Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Absolutely revolting!

In an article in last Saturday's Australian, Beth Driscoll reminds us that the Prime Minister will be the final arbiter of his new and lucrative prizes for literature. The man who thinks Bill Henson's beautiful, powerful, emotive photographs 'absolutely revolting' will be having the last word on which books represent the country's best literature.

The judging panels -- Peter Pierce, John Marsden and Margaret Throsby for fiction, Sally Morgan, John Doyle and Hilary Charlesworth for non-fiction -- were, if their response to this news was anything to go by, invited to be judges without being told that their decisions would be subject to Prime Ministerial approval and/or veto, and were apparently not told until after they had already accepted and could not get out of it without looking bad from a number of angles.

That was a piece of appallingly bad management on the part of the administrators. And while one understands why the PM might want to have a say about the winner of a prize with his name on it, the inclusion of this very unusual and highly contentious condition suggests to me that whoever was developing this project behind the scenes knew less about literary prizes and the administration thereof than was required not to stuff it up before it had even got off the ground.

Pierce and Marsden voiced their disquiet at the time. Think how much worse they must be feeling about it now that we have so much more precise an indication of the Prime Minister's taste and discernment when it comes to judging the arts. What a good thing Vladimir Nabokov doesn't qualify for this prize, what with being Russian, not to mention dead. Clearly he wouldn't stand a chance.

Cross-posted at Pavlov's Cat

Saturday, May 24, 2008

On reading The Spare Room, part 1: Friendship

NOTE: this isn't a 'book review'. Nor is it 'literary criticism', within the meaning of the act. It's a blog post. (Warning: a long one.) It's also the first of a planned several posts about this book, talking about one thing at a time. There is a highly specific and quite long set of (mostly unspoken) conventions in the writing of book reviews, and another, surprisingly different, set in the writing of literary criticism. But blogging is an activity and a medium, not a literary genre, and it does not require those conventions to be kept. So here are some non-reviewy, non-criticismy thoughts on The Spare Room and some of the things it's about.

But first, a plot summary:

The narrator Helen, who is a writer (yes yes, more about this later), lives alone in a settled, domestic way next door to her daughter and the daughter's family in a Melbourne suburb. Helen is preparing the spare room for the arrival of Nicola, her friend of fifteen years. Nicola is dying of cancer, but is convinced that her life can be saved by a Melbourne clinic offering 'alternative' treatments that will be fiendishly expensive. Nicola has asked if she can stay with Helen for three weeks while she has the treatments.

Nicola is ill enough to need close attention and periodically intense, full-on nursing, but is still convinced that the clinic's treatment will cure her. In the course of her stay, Helen becomes more and more enraged: by Nicola's behaviour; by the behaviour of the people at the clinic (and by extension the clinic's disgraceful ripoff behaviour, and by further extension all exploitative quackery, and by even further extension all exploitation of other people's weaknesses); by Nicola's impending death (and by extension death in general); and, finally, by her own rage.

Helen's own rage enrages her, and dismays and weakens her. 'The one thing I was sure of,' she thinks later, remembering the afternoon before Nicola was due to fly home to Sydney and back into the care of her long-suffering niece Iris, 'was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.'

Finally the treatment ends and Nicola goes home to Sydney, not a moment too soon for all concerned; Helen is left not only exhausted but also bewildered and appalled by the feelings that the visit has brought to the surface in her, and the gap between the ideal and the real on several fronts.


This whole novel rests on what's actually a highly unusual set of circumstances. People with stage four cancer are usually not well enough to travel alone, much less to invite themselves to stay with a friend in another city, or to want to do so. Everything that happens in this novel happens because the dying Nicola is in profound denial about her condition.

She is, of course, not well enough to travel alone either, and goes into a state of near-collapse in the airport after what is, for the well, an easy hour-long flight from Sydney to Melbourne. The reason, we discover later, is that she has had, just before her trip, one of the ridiculous-quackery Vitamin C treatments ("High dosage Vitamin C will kill off lumps of cancer -- most doctors don't know this stuff") to which she knows she always has an extreme reaction.

One of the most distressing moments in the book (and there are many) occurs at this point, where the narrator Helen is forced to choose, in a public place, between the distress of a dear friend who is too weak to stand up and the distress of a five-year-old granddaughter:

Nicola couldn't sit up straight ... she was shuddering from head to foot like someone who has been out beyond the break too long in winter surf.

'Bessie,' I said, 'Listen to me, sweetheart. See that lady over there, behind the counter? Past the toilets? I want you to walk up to her and tell her we need a wheelchair. Right away. Will you be a big girl and do that?'

She stared at me. 'What if they don't have wheelchairs in airports?'

'Bess. I need you to help us.'

Nicola turned on her a smile that would once have been beautiful and warm, but was now a rictus.

'But I don't want to go without you,' said Bessie on a high note.

'All right. You stay here with Nicola, and I'll go.'

'Nanna.' She gripped me with both hands.

'We have to get a wheelchair. Go to that lady and ask her. Otherwise I don't know how we'll get out of here.'

I pushed her away from me. She set out along the carpeted hall with stiff, formal steps. I saw her rise on to her toes and try to show herself above the counter's edge.

This is maybe the first moment of rage, though it's not spelled out. Garner has always left spaces in her writing for the reader to come in and feel whatever he or she might feel, to think whatever he or she might think. One of the things that may well be happening for a reader -- certainly for this reader -- here, between the lines of dialogue and its frightful airport silences (for many is the silent moment of horrible dawning realisation that has taken place in an airport lounge) is rage with an adult for allowing the development of a situation in which a child must be pushed to her limits.

A similar moment occurs again when Bessie comes next door into her grandmother's house, where she has never been unwelcome, to do her flamenco dance for her Nanna and her Nanna's friend, and she's a few steps in when they notice her nose is running:

'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.

I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank.

The rage isn't simple and isn't always about Nicola; sometimes it even goes in the opposite direction and manifests as ferocious protectiveness. 'I thought, I will kill anyone who hurts you. I will tear them limb from limb. I will make them wish they had never been born. Almighty God, I thought, to whom all hearts are open.' In a most Garner-like way, she doesn't tell you for what purpose God is being invoked in this prayer, so I looked it up: it's Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. In this context that unspoken plea is very ambiguous indeed.

Friendship can be far more durable than marriage, and can sometimes involve feelings quite as complex and as strong, but it isn't a relationship that was meant to withstand living in the same house, as everyone who has spent time in shared households knows. This is not to say that no friendship survives it, only that it can be very testing, and the longer the stay the harder the test, even when you are both young and well and have no close family, much less when you are both of an age to be grandparents.

In the flash-forwards at the end of the novel, Helen demonstrates how much easier it is, by comparison, to take it in turns with others to help Nicola through the last stages of her life, and to stay in loving, sardonically realistic postcard-and-email contact with her when they are in different cities: 'I would write to her on a postcard: "I miss you. I'm bored. I'd rather be scrubbing shit off Iris's bathroom tiles."' It's the unrelenting domestic proximity to Nicola and her deluded self-(mis)management that stretches the friendship to its limits, not least because Nicola's delusional state means she needs constant monitoring, chauffeuring and nursing, sometimes all three at once.

We conduct our friendships in accordance with some internalised ideal of what friendship is; and we judge our friends and ourselves by the same ideal. But it doesn't get tested in this kind of extreme way very often. There are probably far more one-off acts of demented bravery or sacrifice performed in the name of friendship than there are protracted episodes of steady, grinding endurance, where our life's work is hijacked, our granddaughters dismayed, our washing machines given a serious workout and our patience worn so thin you could read the paper through it.

Friends make room for each other in their lives, especially when one of them is in desperate need of help, but there will always be strong competing claims. Those sorts of moment-by-moment and inch-by-inch negotiations are the lifeblood of fiction: the way we endlessly shift, this way and that, between the people in our lives, between love and responsibility, between inclination and obligation, making room here, cutting corners there, making unsatisfactory compromises and horrible painful decisions that please no-one.

One thing this book brings out very strongly is the difference between the physical demands of carer-duty -- Helen carries these out gladly, even when they become heavy, as she has always known she would -- and the far more onerous and treacherous burden of one's own feelings about the caree, about her behaviour and her situation.

As so often in her work, Garner sets this conflict up in such a way as to evoke from readers their own similar experiences (like feeling your brain blow up as you stand by in the role of officially designated carer to someone who has been told they must not be left alone after surgery or treatment; say, the sister who reverts to ancient childhood patterns of sibling-rivalry strategies even when drugged to the eyeballs and unable to walk straight, or to the friend, also still full of drugs, who point-blank refuses do any of the things she's been told by the doctor that she must do. Ahem.)

And everyone who's done it knows that the wet sheets and vomit bowls are the least of it, that they are, indeed, nothing: it's the rage, and the helplessness of the rage, in both carer and caree. If you are sick and helpless, you hate the dependence and lash out (though Nicola is not like this; indeed, her sense of entitlement is one of the things that brings this character so vividly to life, though she has moments -- which, again most readers will recognise from their own lives -- of saying with a kind of noble woundedness whenever the carer's exasperation shows, 'No no, this is too hard for you, I'll go and stay in a hotel.'). But as a carer, you cannot yell at a sick person and you feel monstrous if you do. They are already suffering enough, and they will probably cry. And that will make you want to shoot yourself.

You do these things for family because you are, at the deepest level, stuck with them, as they with you. Robert Dessaix, in his review of The Spare Room for The Monthly in April, was harsh in a glancing way about what he sees as the book's implication that if Nicola had got married and had a proper family she wouldn't need to be impinging on someone else's.

But I see it more as a tension that is there in almost everyone's life: the dues to family are monumental and non-negotiable, while those to friends have invisible, expanding boundaries, 'like gold to airy thinness beat'. The boundaries might go on stretching forever. Or not.

Next -- Part 2: FAITH

Friday, May 23, 2008

When dogs go missing

Apropos the recent posts here on Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog, someone at Club Troppo's Missing Link observed the other day that 'cats were always going to favour novels where dogs go missing'.

And how true it is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NSW Premier's Literary Awards: The Lost Dog gets (some of) its deserts

Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog has won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and the Book of the Year Award in the 2008 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. I'm hoping this will be just the first of many. Previous raves about this book are here and here. Thanks to Ampersand Duck for this news.

Monday, May 19, 2008

David Marr on the Patrick White papers

For anyone who's not seen it yet, David Marr's lovely piece on the recently-unearthed Patrick White letters and manuscripts is now up at The Monthly's website, here. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose interviewed Marr about these discoveries during Adelaide Writers' Week where Marr was his usual urbane and entertaining self, so I'd heard some of this material before, but it's enlightening to read it again at leisure.

One of the issues it raises for me is the question of an unfinished manuscript called The Hanging Garden, which White put aside to work on something else some time in the early 1980s and never got back to. Marr says this manuscript may in future be published but I'm not sure I want to see it; there is something quite violent about being wrenched away from a novel in the middle, especially when you know there is no end. And in these days of fanfic I bet a number of people would have a go at finishing it, which would be more than some of us could bear. If it must be done at all then I propose it be done by a committee made up of all those who have in their time presented a Patrick White parody on Parody Night at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature's annual conference. We would be each other's sternest critics.

Also for those who missed it last time (as I did), here's David Malouf's 'reappraisal' of White in the TLS at the beginning of last year.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Breath, by Tim Winton, and the May issue of Australian Book Review

My review for The Australian of Tim Winton's Breath is here. I've been interested to note that more than one person has picked me up on my mention of Winton's Christianity, as though that were somehow unusual or odd, but I can't imagine how it would be possible to review his work without mentioning it: it is the world view from which his work proceeds, and it would be an impoverished, misshapen commentary that didn't at least acknowledge it.

James Ley, a critic I have come to admire more and more for the unerring way he can remain engaging and lucid while working with abstruse ideas, not to mention his willingness to lay about him with the jawbone of an ass if he thinks the occasion demands it, has reviewed this novel at more length in Australian Book Review, where with the extra space he has been able to write more reflectively; the image I have is of spreading ripples in a pond. There's never space for that kind of leisurely expansion of ideas in newspaper reviewing, though I was very glad to have a 12-1400 word limit, rather than the more usual 8-900, for my own review. One paragraph of James's in particular is a wonderful encapsulation of what's going on in Winton's writing generally, and pinpoints what he sees as a mismatch of content and mode:

What distinguishes Winton's recent work from a number of other writers with metaphysical leanings -- Flannery O'Connor, say, or Cormac McCarthy -- is that it does not try to evoke a palpable sense of evil ... characters are sometimes damaged and violent, but not irredeemably bad. "People are fools," observes Pikelet [the narrator-hero], "not monsters." This empathy can be double-edged when it is combined with Winton's visionary instincts. There is a generous humanity, an exultation of the ordinary, informing the celebratory domestic scenes of Cloudstreet ... But it is also why a self-consciously dark book like The Turning can seem dour and mean rather than tragic. Its air of fatalism appears confected and tendentious, because Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode. [My emphasis.] The same element that elevates his best writing can encumber it: meaning is forced upon his characters whether they like it or not.

Now that bolded clause is the most insightful thing I have ever read about Winton's work and it explains to me exactly why I have never been fully comfortable with it. I would have paid the cover price of ABR to read that paragraph alone. As it is, there is some fabulous other stuff in this particularly good (and, if I am not mistaken, unusually fat) May issue, beginning with a review essay by J.M. Coetzee on Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers that asks what is for those of us who have spent a goodly part of our lives in university English departments -- and that includes Jameson, Coetzee and me -- a very scary question:

... it is not hard to come up with materialist explanations ... for why there should have been a shake-up in literary fashion in and after the 1960s. What is not so obvious, what we need the assistance of the historian to understand, is why departments of English, in which overwhelmingly monoglot bodies of students gathered to read products of fancy written in their mother tongue, were ever called on to act as an accrediting agency for entry into the middle class.

Why indeed, she asked as she mentally rewrote a bit of her hypothetical autobiography. There's also an insightful and fair-minded but intermittently tart review of Helen Garner's The Spare Room by ABR editor Peter Rose (full text online at that ABR link), and a review of the Tony-Jones-edited collection The Best Australian Political Writing 2008. Other highlights include reviews of Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds' Drawing the Global Colour Line, which is one of the few books I've bought in the last few weeks, of Joan London's new novel The Good Parents (also fully readable online), and of The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by one of my favourite bloggers, the brilliant New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.

There's also a lengthy continuation in the letters page of an increasingly unseemly wrangle between rival biographers and their supporters over whether or not Martin Boyd's death was suicide. Given that most people die of being themselves in any case, surely the line -- that distinction between suicide and whatever the other thing is -- is often greyer and fuzzier than most people are prepared to admit in any case. Martin Boyd was a unique figure in Australian literary history and part of a unique family in its cultural history, and the manner of his death is not one of the important things about his life. Let him rest in peace.