In searching for inspiration from writers who really speak to me, I can’t help but keep coming back to Helen Garner. There’s something about the simplicity and unadorned way she writes about human relationships that I just love.
I’d lost my original copy of Monkey Grip years ago and now I own this beautiful cloth hardback Penguin classic with orange edged pages – gorgeous. I loved reading this book again, wandering through the streets of Carlton, Fitzroy and my sister’s old ‘hood in Easey street, Collingwood, that I know so well. But with age, I’m better able to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.
Monkey Grip follows single mother Nora and her loving obsession with Javo, the heroin junkie. They and their friends drift through communal houses, mostly surviving on the dole and having sex whenever, and with whom ever, they please. This book, published in 1977, was very of its time – I imagine it caused a big stir, revealing as it did the reality of the life of junkies and scandalising people with its depiction of strong feminist views forbidding possessive personal relationships at a time when feminism had barely got into its stride.
Nora wanders in and out of bed with Javo, looks after her daughter Gracie, swims in the Fitzroy pool and rides her bike all over inner Melbourne. But no matter how badly Javo behaves, stealing money from flatmates to fund his addiction, disappearing for months at a time, something always draws them back together, ‘and the harder they pull away from each other, the tighter the monkey grip’.
The story is almost plotless, as the characters wander from one house, one party, one sexual encounter, to the next. One of the criticisms levelled at it at the time was that Garner had simply published her diaries. Later she admitted that much of the story had come from her diaries, which makes this book an incredible expose of her psyche at that time, but it doesn’t read like a diary, its better than that. The minutae of everyday life that Garner portrays is really mesmerising and one of the great strengths of her writing, for me at least. I love her casual way with dialogue and how resolutely Australian everyone sounds. They go out the back to the dunny, they talk about people ‘giving them the shits’, and tell people to ‘get stuffed’.
No wonder Australians identified with such local literature, which until then was almost non-existent.
I suppose what I admire most about Garner’s skill is her ability to deliver a line of dialogue with some internal discourse attached to it, that perfectly conveys how the character is feeling in so few words. I just love the minimalism of it. One of the best lines for me is when Nora decides to move out from the house she shares with her friend Rita, and the man she reluctantly thinks of as her current squeeze, asks whether she feels guilty about leaving Rita and her daughter behind.
‘If you can do it and not feel guilty about it, that’s really good. I’ve never done it, that’s all,’ he says.
‘Done what?’ Nora asks.
‘Walked out on someone who needed me.’
And then Garner, sums up just how this affects Nora in just 12 perfect words, and no more:
A great rush of distress and its protective accompaniment, anger, filled me.
It may not seem like the most amazing line of prose, but to me its just perfect. I could read her all day.
The concept of rebelling against monogamy is also interesting – when one of the women says the one thing you can’t do is take another woman’s man, they all glare at her as if she’s just suggested dropping the atomic bomb, and Nora wonders if they think that, then what have they ‘all been agonising about all this time?’ The conversation perfectly captures the problem with open relationships – its a good idea, but in reality, jealousy, possessiveness and love intrude and cause these women to be hurt, multiple times over, as they try to hide their pain from their men and each other.
But eventually Nora and Javo’s dance around each other has to come to a head, and there’s a climax of sorts, but this isn’t the book to read if you need a classical plot and deft structure. Just read it to revel in the words, and the images, and the precise, evocative dialogue.