Jane Rawson’s “From the Wreck” – Messing with the Suspension of Disbelief

Jane Rawson’s bold and imaginative novel “From the Wreck” is a work of historical fromthewreckfiction that jumps off a cliff. Grounded in an authentic historical setting, the narrative escalates swiftly from George Hills’ experience of a nineteenth century shipwreck off the coast of Australia, to the struggle for survival of an alien in human form seeking refuge on planet Earth.

The author messes with our suspension of disbelief, as the novel shifts abruptly from the conventions of historical fiction to the first person musings of the alien, a shapeshifter with an intergalactic disregard for the puny human it inhabits.

Irony abounds, both in the conflicting assumptions of people about each other, and the plight of insignificant humans in a universe so large that it is beyond comprehension. The extremes of the human condition are fully rendered – shipwreck survivors resorting to cannabalism in order to survive, a mother abandoning her child, male sexual predators, harsh judgements of anyone who differs from conventional expectations.

However, it’s not all bleak. The colonial Australians are interesting in themselves, particularly George’s son Henry, a boy whose intense life of playing make-believe and collecting dead things is engaging and humorous. Henry’s aunt and uncle stick up for him and give him encouragement when a family tragedy strikes. George, the main protagonist, eventually finds a modicum of happiness. Even the alien finds some relief from its existential dilemmas. Interestingly, male characters take centre stage in the novel, most of them warmly portrayed. There is also an even balance with strong female characters capable of setting men right when they are wrong.

The overall feel of the novel is tough-minded, ironic and good humoured. The sense of a vast uncaring universe in the portrayal of the existential angst of the alien, is countered by the empathic human characters and the historical setting that the novel delivers. Our suspension of disbelief is thoroughly rewarded, in an unusual novel that works wonderfully well.

Paperback, 272 pages

Published March 1st 2017 by Transit Lounge

ISBN9780995359451

“The Glad Shout” by Alice Robinson – Motherhood and Environmental Disaster

 

51xUAiToduLIn “The Glad Shout” Alice Robinson skilfully navigates the competing demands of bringing a dystopian ecological disaster into focus while exploring the emotional lives of her characters with fierce intensity.

When Melbourne is deluged by rising water levels, Isobel fetches up in a refugee camp with her partner Shaun and young daughter Matilda. She struggles to survive the harsh conditions and the emotional strain of being reduced from a comfortable middle class life to appalling living conditions with an unreliable partner and a demanding little daughter. It is as though the ecological disaster strips away her emotional blinkers, forcing Isobel into extreme circumstances that throw her inner life into stark relief. She is forced to deal with crowds of fearful, sometimes threatening, people, to engage with and betray a new female friend, all while her relationship with her partner Shaun is placed under intolerable strain. Much of this strain relates to the struggles of parenting a young child, and the feeling that the burden falls on her.

Then again, it’s all well and good for her husband to play at being a hero. He’s autonomous, thanks to her. Why can’t he understand that, now that they have Matilda, neither of them gets to have time out – except by prearrangement, at the other’s expense? Time out for helping other people is no different, in terms of the labour it lumps onto her. What she wouldn’t give just for a moment alone to clean herself up without having to answer a million bloody inane questions. What she wouldn’t give for silence – the opportunity to inhabit and look after just one body, instead of two.

Interestingly, the two men who feature most in Isobel’s life, her husband Shaun and her older brother Josh, are remarkable for being unreliable, physically vulnerable, and absent from her life when she needs them most. Her response to both of them is a blend of intense love and deep frustration, and her dependence on them is a defining characteristic of her musings about men. The only significant male presence with any redeeming features is her grandfather Nonno, who is quirky and affectionate, but who also disappears when he returns to the country of his birth in his old age.

Isobel’s mother, Luna, is a real estate agent driven by social aspirations and the need for career success, while grandmother Karen is an affluent bohemian type. They are completely at odds with each other, and both command Isobel’s loyalty. They remain unresolved figures in her young life, and occupy the most emotional space in the novel. It is no surprise that the generational struggle is replicated with Isobel’s young daughter Matilda, resulting in strong feelings of guilt and inadequacy in mothering her.

When Shaun disappears on a rescue mission, and survival for Isobel and her daughter Matilda begins to look increasingly impossible, her innermost feelings about her mother, brother and grandmother and their interwined relationships bubble into consciousness, leading her to question the meaning of her life. These relationships are depicted with the intensity of a Helen Garner, although Isobel’s youth and naivety leaves a little more room for optimism for her future than is the case with Garner’s battle-scarred characters. The immediate “answer” to Isobel’s dilemmas is the primal need to save her daughter, to escape the increasing threats around her, and this requires all the strength and resilience she can find.

 

Speculative fiction brings to mind the old adage: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” And it’s a brave novelist who goes into too much detail about imagined futures. So far as “The Glad Shout” is concerned, the details of this near future are provided with a intelligent parsimony, and Robinson strikes a fine balance between labouring to describe a new world as against leaving the reader puzzled about what is going on.

Prophecy and Dystopia – “The Handmaid’s Tale”

thtSince the global success of the TV series based on “The Handmaid’s Tale” (THT) Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel has sold millions more copies and become the source of much controversy. Needless to say, the TV series is very different from the novel, with more graphic brutality.

Much of the current debate is about the accuracy of the novel’s “predictions” about what has come to pass in Donald Trump’s America (and may be about to come). Will the USA become a theocratic totalitarian state, with women as slaves of the ruling class? Is it well on the way already? And so Atwood has been drawn into feminist arguments on these topics, and is revered by some and reviled by others.

Prophecies about future societies, like weather forecasts and economic predictions, are doomed to be mugged by reality. As frightening as Trump’s America may be, the inspiration for the novel is the religious tyranny of the seventeenth century New England Puritans, not the present or the future. As Atwood herself points out, nothing depicted in the book has not already happened: “Among the many dog-eared newspaper clippings Atwood used for research was an Associated Press report on a contemporary religious sect in New Jersey where wives were labelled ‘handmaidens’. In speculating about this dystopian future, she was jogging the American memory, reaching back to what she calls its ‘foundational platform of 17th-century theocratic totalitarianism’.” (1)

Atwood also specifically disclaims being in any way a prophet, or being wedded to any particular set of beliefs about the future or anything else: “I don’t have a doctrinaire set of ideas. It’s very annoying to some people. I don’t think you can be a novelist and have a doctrinaire set of ideas. You are just going to write propaganda.” (ibid.) This, to me, is a key insight about writing fiction. However compelling the arguments about cultural appropriation and power relations, in the end a clear-eyed satirist needs to have some empathy with even the most repellent characters. Otherwise they become mere ciphers, and not human beings. Even the most evil of people is, in the end, human – like it or not.

When it comes to the feminist debate, running hot as the TV series wends its way from one horror to another (most of them not in the novel), Atwood has become a focal point for ideological differences. Her riposte to all this is interesting for its tough mindedness: “There are so many different kinds of feminists, which is why I refuse to answer the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’ You have to say, what kind? Are you the ‘equality now’ kind of feminist? Absolutely. Are you the kind of feminist who thinks all male babies should be killed, apart from 10 per cent? No, I’m not that kind. But there are some.” (ibid.)

Even tougher is the following statement that Atwood makes about human nature in the same interview. “My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.”

I would argue that THT, whatever the perceived “message” of the TV series, is better seen as a dystopian novel, in the grand tradition of George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. Dystopian novels can be regarded as speculative fiction, taking elements of the human condition, such as authoritarianism, patriarchy, eugenics and so on, and playing with a “what if” scenario.

While THT is a legitimate vehicle for contemporary feminist concerns, and the rights of women in present day USA are under threat, at the time of the publication in 1985 not everyone was convinced of its relevance. In a literal reading of the prophetic nature of the novel, Mary McCarthy wrote in a 1986 New York Times review: “I just can’t see the intolerance of the far right, presently directed not only at abortion clinics and homosexuals but also at high school libraries and small- town schoolteachers, as leading to a super-biblical puritanism by which procreation will be insisted on and reading of any kind banned.“(2)

That comment may have felt like a fair enough opinion about the USA at the time, but as already discussed, the USA has experienced something similar in the past, and current situations like the enslavement of women by Islamic State in the Middle East also give fair warning of what is possible more or less anywhere.

It would be a brave novelist who set out to predict a future version of a specific society down to the fine detail, and clearly that was not Atwood’s intention. What is happening here, too, is the assumption by readers that novels carry messages about how we should live, and express the personal ideology of the author in a  literal sense. This is clearly not the case with Atwood’s most famous novel.

So what was Atwood trying to do? It is better to let Atwood answer this for herself: “Three things that had long been of interest to me came together during the writing of the book. The first was my interest in dystopian literature, an interest that began with the adolescent reading of Orwell’s ‘1984’, Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, and continued through my period of graduate work at Harvard in the early 1960s. Once you’ve been intrigued by a literary form, you always have a secret yen to write an example of it yourself. The second was my study of 17th- and 18th-century America, again at Harvard, which was of particular interest to me since many of my own ancestors had lived in those times and in that place. The third was my fascination with dictatorships and how they function, not unusual in a person who’d been born in 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II.” (3)

Ironically, though, Atwood’s most famous novel does not seem to me to be her best. THT struggles with a typical challenge in dystopian novels and much of science fiction. That is, the effort required to depict the workings of the imagined world. A novel in the realist mould is difficult enough in the challenges required to judge, for example, how much backstory of character to include. When you are creating an entire world, a parallel universe, there is too much to describe in detail, while omissions may lead to puzzlement. In THT, some of the effort to provide enough details feels strained, a little laboured, a problem also evident in other famous dystopian novels such as “Brave New World”.

There is nothing new in a writer’s work being characterized by their most popular book. Many novelists are famous for one particular novel, while the rest of their work receives less or no attention. Think of William Golding and “Lord of the Flies”, or Christina Stead’s “The Man Who Loved Children.” The case of Margaret Atwood and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is so graphic because of the global phenomenon created by the TV series and the way it has played into current American politics. Atwood has added even more fuel to the flames with her promise of a sequel to the novel that has brought her fame and fortune – well-earned rewards for a fine writer.

References

(1) Nick Bryant, 2019. “Margaret Atwood’s prophecy: how fiction merged with fact in the time of Trump.” The Age, Melbourne, Australia, February 16th, 2019.

https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/margaret-atwood-s-prophecy-how-fiction-merged-with-fact-in-the-time-of-trump-20190212-p50x55.html

(2) Mary McCarthy, 1986. “Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood”. The New York Times, February 9th, 1986.

https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/26/specials/mccarthy-atwood.html?module=inline

(3) Margaret Atwood, 2012. “Margaret Atwood on How She Came to Write The Handmaid’s Tale”. The Literary Hub.

https://lithub.com/margaret-atwood-on-how-she-came-to-write-the-handmaids-tale/

 

Asymmetry or Borrowed Gravitas? – Lisa Halliday’s Transgressive Novel

asymmetry-coverAsymmetry  by Lisa Halliday must surely be the most warmly reviewed novel published in 2018. A main feature of all the publicity is that the novel features a semi-disguised account of the author’s affair with Philip Roth, a literary legend in the USA. In addition, critics have applauded Halliday’s novel for its originality, breaking of boundaries, and its experimental form. For example, Alice Gregory in The New York Times says that “Halliday has written, somehow all at once, a transgressive roman à clef, a novel of ideas and a politically engaged work of metafiction.”

The notion that Asymmetry is transgressive appears to rest on Halliday’s use of discontinuous narrative, consisting of three loosely related novellas tied together to form a “novel”. There is also critical approval of Halliday’s clever manipulation of autobiography, and the role of a novelist in constructing an artificial reality.

The idea that Asymmetry is a complex, revelatory novel has gained enormous traction in literary reviews, following the cue given by the publisher in its blurb on the cover: “Playful and innovative, tender and humane, Asymmetry travels the globe, inhabits multiple perspectives, and transforms: from a vivid and unconventional love story into a novel that challenges the power plays and imbalances of contemporary life – between male and female, young and old, West and Middle East, talent and luck, and the personal and the political.”

However, it is difficult to resist the uneasy feeling that the warm reception from reviewers is due to the fact that Ezra Blazer, the main protagonist, is a thinly disguised portrait of Philip Roth, who had an affair with the author. As Alexandra Alter says  in The Sydney Morning Herald, “Asymmetry has caused a stir because of the unlikely romance at its core. To literary insiders, Ezra Blazer bears a striking resemblance to Philip Roth.” Alter’s reference to “literary insiders” is significant. While Roth is a legend in the United States, certainly to “literary insiders”, the average reader might not know that Blazer is Roth until they are told (by the literary insiders). Nor would they realize that Lisa Halliday once had an affair with Philip Roth.

If Ezra Blazer could not be identified as a “real-life” famous American novelist, would we care as much about his relationship with a young woman working in publishing, in the first part of Asymmetry? Or feel affected as much by the second part about a Muslim man detained at Heathrow – apparently a novella written by the young woman in the first novella? And would we care about the comments of Ezra Blazer in a radio show, in the coda to the novel, about his choice of music for a sojourn on a desert island?

Arguably, what we have in Asymmetry is clever use of the borrowed gravitas of Roth’s fame to stitch together a discontinuous narrative which lacks coherence.

Comparisons with other novels featuring famous writers are useful. Apart from Asymmetry, in recent months I’ve read several novels featuring a famous writer. Of course writing about famous people has obvious attractions. However, there would seem to be more at risk when writers write about other writers. After all, below par fiction about an accomplished writer is asking for trouble. Some writers are so famous that I’m amazed that any writer would have the courage to build a novel around them. Franz Kafka, for instance. However, at least two novels featuring Kafka have been published over the last year or so. The first one I read is Forest Dark, by US author Nicole Krauss, published in 2017. In that novel, both the main protagonists are Jewish, and visit Israel, separately, both in the course of a life crisis. In that context, Kafka, no doubt the most famous Jewish novelist of all, has some relevance in a cultural sense, as well as to certain aspects of the plot. Nonetheless, Kafka remains peripheral to the narrative, with one plot twist involving the legacy of his personal papers, which reduces him to an historical footnote.

Another example is The Lost Pages(2017), an intriguing debut novel by Australian novelistMarija Peričić. It focuses on the relationship between Franz Kafka and his best friend and promoter, Max Brod (also a writer). Again, Kafka is a peripheral figure in this novel, which in fact pays far more attention to Max Brod. And of course, Brod is only famous these days to the extent that he is linked to Kafka. In that sense, the novel stands or falls on the basis of how compelling is its portrait of Brod, a man struggling with his physical infirmities and the effects of living in the shadow of his best friend’s genius. This seems to me to be a far more valid use of a writer’s celebrity than is the case with either Asymmetry or Forest Dark. However, we have to ask whether the portrait of Brod in The Lost Pages would resonate without the presence of Kafka lurking in the wings?

Why not simply make the story about the famous writer and be done with it, rather than relying on a sprinkle of the fairy dust of their fame? This is exactly what J.M. Coetzee did in The Master of Petersburg  (1994). In assuming Dostevesky’s voice and persona in telling the tale of his search for the reasons behind his son’s death in unusual circumstances, Coetzee achieves a dramatic effect that lifts the narrative well beyond a mere fascination with the celebrity of famous writers.

Coetzee makes no attempt at biography. The Master of Petersburg mimics Dostoyevsky’s febrile intensity, and the characters and setting offer a perfect facsimile of his world. Coetzee is, of course, writing in English, and there is no way of knowing how a Russian translation would compare with a Dostoyevsky novel. But the conceit is a fascinating one, in fact well beyond mere mimicy, more like an actor who seems to have the capacity to “be” the character he or she portrays. And that, of course, is a rare thing.

Ottessa Moshfegh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

moshfeghmyyear“I looked like a model, had money I hadn’t earned, wore real designer clothing, had majored in art history, so I was ‘cultured’.”  So says the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s recent novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The narrator decides to sleep away a year of her life on sleeping drugs prescribed by her unethical (and crazy) psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, for reasons that are not entirely clear. All she has by way of a social life is her “best friend” Reva, whom she appears to despise. The narrator broods on her memories of her dead parents, and a troubled love affair with a man named Trevor. She resigns from her job at an art gallery, and later enlists the help of a trendy artist to treat her as a “project” while she sleeps.

She dreams, she sleepwalks – venturing out of her New York apartment on strange sorties, and ordering all manner of goods and services online – and broods on the foibles of the modern world with cynical clarity.

Moshfegh’s novel is laced with bitter humour as her narrator inhabits this claustrophic world of pill-induced sleep, her interior life a stark examination of a friend she dislkes, parents she barely knew, and a masochistic relationship with her ex-boyfriend.

Despite some engaging writing, this claustrophic interior world, driven by grief, depression or some form of anomie, runs the danger of becoming bogged down in its own inaction. While there is no law of fiction that requires engagement with the world, a static interior life is a challenging proposition to portray in a novel. Just as boredom is difficult to write about without being boring, withdrawal into oneself and contempt for everything around you runs the risk of losing dramatic traction.

 

Ottessa Moshfegh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. 
288 pages.

Penguin Press, 2018

ISBN 1787330419 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helen Garner’s Writing Life: Autobiography and the Fictive Self

imageBernadette Brennan’s account of Helen Garner’s writing career, A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work (Text Publishing, 2017), provides what Brennan terms a “literary portrait” focused on the writing, rather than a biography. She achieves what the title suggests, proceeding chapter by chapter through the written works, and linking the writing of these works to a broad chronology of Garner’s life.

While Brennan’s choice of a literary portrait works well on its own terms, discussion of other Australian writers and literary influences on Garner is limited, and the issue of how autobiographical writing declines the opportunity to maintain a sense of fictional distance from the writer’s self is not fully explored in comparisons with other writers of novels in English.

This is a gap in Brennan’s book, given that one of the most controversial aspects of Helen Garner’s reputation as an Australian novelist of international note is the autobiographical nature of her fiction. Overseas reviews of Garner’s novels do not appear to be so concerned with this issue. For example, a review by James Wood, one of the most eminent literary critics in the English- speaking world, does not even mention the issue of autobiography versus fiction. In fact Wood acknowledges the value of introspection in her writing, saying that “Garner’s gradual awakening to her unadmitted anger is what gives her best book, her novel The Spare Room (2008), much of its shattering power.” (James Wood, 2016).

However, the Australian reviewer Robert Dessaix remarked, in a review of the The Spare Room, Garner’s 2008 novel about the death of a close friend: “A novel is primarily a work of fiction with an architectonic quality to it that transcribed diaries just don’t have.” He goes on to say that The Spare Room does not satisfy these criteria, but is rather “a hard-hitting, flinty-eyed report from the front, not a novel.” To cap it off, Dessaix asserts that not one of Garner’s published “novels” actually qualify for the genre, including the most famous, Monkey Grip, her first novel published in 1977.

Monkey Grip is called a novel, The Children’s Bach and Cosmo Cosmolino short novels, and now The Spare Room (Text, 208pp; $29.95) is declared “a perfect novel” by Peter Carey on the back cover. But they are not novels. They are all of them fine works of art and innovative explorations of literary approaches to non-fiction, every one of them an outstanding example of stylish reportage, but none of them is a novel. So why does Helen Garner at the very least collude in having them called novels? (Robert Dessaix, 2008)

There is a sense of feeling cheated, perhaps, with a sense that Garner’s novels somehow do not “qualify” as fiction. And Dessaix is not the only Australian critic to pursue this theme. As Brennan notes, criticism of Helen Garner’s autobiographical tendencies have been a big issue in Australia from Monkey Grip onwards. There is something else though, that emerges in a remark by Dessaix which may be intended as laudatory, but sounds more like a backhanded compliment:

Nobody writes these reports from the suburban front line with quite the passion, the abrupt insights and kitchen-table candour of Helen Garner. The Spare Room is a quietly devastating book, written with superbly refined ordinariness, on ageing, women’s friendship and how to look death in the eye.” (Robert Dessaix, 2008)

On the face of it, Dessaix regards Garner’s fiction as somehow domestic and suburban in a derogatory sense, the sort of limited stuff that female writers engage in, the world of the kitchen table in the article’s title. This is part of a broader current of literary criticism in the English-speaking world which has, since Jane Austen, seen fiction by female writers as overly concerned with “domestic” issues. On this note, Becca Rothfeld makes the point that male writers with strong autobiographical tendencies have received the sort of acclaim denied to female writers who exercise “the privilege of writing about oneself”:

 

How nice it would be to be afforded the luxury of narcissism — the luxury of writing about experiences that are taken, prima facie, to matter. And yet the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical. (Becca Rothfeld, 2015)

Brennan comes down firmly on Garner’s side of the argument about autobiography and fiction. She approvingly quotes Helen Garner’s response in the course of discussing The Spare Room:

It is morally a novel even though it’s very closely based on my real experience of those three terrible weeks in my life. By calling it a novel I’m saying: this is not a memoir, this is not non-fiction, this is a novel and there will be things in here that are invented, that didn’t really happen, and I’m going to take…every sort of liberty I need to take in order to turn it into the sort of book I want want it to be. (Quoted in Bernadette Brennan 2017, page 244)

However, Brennan does not take the wider view of comparing Garner’s work to the autobiographical novels of other writers, especially male writers. One reviewer who does make comparisons of Garner with other writers is Ceridwen Dovey, in particular with Karl Ove Knausgaard, a current Norwegian writer of autobiographical novels filled with domestic details from a male viewpoint. Knausgaard writes tell-all novels about himself, and his family and friends, grinding through a ton of domestic detail, from his years of teenage angst to the trials and tribulations of a struggling writer staying at home to look after the kids. Dovey notes that Knausgaard “has essentially appropriated a mode of expression long used by female writers, who have a history of forensically depicting the subterranean war between the banalities of domestic life and the transcendence of artistic life.”

Knausgaard’s case is a powerful example of the risks of forgoing fictional distance from the self of the writer. He has become a celebrity by writing a blow-by-blow account of such things as his alcoholic father’s death and his relationship with his partner. Knausgaard is the epitome of an autobiographical approach to writing a novel where no effort is made to disguise the real-life characters.

 

Apart from causing deep offence to individuals, another risk to the writer of “autobiographical fiction” is revealing parts of yourself that are not attractive, wittingly or unwittingly. Thus Knausgaard has left himself open to a devastating review by William Deresiewicz, who excoriates Knausgaard for his obsession with self, and his lack of artistic talent and imagination:

Novels matter because of what they have to tell us about people in general, not about the people who write them… With its subject and size, “My Struggle” has invariably drawn comparisons to Proust’s “Recherche”, the great prose epic of the self remembered — comparisons the book itself does much to invite. But here are some things that the “Recherche” contains that “Min Kamp” does not: wit, satire, comedy, verbal and symbolic complexity, psychological penetration, sociological reach, the ability to render complicated situations, a genuine engagement with the subtleties of memory, the power to convey the slow unfolding of the self. (William Deresiewicz, 2014)

Deresiewicz’s comments on Knausgaard are interesting to compare with Helen Garner’s case. This is where the “savage self scrutiny” that James Wood praises Garner for comes into play.

…Garner is, above all, a savage self-scrutineer: her honesty has less to do with what she sees in the world than with what she refuses to turn away from in herself. In “The Spare Room” (2008), her exacting autobiographical novel about looking after that dying friend, she describes not only the expected indignities of caring for a patient—the soaked bedsheets, the broken nights—but her own impatience, her own rage: “I had always thought that sorrow was the most exhausting of the emotions. Now I knew that it was anger.” (James Wood, 2016)

This novelistic exploration of rage, grief and despair is the stuff of fiction, and has been a major feature of Helen Garner’s writing since the publication of her first novel. Nora, the narrator in Monkey Grip (1977), worries incessantly about the challenges and torments of love and sex, in a 1970’s setting in Melbourne where free love is all the go amongst a group of arty types. As jealousies arise and people get hurt in the story, Nora is left wondering, amongst other things, about her own role in hurting her female friends through a sexual liaison with their partners, and the impact of the same situation on her own psyche. However much the novel may seem to be about drugs and free love, it is more broadly a novel about love, jealousy and sexual passion. These are universal themes in fiction, hardly “domestic” issues for the kitchen table.

As Garner notes in a quote featured in Brennan’s book, the distinctions made by some critics about writing a diary as against a novel are based on some dubious assumptions:

Why the sneer in ‘All she’s done is publish her diaries’? It’s as if this were cheating. As if it were lazy. As if there were no work involved in keeping a diary in the first place: no thinking, no discipline, no creative energy, no focusing or directing of creative energy; no intelligent or artful ordering of material; no choosing of material, for God’s sake; no shaping of narrative; no ear for the music of human speech; no portrayal of the physical world; no free movement back and forth in time; no leaping between inner and outer; no examination of motive; no imaginative use of language. (Quoted in Bernadette Brennan, 2017, page 37).

Interestingly, Garner has consistently made a spirited defence of the writer’s duty to make judgements about their world, citing the fact that she is “tough on herself”, so that in some sense this justifies being tough on others. I don’t see the need for this line of argument, given that her writing rises above its immediate context in its exploration of universal themes, in terse poetic prose that makes her such an outstanding writer.

It is also interesting that Garner has launched a new career in “non-fiction” in recent years, a choice that has caused a lot of comment. To me the labels “fiction” and “non-fiction” aren’t that helpful, given that in both genres, writers are unlikely to overcome personal bias in the process of creating an authorial self. It is the quality of the writing that is paramount, and the lens through which the world is perceived, rather than whether we can identify if stuff actually happened.

References

Bernadette Brennan. A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work. Text Publishing, 2017.

Ceridwen Dovey. The pencil and the damage done. The Monthly, November, 2014. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2014/november/1414760400/ceridwen- dovey/pencil-and-damage-done

William Deresiewicz. Why Has “My Struggle” Been Anointed a Literary Masterpiece? The Nation, May 13, 2014. http://www.thenation.com/article/179853/why-has-my-struggle-been-anointed-literary-masterpiece

Robert Dessaix. Kitchen-table Candour: Helen Garner’s ‘The Spare Room’. The Monthly, April, 2008. https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2008/april/1343620158/robert-dessaix/kitchen-table-candour

Helen Garner. The Spare Room. Text Publishing, 2008.

–––––– Monkey Grip. McPhee Gribble. 1977.

Karl Ove Knausgaard. My Struggle, Books 1 – 6. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013 – 2018.

Becca Rothfeld. What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias. April 28, 2015. https://hyperallergic.com/187257/what-the-cult-of-knausgaard-tells-us-about-critical-bias/

James Wood. Helen Garner’s Savage Self-Scrutiny. The New Yorker, December 12, 2016.  https://www .newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/12/helen-garners-savage-self-scrutiny

 

Michelle de Kretser, “The Life to Come”: Engaging and Profound

Michelle de Kretser’s “The Life to Come” is an engaging and profound account of the lives tltc-cover copyof a loosely connected group of people, some of them with links to Sri Lanka, all of them with links to Australia. She ranges effortlessly from acute psychological insights into the minutiae of our inner lives, to acerbic commentary on social issues. An ongoing theme is “the fictive self”, the title of the first of the five parts of the novel, which in overall terms concerns itself with our efforts to construct a life that has meaning for ourselves and in the eyes of others.

Much of the novel is based in Sydney, the rest in France or Sri Lanka. The characters include immigrants, expatriates and Anglo-Australians, some with a sense of life at the margins, others immersed in their own importance. Many of the characters have a direct involvement in the world of books, including two novelists, a translator, and a postgraduate student in literature. All of the main protagonists are well educated readers. The one character who recurs in each of the five parts is Pippa Reynolds, a novelist struggling for recognition against her own suspicions that her writing is mediocre. However she plays only a minor role in some sections of the book.

Sydney has a starring role in de Kretser’s writing, as she delivers a sense of place from different perspectives that is reminiscent of Patrick White (for example in “The Eye of the Storm”). White is referred to in the novel, as is Christina Stead, another pioneering Australian novelist who creates a vibrant sense of Sydney. Some of the description is lyrical, at other times it delivers the grubby facts of city life. So for Pippa, a country girl, “In Sydney everything was strange: noises, intersections, buildings, views. Someone had put a dimmer switch on the stars.”  And again, more darkly: “The city’s beauty, like its money, was self-important, calculated to stun. It judged all who came its way according to silent, iron rules. If your were not rich, you were nothing: that was the first rule.” For Christabel, on the other hand, a neighbour of Pippa’s from Sri Lanka, Sydney shone:  “Earlier, rain had exploded, and now every scraggy callistemon was wrapped in brilliant, watery light.”

Much of de Kretser’s writing pulsates with poetic touches, arriving unexpectedly and quite often in conjunction with a satirical passage. Satire is employed with a sharp cutting edge in this novel, sending up aspects of Australian culture, from casual racism and gormless Aussie tourists, to the overwhelming sense of entitlement that has arisen in recent times on the back of an extended mining boom and the tail end of a second hand empire. The satirical edge is particularly sharp where Australian life contrasts with the realities of life in countries like Sri Lanka, torn apart by civil strife, or for that matter in the Old World. Céleste, a friend of Pippa’s who grew up in Australia but has returned to France, asks her mother why their Australian relatives are obsessed with food, and her mother replies: “Because they live in a country of no importance.”

The novel ends on an elegaic note with the fifth section, which is the longest, and features the lives of Christabel and her friend Bunty, from their childhoods in Sri Lanka to their lives as immigrants living in Sydney. They reach old age together in reduced circumstances, Christabel caring for Bunty as she descends into dementia, and trying to cope with the overwhelming sense of a life at the margins of all she had hoped for. This section contains some of de Kretser’s finest writing, giving ordinary lives greater intensity than those who feel themselves to be superior to people like Christabel. Here, in places, de Kretser has Patrick White’s gift for depicting blunt, ordinary lives and the depths that often dwell beneath. Although she is highly intelligent, Christabel has no obvious attainments, no influential friends or relatives, and no money. One of the people who feel superior to her is Pippa, who offhandedly (and inaccurately) stereotypes Christabel in one of her novels as “a closet lesbian with a mannish face.” Pippa’s betrayal leaves Christabel with the sensation that she was “only a minor character on the margins of the lives that mattered.” In some ways, this is the climax of a novel that has no beginning and no end, but journeys circuitously through a series of disconnected tales to very great effect.

Author: Michelle de Kretser

Title: The Life to Come

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017

ISBN: 9781760296568