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

Diana Blackwood’s “Chaconne” and Christina Stead’s “For Love Alone”

Diana Blackwood’s excellent debut novel “Chaconne” explores the inner life of a young Australian woman, Eleanor Weston, on an odyssey to Europe. Eleanor’s ambition is to achieve her hopes and dreams in a life shared with a French boyfriend she met in Sydney. Eleanor is intelligent, intellectual, passionate, and of course, idealistic and naive.

chaconneausWhile the novel is set mostly in France and Germany, there is no mistaking Eleanor’s Australian identity in her response to her experiences as a “colonial” exploring Europe in the 1980’s. In terms of Australian novels, Eleanor’s struggle for “freedom” reminds me of Teresa Hawkins in Christina Stead’s classic novel, “For Love Alone” (1) published in 1944. Teresa, another Sydney girl, falls in love with her tutor who sails off to London to seek his fortune. She follows him there, and learns the hard way that he is not the man she thought he was. The experience of a colonial’s “return” is again used as a moral landscape for self exploration. Christina Stead, though, takes the further step of exploring what can happen even after the heroine chooses the right person, demonstrating that the search for love is only part of the journey. The way in which Eleanor Weston’s inner life is portrayed in “Chaconne” is particularly interesting. She is passionate about music, and constantly reflects on her new environment, and her family, including the father who departed when she was young, and her mother’s efforts to remake her life.

Eleanor’s point of view prevails in every chapter, brought to life in the third person, rather than first person, but using “free indirect style” to achieve a sense of being inside the protagonist’s head, a device apparently invented by Jane Austen. Austen’s novel “Emma”, says John Mullan (2), “bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind,” in a major innovation which came to be called “free indirect style”:

“It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first- person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.”

Diana Blackwood employs free indirect style to full effect in “Chaconne”. It enables her to achieve a strong sense of Eleanor’s courage and integrity, while allowing us an ironic view of her naivety and pedantry. Eleanour corrects the grammar of people around her, including native speakers of English. She also occupies some high moral ground, for example in the areas of vegetarianism and opposition to violence, and much else. She is never short of an opinion, nor backwards in expressing it (including an hilarious put-down of her French boyfriend’s supercilious bourgeois mother).

Sometimes, however, Eleanor tolerates behaviour she should walk away from if she was going to be true to her principles, such as bullying by domineering partners. And while she is aware of her own privileged life, she allows herself to feel contempt for the poor lurking in the shadows of the cities she inhabits, and is far too judgemental about her mother. All of which makes Eleanor a more than credible character in the novel.

Like Emma Woodhouse and Teresa Hawkins, Eleanor Weston has a good heart, and the reader continues to cheer her on to the end of the novel, where nothing much is resolved, except that we gain a sense of her renewed determination to be herself. And much of this sense is achieved by the skilful employment of the free indirect style which gave Emma and Teresa such a rounded existence. To sum up, Diana Blackwood has managed to make a witty contribution to a long line of novels exploring the coming of age theme as well as an original take on the “young Aussie in Europe” experience.

Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, Melbourne, Australia (2017)
ISBN 9781925272611
See it on Goodreads here
Footnotes:
(1) Christina Stead, “For Love Alone.” Miegunyah Modern Library (2011). First published in the USA in 1944.
(2) John Mullan, “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction.” The Guardian, 5 December 2015.

All the World’s a Critic

The extracts below caught my eye as fine examples of the “insults, barbs and put downs” published in reviews.  – JWG

_________________________________________________

“Sean Penn’s debut novel – repellent and stupid on so many levels” 

Sian Cain, 29 March, 2018
The Guardian

“The Oscar-winning actor’s first foray into fiction, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, has met with derision online. But how bad can it be?… Penn doesn’t just swing and miss with his ambitious vocabulary; he swings and cracks a hole in reality as we know it, leaving us all unsure of the concept of a good sentence, how a novel should be structured and generally what makes sense any more… ”

Excerpts from “What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias” 

by Becca Rothfeld, 28 April, 2015 

hyperallergic.com

“[Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle] … the book is worse than dull — it’s also insultingly self-indulgent… I suspect that so many critics have worshipped at the altar of Knausgaard because there’s something very enviable about his unshakable belief in his own value…

…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…

… the very format of My Struggle remains a testament to his unshakable faith in his own significance.”

Read the whole article by Becca Rothfeld here

“Insults, barbs and put downs, all in a day’s work for a book reviewer”

by D.J. Taylor, 14 December, 2016

afr.com

“For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity. It was Orwell, again, who pointed out that to do their job properly book reviewers need a spring balance simultaneously capable of weighing an elephant and a flea: some delicate mechanism that will enable them to advertise the true merits of a work that may capture the public imagination for a fortnight and gesture at the row of timeless classics that lie on the shelf behind it.”

 

Some Comments on “The Stolen Bicycle”, by Wu Ming-Yi

sbicycleThe opening line to Wu Ming-Yi’s novel “The Stolen Bicycle” reads: “I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew.”

Finding new meaning is exactly what the novel sets out to do, and not only through “description”, but by exploring the lives of the protagonist’s family and friends, from childhood onwards. Wu then unveils aspects of the culture of his homeland as his characters are embroiled in events in Taiwan’s turbulent history, such as occupation by the Japanese.

The stories at the heart of the novel are allowed to emerge through observation of the many lives encountered by the protagonist in his manic search for classic bicycles, in particular a bike that once belonged to his father, who disappeared many years ago. While searching for bicycles may sound pedestrian, somehow it is a theme that leads to all sorts of adventures of discovery and encounters with a large cast of eccentrics.

The tone of the writing is both intimate and sweeping in scope, and the overall effect is deeply satisfying.

(First published by Rye Field Publishing Co., Taipei, in 2015. Published in English in 2017 by The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. Translated by Darryl Sterk)

“Arthur and George” – an exotic novel by Julian Barnes

“Arthur and George” (published in 2005) is an example of what could be called Julian Arthur&George-newLBarnes’ “exotic” novels, as against his “suburban” ones.

His exotic novels, like “The Noise of Time” (about the famous Russian composer Shostakovich trying to survive as an artist in Soviet Russia) and “Flaubert’s Parrot” (an English doctor in France searching for a stuffed parrot supposedly once owned by Flaubert), seem more inspired and intense than the ones I would label “suburban”.

The “exotic-ness” in the three novels mentioned is derived from a foreign character (that is, a protagonist who is not Anglo-Saxon), and/or a setting somewhere abroad that is not England, and has some element of fame attached to it. For example, a famous author, a famous composer, a famous legal case.

By “suburban” I mean that novels like “Metroland”, “Before She Met Me”, and “The Sense of an Ending” feel weighed down by the tedium of suburbia experienced by the protagonists, a feeling that saturates the point of view of the narrator. Suburbia is something that you escape from, with a bit of luck, or at least manage to view from a distance, as if through the wrong end of a telescope.

And so “Arthur and George”,  although on the face of it an historical novel set in  nineteenth century rural England, is in fact a psychological study of a notorious criminal case in which George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian lawyer, is wrongfully imprisoned. George is assisted by Arthur to obtain justice in the face of racial prejudice and police corruption. The identity of Arthur is only revealed well into the book, and he turns out to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels.

The two characters stand in opposition to each other. George is a highly intelligent but eccentric and isolated man, a victim of racism. Arthur is rich and famous, with Sherlock Holmes one of the best known characters in English fiction.

Foreignness and fame both abound in this novel, and although it is set in England, it is quite “exotic” in the sense I have suggested.

The personalities of the two protagonists are finely etched, with irony and humour. And Julian Barnes allows both protagonists equal exposure, not relying on Arthur Conan Doyle’s fame to drive the narrative. In fact, Arthur is given a warts-and-all portrait in the novel, while George’s experience as a member of a racial minority who is raised in England, and regards himself as English, is tellingly depicted.

Overall, “Arthur and George” is an engrossing and disturbing account of racism causing severe injustice. The novel also manages to be witty and entertaining, despite the grim realities of the story. It was televised in 2015 in the UK, with Arsher Ali and Martin Clunes in the main roles.