What does it mean to have a stable marriage or romantic relationship? What does it mean to be a parent? What is it like to be a citizen in a foreign country? Matt Potter addresses these themes and more with his summer novella On the Bitch.
Hugh, a middle-aged English teacher to immigrants, and his German partner, Magda, visits a friend’s house for the weekend to catch up and enjoy themselves. Hugh’s longtime friend, Otto, and his bubbly trophy wife Kendalynn are affluent and happy to offer their hospitality. However, from the first chapter, things are not as exciting as it seems to be. Tensions, conflicts in ideas and the sudden arrival of Otto’s daughter Valerie turns this weekend trip into a contemplative and (tense) three-day event for all characters involved.
The novella is divided between into three sections, named after days of the weekend: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The story itself is one hundred seventy pages, and Potter was able to master pacing with his terse chapters. Each chapter has a main theme or focus that builds upon each character the more one reads. One chapter emphasized on Otto’s alcoholism and worldview, while another chapter gave some insight into Hugh and Magda’s mostly sexual relationship.
Another good illustration of Potter’s pacing is the flashback scene of Hugh and Magda on a metro in Germany. In this scene, Hugh watches the elderly couple on the train:
She pulled a plastic container out of her bag—small and square with a pale blue lid—and opening it up, took out two bread rolls (Schrippen in Berlin), both wrapped in foodwrap. She handed one to her husband, then pulled down her own tray table. Each peeling off the plastic, they bit into them, the Schrippen yawning open and, as I expected, revealing cheese and slices of meat. Such precision.”
Potter revealed Hugh’s motivations in his old age with this slow moment, capitalizing on economy of words.
The tension, as said before, comes as early as the first chapter. There is a slightly unsettling feeling in the first two pages with Kendalynn’s sickly sweet attitude and Otto’s apathy and annoyance, accentuated by the descriptions of the car and the driving:
”We had to buy some meat at the butcher up at Magill so we really were driving past.” Kendalynn smiles wider. Her freckled face—surprisingly unlined for her mid-fifties—barely creases in worry but her eyes beg us to believe her. She looks at Otto behind the wheel. “Weren’t we?” The red BMW sails through traffic lights as we speed on. Kendalynn’s freckled hand reaches across and strokes Otto’s hair just above his ear. “We thought we’d do a lamb roast in the barbecue.” The rings on her fingers—pink rubies and a diamond cluster—glint in the light shining through the BMW’s sunroof. (Yes, there’s a sunroof in the soft-top!)
We get an idea of each character in the first three pages—the narrator’s discomfort and impatience (Hugh), Otto’s silence and reminiscence, Magda’s obliviousness to the culture of Australia and beliefs (e.g. environmentalism) and Kendalynn’s overly positive attitude.
Character development is also excellent, such as Hugh’s discomfort with upper-class sensibilities and lifestyle:
“I look through the guest room window, onto the street running behind the house. That’s our view. Views of the beach are reserved for the non-guests, the people who actually own this pile of bricks and cement and glass, who actually pay for it.”
In the same chapter, we get more insight into Otto—a heavy drinker who thinks lowly of foreigners and judges people based on their socioeconomic status:
”No ambition, my daughters,” Otto says, stretching his arms out again like he can’t believe his fortune, good and bad. “No interest in business. No sense of competition. No drive. Nothing! Now what am I gonna do with this place? Leave it to them to turn into a retreat for muff-munchers?” … “Give it to charity,” I say. Pig’s arse, his look says.
There is a lot of relatability between the characters that unfolds organically through their dialogue, interactions and even the background. The doll scene with Hugh and Kendalynn not only shows them building a relationship, but also demonstrates Hugh’s voyeurism and later on, Kendalynn’s desire for motherhood.
As someone who has lived for four months in Australia, this story exemplifies the cross-cultural atmosphere of Australia. When Kendalynn was going through the various menus, it showed a variety of cultural cuisines, including fusions (Chinese, Indian or Chinese Indian):
Kendalynn ladles the four dishes—brown and orange and red and green (the spinach choice, I assume), paid for by me as a thankyou—from their throwaway recyclable containers, into clay bowls … The saffron rice and garlic naan and raita and other dishes Kendalynn and Otto habitually order from the Fleurieu Tandoor Bazaar on The Strand.
Hugh’s occupation as an English teacher to immigrants is a good gateway into this part of Australian multiculturalism, particularly when he had to resolve an “incident” between a “foreign” deliveryman and Magda. The nature of immigration and cross-cultural encounters—is there a right way to speak English?
“I could not understand his voice,” [Magda] says into the glass, and sips. Then, “Twenty years I am speaking English and no words of his I can understand.” … “He should learn a different accent, so people may understand him. He is communicating when he cannot communicate.”
What does it mean to be an Australian in this case? Does it require speaking correct English, where there are variants of it around the world? Even Hugh noted that Valerie pronounced the word “advertisement” wrong, even though she called Magda a fake for having “bad English.”
Speaking of Valerie, her role as a reflective character is doing a lot of work for the four characters of the story. She brings her own rebellious charm and character development, while also enhancing the characterization of Hugh, Otto, Kendalynn and Magda. In the chapter “Broken,” Valerie vents about her frustrating sibling rivalry with her sister, who is a lesbian like her. Magda comments that she was a lesbian, too, which gives us a peek into her sexual motivations.
Each reveal is underemphasized but adds more impact to the story. For example, readers learn through a passing phrase from Valerie that Kendalynn cannot have children: “‘Her ovaries are fried but her brain doesn’t always register that,’ Valerie said.”
Potter fosters a continuing sense of tension throughout the story. When I get to the chapter titled “Kids,” I genuinely cringe because I have an idea about what’s to come. However, as a side note, there are a lot of references to blue throughout the novel, with the motif shifting to purple by Sunday. The blue motif emerges from Magda’s eyes, which could represent how much Hugh thinks about Magda, or how much she means to him. I do not know if this is the real function of the colors blue and purple, but it could be a fun little element to unpack as readers explore this novella.
On the Bitch is an engaging pondering into self-discovery and what we want out of our relationships and lifestyles. The muted revelations are hidden in metaphors and musings of the characters, and with masterful pacing and characterization, Potter is going to make you wish this Australian weekend is never over.
On the Bitch, by Matt Potter. Adelaide, Australia: Truth Serum Press, February 2018. 170 pages. $13.00, paper.
Zuri Etoshia Anderson is a senior mass communication student at Winthrop University. She is from North Charleston, South Carolina, and is currently living in Hanahan, South Carolina. Zuri is planning on becoming a fiction writer, online journalist, and entertainment media analyst following her graduation in May 2019. Her favorite hobbies include various media consumption, including video games, films, books, news and anime/manga.