A fusillade of bitter but hilarious repartee
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