchasing history and anecdotes of non-politically correct high school years are sandwiched in amongst significant political and social history of the day— the rise of the Whitlam Government and The Dismissal, the Vietnam War, Ita Buttrose at the helm of Cleo and Palmolive hair shampoo ads.
Another key thread through the book is the familial— there are particularly poignant pieces of memoir like ‘Playing the Man, Memories of Football’ [57-63] where Spencer recalls ‘rare moments of physical contact with my father’  when
in the winters of my childhood [football] saturated everything, the
furnishings, the carpet, the walls of the living room, everything was
grey and white with its sounds and shapes as the ball flew around,
back and forth, inside the tv set in the corner .
This is a story of ‘Blood and action. Playing and watching. / broken things: trophies, hearts.’ . The complexity of memory is something Spencer excels at showing us, and especially the juxtaposition of public and private memory that blur together. In ‘The True Story of an Escape Artist’[163-198], the final memoir piece in the volume, Spencer explores, through a montage recreation of family, who she is and how she arrived at where she is today. This story is accompanied by photographs and drawings. Again, Spencer finds ways to mix narrative and memory together: ‘Memory plays tricks, but that’s why I like it. A kind of magic. Like photographs capturing things, holding them up to the light long enough for you to see the patterns’ .
The Age of Fibs is about escapism from everyday life through cinema and TV, through friendships, through wild binges of imagination. Stories explore everything from Barbie’s brunette sister to memory loss to op-shopping to environmental themes and writing of the future. I have never met Beth Spencer personally, but the confessional warmth of this book makes me feel like I know her well.