To read a novel by Helen Garner is to intrude on characters living their lives with no regard for your presence. You wander into their stories with the same sense of abandon with which they wander into Melbourne flophouses, drug dens, the homes of old and new lovers. ‘In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives,’ begins Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip (1977), whose narrator, Nora, ushers you to the kitchen table then leaves you to pick your way through the raucous crowd gathered there in the summer of 1975. Here is Martin, her faithful lover, ‘teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack’. Here is Javo, ‘just back from getting off dope in Hobart’, Lou, Selena, Georgie, Clive, Eve, Gracie – and a little boy called ‘the Roaster’ who seems to belong to no one and everyone. There are no introductions, just intimacies that rise sharply above the clatter only to sink back into it.
The drama of Monkey Grip is straightforward: Nora loves Javo, and Javo loves smack. Javo’s love never wavers or alters, but Nora’s does. She draws close, then retreats; seeks his love, then swears off it; desires his touch, then despises it; until finally, he leaves her, and she finds another man, settling into a state of relieved, weary disillusionment. Then Javo returns and everything starts again. Nora’s love is as compulsive and incurable as Javo’s addiction, and the novel, wrongly described by critics as ‘unstructured’ and by Garner herself as ‘artless’, tracks the morphology of an impossible love’s monkey grip. First, the craving for contact, for connection; then the rush of the hit, the high, pure and easy; then the comedown, the withdrawal, the bargaining, the fear, the despair that turns into numbness that turns into a happy reprieve from feeling – and just when you’ve reconciled yourself to neither having nor wanting, restlessness steals back in and feeds the craving once more. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’ Nora asks. ‘They can both kill you.’
It’s a pretty parallel, though not an accurate one. Love habits don’t kill. They startle you awake, make you alert, interested, watchful. ‘I was interested in the phenomenon of his being stoned, and watched him curiously,’ Nora says. ‘I began to understand it through my eyes: I caught his face showing strange, mad planes which were not familiar to me, ugly in their strangeness.’ Though Javo’s strangeness marks a banishment of the self to some deep and unknowable realm of experience, Nora traces that absence on the surfaces of his face: on his extravagantly burned, scarred skin; into his violently blue eyes, their pupils wide and whited out by dope; across the ridges of his skull and his ‘bony lantern head’, which hangs above hers in the night, at once very close and very far away.
Monkey Grip sees estrangement as the shared aesthetic of love and addiction. ‘The distant, the out-of-the-way, the displaced into heights, as it reflects back and leads to an understanding of present reality … is a special gift to us,’ Ernst Bloch wrote in a 1962 essay tracing the literary history of estrangement from its origins in the mid-19th century to its self-conscious perfection in modernism. For Bloch, the supreme theory of estrangement is Brecht’s Verfremdung: a strangeness that does not alienate but redeems us from the alienating forces of modernity. Estrangement brings us closer to the people and things we contemplate by removing them from their usual contexts. It interrupts our habits, scrambling the images of love and hate and feigned indifference dispatched by mass culture. Its distortions open onto sudden revelations, slanted truths. ‘The beholder achieves insight by means of the estrangement-effect which can turn into its dialectical opposite – the recognition, or “Aha!” experience,’ Bloch writes. ‘Insight into what is closest to the beholder grows out of his amazement at being confronted with what is furthest away.’
In claiming estrangement for the junkies, musicians and writers of Melbourne, Garner imagines the purest art, like the purest dope, being made and consumed by characters who scoff at the bourgeois family, the wage relation, the carceral state – all the modern apparatuses of alienation. Her indebtedness to the modernists is made visible everywhere, from the names of her characters to the literature they read. ‘I have been loved by something strange, and it has forgotten me,’ cries another Nora – Nora Flood, the abandoned lover of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a woman with ‘a face that would be evil when she found out that to love without criticism is to be betrayed’. The only thing Javo does other than get high is act in plays by Brecht, whose techniques of estrangement – stilted language, halting gestures, long bouts of stillness – gradually take him over as his addiction worsens, until his personality seems to consist in nothing more than the impulsive arrangement and rearrangement of his body; a puppet in prose. At the end of the novel, Nora lies in bed reading To the Lighthouse, her mind prickling with fear and hopelessness as she grieves over the ‘disconnected fragments’ of Javo’s life with her. ‘Under the influence of that extraordinary emotion which had been growing … he was coming to see himself and everything he had ever known gone crooked a little,’ Woolf writes. ‘It was awfully strange.’
Like Woolf, Garner knows that self and other become tangled in the art of estrangement. ‘In a shop window in Merimbula I saw my face reflected and gave myself a fright,’ Nora thinks immediately after she falls in love with Javo. ‘My hair was wild and stiff with salt, standing on end all over my head. My face was burned almost back to paleness and my eyes stared out of dirty skin. I liked myself: I looked strong and healthy.’ Desire has made her strange to herself by attuning her to the strangeness of another, since there is nothing stranger, nothing more amazing or concerning, than to see yourself reflected through another person’s interested gaze, or for your reflection to melt and resurface as the person moves closer and further away. When Javo leaves her, Nora cuts off all her hair and chases her reflection for pages, failing to recognise who she was in what she sees: ‘I saw the bumpy shape of my skull, I saw myself shorn and revealed. I wandered in a dream around the city, glimpsing in shop windows a strange creature with my face.’
When Nora first watches Javo’s face, everything she sees there is mysterious, frightening and hypnotic. But the more she watches, the more the planes of his face ‘melted and turned gentle and even the blue eyes blurred, up that close’. Her inner eye – her imagination – begins to clarify what her outer eye can only perceive. ‘I thought of his skin and the way I could sense out his skull, and his crazy eyes.’ Thinking about Javo allows her to occupy his mind as he moves about the world. She lets her senses be co-extensive with his. She feels what it is like to be ‘stoned, stoned, stoned again’, receiving but not exactly inhabiting both his lows – his withdrawal pains register as ‘very peculiar bodily sensations coming to me from outside my own skin’ – and his highs. The strangeness of his face is no longer ugly or irreproachable. It is luminous. ‘I looked at his face and it opened and blossomed under my eyes.’
During their ‘honeymoon phases’, when smack habit and love habit settle into a nervous equilibrium, the dialectic of estrangement dangles the promise of mutual apperception, of shared consciousness. ‘He got into my bed in the middle of the night and wrapped his thin limbs around me, and we fucked with a joy so intense and peaceful that our hearts were in our faces and we gave them to each other without a word,’ Nora recalls. The brilliance of Garner’s description lies in the uncertainty of what exactly the lovers exchange – their hearts or their faces? The swapping of hearts is an adolescent cliché, but the swapping of faces is an exchange of senses and selves, an exchange that simultaneously grazes the surface and plumbs the depth of desire. When Javo starts to sleep with a woman called Claire, he complains to Nora that ‘fucking just isn’t so much fun’: Claire fucks ‘with her eyes shut’. ‘I understood in my bones that “fun” was not what he meant, that perhaps he wished to affirm to me that infinitely deep and precise contact we made when we fucked,’ Nora thinks. The muscle memory of that contact is all she retains of him when their affair ends.
The Children’s Bach (1984), Garner’s second novel, has none of Monkey Grip’s sprawling rhythms of desire and despair. It is tightly controlled, without chapters or plot points, told through a procession of tableaux. These scenes of frozen action work much as Brecht imagined tableaux might work in theatre, or Barthes in film: by breaking off plot and arresting characters. They isolate some ideal concept – Love, or Family – and, by drawing attention to the artifice of the scene’s composition, invite criticism of the ideal. ‘In the funny papers, the recognition scene used to be called “Tableau!”,’ Bloch writes. Like Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach opens in a kitchen in Melbourne, with a description of a picture of Tennyson, his wife and two sons that hangs on the wall:
Eye-lines: Tennyson looks into the middle distance. His wife, holding his arm and standing very close to his side, gazes up into his face. One boy holds his father’s hand and looks up at him. The other boy holds his mother’s, and looks into the camera with a weak, rueful expression … Tennyson’s hands are large square paws, held up awkwardly at stomach level. His wife’s face is gaunt and her eyes are set in deep sockets. It is a photo of a family. The wind puffs out the huge stiff curved sleeve of the woman’s dress, and brushes back off his forehead the long hair of the father’s boy who is turned towards the drama of his parents’ faces: though he is holding his father’s hand, he is separate from the group, and light shows between his tightly buttoned torso and his father’s leg.
‘It is a photo of a family’ – there’s the ideal – and it belongs to a middle-aged couple called Dexter and Athena, who, like the Tennysons, have two sons. The photo is ‘torn and stained, and coated with a sheen of splattered cooking grease’. It is ‘always peeling off, swinging sideways, dangling by one corner’. The Tennysons’ faces are tarnished by domesticity. One senses the photo should have been chucked away years ago and promptly forgotten. Yet, just when it seems ready to fall off the wall, ‘someone saves it, someone sticks it back’.
The novel leaps from photograph to photograph, pose to pose, estranging ideals like family, love, intimacy, faith and compassion – ideals that can’t quite be realised and can’t quite be discarded. At Melbourne airport, Dexter runs into Elizabeth, an older version of Monkey Grip’s Nora, a woman who once ‘lay on his bed, in college, a whole Saturday afternoon waiting for him to come back because she wanted to fuck somebody and at the time there was no one else’. She appears to him now as motionless as she was twenty years ago, all angles and lines, a face frozen out of time: ‘Oh, her awful modern clothes, her hair spiked and in shock. He saw the fan of lines at the outer corner of her eye and his heart flipped like a fish.’ Elizabeth is waiting to greet her younger sister, Vicki, whose photograph she carries in her wallet – a picture showing not a child but an alien face that ‘looked straight at the camera, round and unsurprised. Its hair was tangled, its skin was dark, the whites of its eyes were bright white.’ On their first night together, the sisters sit unmoving in front of Elizabeth’s TV and watch the pope, ‘a man in a white skullcap’ whose ‘movements were so exaggeratedly slow, and from this slowness emanated such theatrical power that he reminded Vicki of a spaceman’.
The Children’s Bach imagines what is lost and what is gained when the junkies and hippies of Monkey Grip are domesticated. When Dexter and Elizabeth reconnect, Athena, an amateur pianist, starts spending time with Philip, a guitarist and Elizabeth’s occasional lover. They are drawn to each other for no discernible reason, an attraction that seems to reside nowhere other than in the physical activity of perception: ‘Athena could not help staring at Philip. Whenever she took her eyes away she felt him looking at her. It seemed they took it in turns.’ He takes her on long walks away from Dexter and the repulsive ‘familiarity of his breathing’, and away from her son Billy, a little boy with autism whom Athena refuses to love. ‘I used to be romantic about him,’ she tells Elizabeth and Vicki one night over dinner. ‘I used to think there was some kind of wild, good little creature trapped inside him, and I tried to communicate with that. But now I know there’s’ – and here she knocks her forehead with her knuckles – ‘nobody home.’
In a home where ‘nobody’s home’, where love is compromised by both excessive intimacy and utmost privacy, Athena’s gaze wanders away from her family. But instead of watching each other as Nora and Javo do, Athena and Philip watch the world, which ‘divided itself for them, presented itself in a series of small theatrical events’. They do not want to know each other so much as agree. ‘Harmony! To be each other.’ Yet the work of maintaining their harmony falls largely to Athena. She cannot play harmony on the piano – her fingers are ‘unrhythmic’ and ‘clumsy’ – but, as a woman, she is well trained in the art of flexibility and accommodation. She knows how to agree and how to make that agreement seem natural, as if it were a position arrived at spontaneously. ‘She felt him give; she let herself melt, drift, take the measure of his new position, and harden again into an appropriate configuration.’ Softening, then hardening; dissembling, then reassembling: Athena emerges as a desperate and self-conscious tableau vivant, estranged from herself and the ordinary contexts of her life, as she struggles to make and remake herself, hoping for some sort of revelation. ‘There was nothing to be got here, if only she could …’
But there is nothing to get at here, because Athena and Philip have no way of seeing out of each other’s eyes. ‘What do I know about him?’ Athena wonders. ‘He cleans his teeth standing upright and looking himself straight in the eye in the mirror. Oh, I’ve never seen him clean his teeth. I know this is how he does it because there is a splattering of drops of dried toothpaste all over the bottom half of the mirror.’ He is all residues and traces, a mirage of a man –just as for Dexter, Elizabeth’s room is a surface ‘dull with the absence of meaning’. Neither pair of lovers can be at home with each other. ‘They were like two ghosts, now that the blood had gone out of them, two empty sets of garments hung opposite each other in a cupboard,’ Garner writes of Philip and Athena’s parting – a sad, unfussy and adult goodbye.
When Athena returns home, she waits for Dexter and her children to arrive. Her mind races through what might happen once they are all reunited. The novel ends with her thoughts, a cascade of paragraphs, ungrammatical and free:
and the clothes on the line will dry into stiff shapes which loosen when touched …
and Dexter will sit on the edge of the bed to do up his sandals, and Athena will creep over to him and put her head on his knee, and he will take her head in his hands and stroke it with a firm touch …
and Athena will play Bach on the piano, in the empty house, and her left hand will keep up the steady rocking beat, and her right hand will run the arpeggios, will send them flying, will toss handfuls of notes high into the sparkling air!
Here is an ecstatic vision of homecoming, a return to the family whose love can restore you to yourself, an art whose harmony can redeem the price you’ve paid for your absence. Athena’s fantasy of forgiveness gives her a greater rush than sex, or freedom. Redemption, Garner knows, is as intoxicating an illusion as any – so intoxicating that it is easy to forget that this home exists in the future tense, in a world that can be imagined only in fragments. Athena, after all, is a terrible pianist.
What Garner offers in these novels is an alternative to the cloying metafiction of the late 20th century and the washed-out realism of the 21st. They are undeniably of their time – the 1970s commitment to the liberating possibilities of sex, drugs and communal living in Monkey Grip, the hangover nursed in the 1980s in The Children’s Bach – but they also belong to a literary epoch we think of as long gone, as they earnestly strive to resurrect a modernist art of estrangement. But the revival has not lasted. When Garner won a Windham-Campbell Prize in 2016, James Wood offered a glowing appraisal of her work in the New Yorker, but ignored The Children’s Bach and mentioned Monkey Grip only fleetingly. Instead Wood focused on what he called Garner’s ‘best book’, The Spare Room (2008), an autobiographical novel about a woman called Helen who cares for her terminally ill friend Nicola. Nicola refuses to admit she is dying, and Helen is frustrated by her self-denial but determined to help her. ‘The simple beauty of the novel’s form has to do with its internal symmetry,’ Wood writes. ‘The two women are locked into a relationship that they can escape only if each admits what she finds most difficult to say.’ The book ends with an ‘exhausted peace’. Nicola confronts her mortality and prepares to die. Helen acknowledges her anger at Nicola, before handing her over to another’s care. ‘All novels should end as completely,’ according to Wood. But should they? For my taste, The Spare Room’s symmetry neither intrigues nor frustrates. Its perfection offers no mystery to solve. Like Garner in her earlier period, I prefer a certain crookedness of form, a haziness of character, a bending back and forth of thought – a strangeness that startles us awake.