Helen Garner is a woman after my own heart. At the moment I’m reading The Feel of Steel, a collection of essays — some whole, some in pieces. I admire her liberal use of exclamation marks, her crankiness, and her daring. She refuses to follow any rules about structure or form, is happy to break taboos left right and centre but never gratuitously (her essay on going on a cleansing regime at a shabby resort is an eye opener, as is her anecdote of swapping murder fantasies about her mother with her siblings), and is open about her frustration at the inability of language to truly express a person’s experience. I get the impression that for Garner, writing often feels like a futile thing to be doing. (‘I hate writing,’ she declares at one point.) In lots of ways, she says, writing is useless. She resents the fact that so much of human experience has been described, taken into ownership by hungry, ravening writers (and she likens them to zombies, gnawing on others … which reminds me of a cartoon by Michael Leunig about the phenomenon of people who say ‘I’ve got a book inside me’:
MAN: Help me doctor. I've got a book inside me!
THERAPIST: Most people have a book in them. Perhaps I can refer you to a publisher.
MAN: No! I don't want it published. I want it surgically removed - or dissolved with herbs or something - maybe some sort of therapy. I WANT TO BE RID OF IT! PLEASE!
THERAPIST: You seem ashamed of your inner book?
MAN: Not at all. It's just that I don't want to become a... a... I don't want to become a WRITER!
THERAPIST: There, there - it's not so bad. We all have to become writers sooner or later. We must learn acceptance. We are born, we live and then, sadly, we must write.
MAN: It seems so unfair. Life is so cruel. I thought I could escape.)
When Garner describes a traumatic experience, such as the breakup of her third marriage, she doesn’t describe the experience itself. She writes about the spaces around it, what happens to her cognition of the world. There are glimpses of memory and the odd exchange between friends that reminds us what this is really about, but Garner doesn’t venture into the whole story; it’s like walking around a frozen lake. It is an incredibly accurate way of ‘describing’ trauma — only by not describing can she express this pain … and Garner’s essay on Antarctica follows a similar thread. While her fellow tourists are frantically taking photographs and blurting clichés, she just looks around, marvels at icebergs, marvels at the uselessness of words. There’s nothing to describe these bizarre shapes and colours. Without a camera, she’s isolated from the group — and ends up grumpy and lonely as a result, plodding along with one equally grim penguin. But this loneliness of hers expresses what Antarctica must really be like, away from the cameras and the tour guides — this empty, hostile place.
Despite her frustration at words, Garner’s use of language is truly dazzling — she’s alive to language like a poet, constantly turning and digging to plumb her ‘words’ well’. (In some ways she reminds me of Carol Ann Duffy — the poetry superstar.) This is the first book of Helen Garner’s that I’ve read. It could be the beginning of a great thing. I’m going to get hold of The Spare Roomtomorrow.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to write something in the voice of a man who has lost a son. And to write about black dogs. I feel profoundly feeble after reading Garner.
Saturday 4 April early evening
I read Garner’s The Spare Roomthis week, wanting to see what all the fuss is about. This is the book in which she allegedly blurs the lines too far between memoir and fiction. As I was reading, I became aware that even though I was telling myself to read this as a novel, the whole time I had a needling voice in my head: I wonder if this bit is true. I wonder if that really did happen to Helen Garner. I wonder how closely these characters are based on real people. And I couldn’t think of the characters as ‘characters’ but as people who inhabit a world outside the book. I sort of enjoyed wondering, though. I like how the book focuses attention on the fact that writers use their own lives as fodder for fiction. By making it explicit, Garner forces us to see just how powerful and vulnerable it can make a writer. Plus, on a shallow level, I enjoyed recognizing the street names of Melbourne. (Is the Theodore Institute real? If it is, it must be out of business now …) But on another level, I was a bit irritated with Garner. It felt like she was playing some kind of dirty trick — deftly and hypnotically, like the magician she and Nicola see perform — but a trick all the same. The question of fact or fiction loomed so large over the book that it was like a story all of its own. The measured, linear movement of the narrative also defied the usual ‘feel’ of fiction, where I usually expect to come across flashbacks and leaps in time and character sketches. That complicated things, because my brain recognized Garner’s narrative as memoiristic and wouldn’t accept it as fiction. But at the end of the day, I think Garner is asking us to stop making assumptions about how a piece of writing should behave, to stop restricting our enjoyment of reading because of all the lessons we’ve learned about genre and truth, to unlearn our usual ways of reading. But I have a feeling most people will just be irritated, like me, and want to know what the heck she’s playing at. What are you playing at, Garner? Eh? I bet she’s getting sick of talking about it in interviews. Still, she must’ve known what she was in for.
Wednesday morning, 12 August
I’ve been reading Opening Skinner’s Box by Lauren Slater (this will be my last Lauren Slater book of the year, I promise. It’s like some kind of mania has got ahold of me), an exploration of landmark psychological experiments of the 20th century. Naturally it is disturbing, these things we’ve learned or refused to learn about ourselves. She starts with Skinner, who raised his own daughter in a box or ‘air crib’; moves on to Milgram with his terrible experiments on obedience, involving participants administering electric shocks to ‘learners’; on to Festinger and cognitive dissonance (his experiments were inspired by a murder case in which about 30 people heard the screams of a woman for hours but did nothing), and so on. It’s fascinating, deeply unsettling, and what makes it so is Lauren Slater’s own fascination with her field — she’s now a working psychiatrist as well as a writer, and of course has a chequered history of her own — and her willingness to put herself on the line. She tracks down subjects of the experiments and talks to them, asking pretty confrontational questions (and her powerful shaping hand is at its most evident in the dialogue she gives us: it’s clean, pared back, and always casts Slater as the authoritative, questing voice of reason. This made me think a lot about how powerless those interviewees were, being written about by Slater, who was in the position to invent herself and others as she chose, in a way that enriched or strange-ified her story).
In the case of David Rosenhan, Slater repeats one of the experiments herself. She doesn’t wash or brush her teeth for five days before admitting herself to a mental hospital, where she claims to be hearing a voice in her head that says, simply, ‘Thud’. This repeats Rosenhan’s famous experiment of forty years earlier, in which completely sane people presented themselves at various mental institutions around the United States, claiming to hear ‘Thud’ in their heads. On the basis of that one symptom — and appearing totally sane in all other respects — all subjects were admitted to a psych ward, diagnosed with illnesses such as bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia, and held in the institutions for days, in some cases months. When Slater repeats the experiment she isn’t admitted, but she IS diagnosed and given anti-psychotic medication — some of which she takes.
It’s this level of dedication to the experiment that floored me. Her willingness to enter into the spirit of the thing, to get under the skin of the experimenters and to get to the heart, the truth — or HER heart, her truth. To do this, she freely imagines the childhoods, marriages, deaths of the famous psychologists, colouring them into story. So in the gaps between known facts and recorded dialogue, she whirls and leaps around, the writer. She also often connects these stories to her own.
Lauren Slater: ‘Metaphor gives words to silence.’
There are points when I think Slater pushes it too far — where she pushes and pushes for the lyrical, the whimsical, the beautiful or strange simile, and this is when people become players on her own personal stage. She has a habit of tangling others too tightly into her own story. There is a lack of restraint — and I think that this is a hallmark of Slater’s style, this wish to story-ify already remarkable events. There is a slight mania to it. I’ve just scanned a few reviews and a lot of people have taken issue with this. One review reads:
… [this is] a disturbing account by a author who couldn't get past her own self-absorption. It may have been entertaining to read a subjective account of an author's experiences with these famed individuals, if Slater's own troubled personality hadn't been so evident …
Slater’s accounts of others are indeed ‘bendy’. I’ve read that some of the people interviewed in the book claim to have been incorrectly quoted, and of course some psychologists take issue with her conclusions (and her scholarship). More unsettling still, as I have just read in a review on the Guardian:
Deborah Skinner [daughter of psychologist B.F. Skinner] claimed that Slater had committed a string of serious inaccuracies. Later in the same chapter, for example, we are told that the eminent Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan dived suddenly under his desk to prove to Slater the existence of free will. He tells me that he did no such thing, merely suggesting that he could do so if he wanted. From what I've heard, doubt is cast in my mind on the veracity of any of the reported speech occurring in the book.
And, as the review goes on to say, it’s one thing to ‘celebrate as story’ and it’s another to use fabricated accounts to hold up that story — and the book doesn’t need them, anyway; the events are so bizarre and brilliant in themselves.
When Slater turns her attention to Michael Harlow’s experiments with monkeys, I found myself struggling to read on. The cruelty is shocking. I resent the way that Slater finds value in it (and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was pushing this view simply to be controversial, to steal the stage) and how she sees something like courage in Harlow for carrying out those experiments. I also really, really, resent the way that Slater describes Harlow’s wife, dying of cancer:
Peggy became visibly more and more ill, the cancer doing its cancer dance, moving from breast to lung to liver, the woman turning saffron yellow, her mouth pulled back in a masked grimace, her teeth peculiarly sharp looking, monkey teeth, mad. This is how I imagine it.
At this point I want to say, No way! You admit that you’re imagining, as if to say so lets you off the hook, but it’s too late. You’ve already created that image, and now it lives in my head. This is not a character you can make up, this is a person. Of course, Slater wants to be confrontational and get us thinking — we are meant to consider, I suppose, how close the human is to the monkey and how we value life. Why we value the life of a human over the life of a monkey. But I just feel that tackling these issues through descriptions like the above is too easy, even exploitative.
I would love to hear Slater’s defense of herself, although I have no doubt that she’d come up with something brilliant, lucid, and utterly persuasive to say.