At Sweetpea Mansions

C.K. Stead

  • Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner
    Bloomsbury, 221 pp, £13.99, January 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1344 9

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino contains two short stories together with the novella that gives the book its title. There are connections between the three. Ursula, a friend of the unnamed narrator of the first story, is mother of Kim who dies in the second; and Kim’s boyfriend, Raymond, will reappear, along with his brother Alby, in the third. There are also angel figures in the first story and in the novella; and in the second story the men who make Raymond watch the cremation of Kim’s body may be dark angels, or minor devils, or simply crematorium workers with some knowledge of the dead girl. The epigraph is Rilke’s: ‘Every angel is terrible.’

The central figure of ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’, Janet, was young in the early Seventies: one of those blessed and blighted by coming of age in what we now think of as the Sixties, really the decade from 1965, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident was engineered to license Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of Vietnam, to 1975 when the last Americans clung to helicopters escaping from the roofs of Saigon hotels and the first Oil Shock had already begun to prepare the ground for the era of Trickledown, the Market and Economic Realism. It was the decade when a significant number of the educated, or educable, young gave themselves so thoroughly to ‘mind-expanding’ techniques and drugs that minds were rendered empty of everything but the expansion; and when literature’s immune system for the first time learned to turn on itself, like cells invaded by cancer. ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ is set squarely in the Nineties; but those crucial ten years in Helen Garner’s life hover in the background as they do in everything she writes.

Janet is a freelance journalist. She owns and lives in a Melbourne terrace-house, Sweetpea Mansions, which had quartered a shifting population of ‘communards’, her contemporaries, at a time ‘when teaspoons had holes drilled in their bowls to frustrate the passing junkie, when cooking was rostered and bands played in the bedrooms and tooth-brushes like icicles hung by the wall’, and ‘it was demonstrated to Janet many a time that property was theft’:

Take a wrong tone at breakfast ... and you were laying a heavy trip. Mention the mortgage payments on pension day and you were a slum landlord, the last worm on earth. People stopped talking when you walked into your own kitchen; the word my could cause sharp intakes of breath around the teapot. What were we thinking of in those days, said Janet. For all our righteous egalitarianism we were wild and cruel. We had no patience; our hearts were stony; our house meetings were courts of no appeal. We hated our families and tried to hurt them; we despised our mothers for their sacrifice.

These acknowledgments cast a different light, or a shadow, back over the period and experiences more neutrally – or nearly neutrally – chronicled by Nora in Gamer’s 1977 novel Monkey Grip. Though they are not the same character (Janet is childless, Nora has a daughter), we may suppose that there is a good deal of common ground between the two, residing in the life of their author, and that Janet of ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ is, at least in her attitudes to the past, what Nora of the earlier novel might be thought to have become.

At 30, ‘between lovers, and contemptuous of her own romantic fantasies’, Janet has had her tubes tied. ‘Somebody should have stopped her: but who? She was beholden to nobody, and that was her proudest boast.’ Now, hearing home-going schoolchildren under the window she ‘squeezed her eyes shut and doubled herself over her knotted arms. It was a good sound ... but it hurt her.’

At 40 she has married ‘a kind and comical man for whom, though she was too distracted to express it, she felt real tenderness, real liking.’ He

did his best. He tried. But at last he became sad and lost heart. Janet had no talent for intimacy. She did not know how it was done. Privately she thought of it as knuckling under. She had thrived before on drama, on being treated badly: it enlivened her. Her husband, who wanted to be good to her, could never seem to get her full attention.

These painful facts and recognitions lie behind the present narrative, which begins with beetroot soup dribbling down the wall, the slamming of a gate and the roar of a car engine, signalling the end of Janet’s marriage. For a time what she feels is euphoria. ‘All her senses had perfect pitch.’ But it couldn’t last. Soon she has two lodgers who are like echoes from her past: Maxine, a New Age person, maker of wooden furniture, and Ray, younger brother of a former hippy lover, Alby. Maxine believes that the time has come to have a child, that a minor angel will be sent to impregnate her, and that Ray (she considers his name to be confirmation) is the angel. Ray, whose belief that he has been responsible for Kim’s death (chronicled in the earlier story) has caused him to ‘come to God’, thinks Janet and Maxine, are ‘mad’ and bent on corrupting him.

Janet is a woman of salty intellect. Her first close look at Ray, and her recognition that what she sees is not what Maxine is seeing, takes the breath away:

Ah yes, Janet knew the type. She was familiar with those cow’s lashes, the lids that slid with maddening slowness up and down and over the lowered, watery blue globes. She recognised in him another broken-spirited, obedient poor bastard, weak in imagination, lacking in drive, a wimp in whom the flame of life burned low; the sort that battens off the mother in a woman and ends up driving her berserk. Her judgment crystallised, and with a grimace she turned aside – but Maxine stood breathless, under her starburst of hair, lit up with wonder and renewed trust.

But though Janet is gifted with such clear sight, she is powerless to act upon it. When Ray turns to look at her, ‘it struck her like a blast of sound. The gaze with which he fixed her was as egoless, as scouring, as unblinking as a baby’s, and the responsibility it heaped upon her was total ... She took one big step backwards but it was too late. The story had already begun.’ Each woman is in the grip of a devouring, spiritualised biology. Janet sees in Ray the baby she cannot have; Maxine sees in him the heaven-sent means to a baby. In the two women Ray sees sinners who may be shown the path to salvation.

As the three settle down to a barbarous occupancy of Sweetpea Mansions, eating separately and randomly, pursuing their contradictory needs and purposes, failing to be ‘a house-hold’, there is a balance of forces. Janet is separated from Maxine and Ray by her scepticism. Putting the kettle on the stove she acknowledges her difficulty in believing that

any force existed which could warm this chilled, heavy mass, let alone bring it to the boil and transform it into steam. If I can’t believe that, she thought, in spite of its having been proved to me daily all my life, how the hell am I supposed to live in the same house as this – this –

‘Tell me, Maxine,’ she said ... ‘is there anything at all you don’t believe in?’

Maxine tells her that she, Janet, doesn’t want to believe in devils or angels because ‘Your painful experiences have made you very, very skeptical.’ Ray tells them that the devil is worse than anything they can imagine.

The two women, on the other hand, are separated from Ray by their ability to verbalise. They

squandered language. If Ray did not take his turn at speech when it was offered, they exchanged expressionless looks and went galloping past him, scattering words from their gaping purses. ‘Today’, Janet would say, ‘I passed the biggest, grandest, most magnificently, beautifully and generously tremendous oak tree I’ve ever seen in my whole life.’ Goose-flesh coated him, as it did when Maxine got going, veering out into her phantasmagorical theories about toxins and purifications ... He sat in silence, fingering his little black book.

The novella’s point of view is Janet’s; but Garner, while sharing her scepticism, seems reluctant quite to deny the reader freedom to believe that Maxine or Ray, or both, may possess a knowledge beyond her grasp. So she allows herself a certain licence to enter their consciousnesses as well as Janet’s. Ray’s vision of the world is dark, frightened and unappetising. Maxine’s is lit up by auras and penumbras which don’t invariably seem to mislead. If this occasional wavering of, or wandering from, the central point of consciousness causes concern, that is probably less because it is felt as a technical flaw than as a tolerance which, because it doesn’t come naturally to the writer, is unconvincing. Garner’s impatient, rational, satiric voice is more energising and enlivening to the sense of fictional reality than her half-hearted attempts at making herself alive to angels and devils:

‘Was your brother sick too?’ said Maxine. Did angels have brothers?

‘No sicker than any of us,’ said Ray. ‘More of a slave than a sick man, actually. But Chips,’ he added solemnly, ‘was a poet.’

‘Crap,’ said Janet. ‘He was a whinger and he wrote it down. That’s not poetry.’

When Janet has humiliated herself by revealing to Ray her need for a man – a need he responds to by trying again to ‘convert’ her – she finds herself lying with her hands joined as in prayer:

She was too old, too old for this. It would be rhetorical to say O Lord. It would be sentimental to say Our Father. It would be humiliating to say Help me. So she lay on her side with her knees bent and her hands clasped and she said nothing at all.

‘Cosmo Cosmolino’ is a carefully structured fiction about unstructured lives. Desdemona’s handkerchief takes several forms. When Maxine makes a doll to represent the baby she intends to have, she thoughtlessly tears a sleeve off Ray’s favourite shirt to make its dress. When Janet goes secretly rummaging in Maxine’s workshop she dislodges the doll from the wall and drops a tea-towel she is carrying. When Maxine seduces Ray in his sleep she leaves her nightdress on his floor. The torn shirt, the dislodged doll, the tea-towel, the nightdress, are all discovered and understood, or misunderstood, in silence. When Ray wants to hide the $1000 he has saved, which is to be his means of escape, he wraps it in the nightdress. When Maxine finds, wrapped in her nightdress, the precise sum of money she needs to invest in a magical scheme that will make her rich, she decides it is ‘meant’ that she should have it.

Ray’s long-awaited brother Alby at last arrives to rescue him, but by now the money is gone. The brothers have lost the means to move on. In the last scene Alby is turning indoors to choose himself a room in Sweetpea Mansions, perhaps converting the triangle to a square, while jonquils fall from the sky.

It is those jonquils which suggest to me Garner’s desperation as a writer of fiction. Interviews and publicity surrounding publication of this book have made it known that the ending of her second marriage left her for a long time unable to write, and it is seven years since the publication of her last book, the very fine collection of stories Postcards from Surfers. Yet it might be thought that the personal distress, made public by way of explanation for an unwelcome silence, only conceals a more fundamental problem. It is the source of a strength as well as a potential weakness that Garner is always so close to her central character. What is felt in her fiction has been felt in fact, and deeply. The problem her women face is how to disengage from what has gone before; to change and move forward. ‘You can burn things, wish death,’ one says, ‘but the past is still the past and you’re still the same person.’ That also can be a problem for the writer.

I am not suggesting that there is anything uncontrolled about Garner’s writing, which is rich, vivid, worked at, precise. Those jonquils, it seems to me, represent a conscious decision, but I suspect they’re intended to signal, or to create, openness, when in fact what they represent is closure. At the end of the confrontation between the brothers and the two women, when it has been disclosed that Ray’s money has been stolen and wasted, Maxine wanders away to gather jonquils in the garden, after which she takes off and soars into the heavens. That is what the words on the page tell us: several rich paragraphs which you may read as a flight of fancy or a flight in fact – the choice is yours. Or rather, you have that choice until the final page, when jonquils fall from the sky. It’s an attractive moment, except that it makes Maxine’s ‘flight’ unarguably literal, and so has the effect of validating her New Age view of reality and putting Janet’s scepticism in the wrong. It may be that I am making too much of very little, but this is the novella’s concluding scene, and my feeling is of having seen reason denied in favour of something which I suspect Garner’s best self would not want to subscribe to: flower power – the apotheosis of the hippy tripper.