A fusil­lade of bit­ter but hi­lar­i­ous repar­tee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

From Plau­tus to Pi­ran­dello, farce has al­ways been the eas­i­est thing for read­ers and au­di­ences to en­joy and the hard­est thing for cre­ators to ren­der on to page, stage or screen.

It is the speed chess of lit­er­ary forms, re­quir­ing split-sec­ond tim­ing and a sure sense of the Seussian ar­chi­tec­ture of the an­tic — the way it builds and builds through ac­tion and dia­logue un­til the story has been can­tilevered, way past sense and order and so­ci­etal norms, over the abyss of pure non­sense.

Farce rarely works in the con­text of the novel. Milan Kun­dera has ven­tured a Mit­telEuro­pean, philo­soph­i­cal-in­flected ver­sion in his fiction; Eve­lyn Waugh’s Vile Bod­ies and Kings­ley Amis’s Lucky Jim of­fer a pe­cu­liarly An­gloab­sur­dist take on the form. You could ar­gue that in­di­vid­ual chap­ters of Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture’s ur-novel, Joseph Fur­phy’s Such is Life, work as farce. But most of these ex­am­ples are short, novella-length. Longer works can’t help but grant their char­ac­ters psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral depth: qual­i­ties that are the kiss of death when it comes to farce’s omni-di­men­sional ex­ag­ger­a­tions.

That Toni Jor­dan’s new novel man­ages to be a full-length fiction that si­mul­ta­ne­ously op­er­ates as a hugely en­joy­able farce and an emo­tion­ally rich do­mes­tic drama is a tes­ta­ment to her skills as a writer and the charm of her voice. Like those ex­treme ironers who climb moun­tains in order to press boxer shorts at the sum­mit, the fris­son of Our Tiny, Use­less Hearts comes from the lu­di­crous con­trast of reg­is­ters.

Not that Jor­dan isn’t obe­di­ent to the rules of the game. Her novel, which opens in me­dias res and then pro­ceeds to get very hec­tic very swiftly, takes place over a 24-hour pe­riod and un­folds in a sub­ur­ban home some­where in Mel­bourne’s set­tled, self-sat­is­fied, ar­bo­real fringe. We first meet a woman named Jan­ice who is do­ing her best to me­di­ate in a do­mes­tic dis­pute be­tween her sis­ter Caro­line and brother-in-law Henry, while keep­ing her two adored nieces Paris and Mercedes out of the line of fire.

Henry has had an af­fair with a young and at­trac­tive teacher named Martha at the girls’ school. Caro­line, a teenage goth turned con­trol­f­reak mid­dle-aged mum, has not taken the news well. The open­ing pages un­fold be­neath a fusil­lade of bit­ter but hi­lar­i­ous repar­tee, loud enough to at­tract the un­wanted at­ten­tions of friends and ir­re­press­ibly nosy neigh­bours Craig and Les­ley, who front up on the doorstep and will not be moved. Just when you think the ban­ter can’t get faster, wit­tier or more non se­qui­turial, Henry drops a bomb­shell. This is not just an af­fair: he is in love. What’s more, he is leav­ing: At the front door, we are all still. None of us dares to breathe. Then Caro­line’s mouth falls open and her skin yel­lows and shrinks. She is hol­low now. The rage has gone out of her and her shell is up­right only from the habit of her bones. She is watch­ing their life un­spool be­fore her eyes and she is think­ing of the fu­ture, of the years to come with­out him.

And this is the process Jor­dan em­ploys through­out: a wise­crack, fol­lowed by a heart­break. The rea­son this com­bi­na­tion works is Jan­ice. It is her con­scious­ness that fil­ters or tran­scribes the dia­logue fly­ing about, and it is her back­story that we are privy to. She is a sci­en­tist, her role the cul­tur­ing of bac­te­ria, and her ra­tio­nal­ist’s ob­jec­tiv­ity is a neat foil for the per­fer­vid con­duct of those around her.

But Jan­ice also has her own se­cret and heart­break: she is still in love with her for­mer hus­band Alec. She di­vorced him when she be­came aware she was un­able to have chil­dren: Rab­bits breed like rab­bits, rats breed like rats, hu­mans breed like in­com­pe­tent clowns who need per­fect vagi­nal acid­ity, op­ti­mum cer­vi­cal mu­cous lev­els, ideal scro­tal tem­per­a­ture, pin­point tim­ing and Serge Gains­bourg on shuffle be­fore they even con­sider pro­duc­ing so much as one off­spring ev­ery other season.

This brute fact of bi­ol­ogy is one she ar­rays against other­wise happy mar­i­tal cir­cum­stance. Her hus­band was or­phaned in early adult­hood; he has no sib­lings. If he stays with Jan­ice, “he’s marooned with­out a gen­er­a­tion be­hind him or one in front’’. They have been sep­a­rated for about 18 months by the time the novel be­gins.

All this nar­ra­tive ex­trap­o­la­tion is wedged be­tween ac­counts of real-time events. In short

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