Dealing with everything from the insults of age to child murder, Helen Garner’s latest essay collection is masterful, writes Peter Craven
It’s years now since it dawned on the world that Helen Garner, who became famous for writing Monkey Grip, a slap-it-all-down novel of love and pain and junkiedom, and consolidated her reputation with a masterly novella such as The Children’s Bach, is actually a dazzling writer of nonfiction.
Back in 1995, the fires raged, illuminatingly and non-illuminatingly, about the controversies Garner dramatised in The First Stone, the story of the Ormond College sexual harassment affair. In that book and its successors, Joe Cinque’s Consolation ( an Italian boy dead, his mamma’s grief and rage, an Indian girlfriend and the shadow she casts) and This House of Grief (the story of a man on trial for the murder of his young sons), Garner has perfected a kind of detailed point-of-view writing. It is a first-person voice that sees a thousand things and is at the same time held up to a form of scrutiny, deeply fictional in its artistry, that questions the reliability of the narration and highlights the doubts of this slender couldn’t-think-its-wayout-of-a-bag persona that travels under the name of Helen Garner.
What was it Iago said in his ecstasy of negation? “I am not what I am.” The reason why Garner is so good at capturing the drama and complexity of the dark, shadowed things, the hard cases that make us doubt the goodness of the law, at least for a time, is she shows us what she does not know or is too blind to see: she shows us the poverty of the self in the face of impercipience caused by sentiment or anger, prejudice, ignorance or dumb incapacity.
In the area of the actual, art doesn’t come much higher. (Garner recently won the $200,000 Windham-Campbell prize, one of the world’s most lucrative literary honours, for her nonfiction work spanning four decades.)
It was Keats who said he wanted to get beyond any irritable reaching after fact and reason and soared as a consequence like a comet. Well, as the crime books go, so go these essays. When you and I and Garner are long dead, they will read this woman to find out what life was like in Australia in the mid-20th and early 21st centuries. Do you want to know what an older woman, subject to grumpiness and vanity, is like in the face of the irritation engendered by a sleek, up-himself young drinks waiter? With tilted head and toothy smile the waiter said, “How’s your day been, ladies?’’ “Not bad, thanks,’’ I said. “We’re looking forward to a drink.” He leaned his head and shoulders right into our personal space. “And how was your shopping?” Everywhere I Look By Helen Garner Text Publishing, 229pp, $29.99 That was when I lost it. “Listen,” I said with a slow, savage calm. “We don’t want you to ask these questions. We want you to be cool and silent, like a real cocktail waiter.” The insult rolled off my tongue as smooth as poison. The waiter’s smile withered. Then he made a surprising move. He put out his hand to me and said, “My name’s Hugh.” I shook his hand. “I’m Helen. This is Anne. Now, in the shortest possible time, will you please get two very dry martinis onto this table?”
After such self-knowledge what forgiveness? Yet something a bit different emerges after a drink. The waiter comes back. He met my eye. Neither of us smiled, let alone apologised. But between us flickered something benign. His apparent lack of resentment moved me to leave him a rather large tip.
How does a story like this work? It certainly does not repudiate the toughness of its own conclusion, which is, God help us, almost Yeatsian in the rhetoric of its cold anger. And let no one, ever again, under any circumstances, put to me or any other woman the moronic question, “And how was your shopping?”
And yet how that anger complicates it. It’s not hard to see how anyone, perhaps especially a young woman, might find her blood boiling at the headlong self-revelations of Garner, grumpy old woman, but the art is something else again, a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.
If you don’t want to weep in public, avoid reading the essay Dreams of Her Real Self on a tram. It’s about the author’s mother, long forsaken, and it is a masterpiece.
IT IS, AT THE END OF THE DAY, A DEEPLY CHRISTIAN VISION THAT UNDERPINS THIS BOOK
I asked my mother, “Would you go to my