Cosmo Cosmolino revisited

Journal: 073

Helen Garner by Jenny Sage, National Portrait Gallery

Helen Garner’s Cosmo Cosmolino left me bemused when I read and reviewed it (here) six months ago, and we had quite a discussion afterwards about what Garner was trying to achieve/how the book should be read. I now have a better idea. You will have noticed that I had a big birthday recently. One of my gifts was a book voucher from my brother in law and his family to be spent at my local indie. Which I did yesterday. This is what I bought –

Larissa Behrendt, After Story
Belinda Castles ed., Reading Like an Australian Writer
Martha Wells, Network Effect (A Murderbot novel, SF)
Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel

Making my choices was surprisingly hard. In the shop, Crow Books, voucher burning a hole in my pocket, I stood for some time paralysed before New Releases. Some of them I knew of, like Amanda Lohrey’s Labyrinth, some were Australian, some not. None seemed to have that ‘zing’ that was going to grab me. Eventually I decided the Behrendt was the most promising, so that was No.1. Further along was a space epic, nearly No.2 but the Wells nearby seemed less I dunno, traditional, so I went with it. When in doubt, go round to the A-Z and pick up a Murakami. Always works, he has such interesting neighbours. For No. 3 I considered The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but, sorry Haruki, Mizumura won out (Sayaka Murata, Earthlings last time, but before that was Wild Sheep Chase).

And finally, the Castles, which was down next to ‘Classics’ with books/periodicals like the Griffith Review. Why it caught my eye I do not know, but I’m glad it did. It’s a compendium of essays by twenty five Australian writers writing about reading and writing.

Today we’ll be looking at “A Big Sunny Shack: Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner” by Tegan Bennett Daylight; but expect to see references in the future to “Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas” by Nigel Featherstone; “Everywhen in Everything: Reading Carpentaria like an Aboriginal Writer”, Mykaela Saunders; “Postcards to Charlotte Wood: Revisiting The Natural Way of Things by Ashley Hay; and many, many more.

Nothing to do with Garner, but this is what Bennett Daylight (let’s go with TBD) has to say about teaching writing

Many writers will find themselves teaching creative writing at some point in their careers, because few of us can earn our living simply from our writing. We all grow our methods from our own practice … less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.

She always gets her students started, she says, by reading them the first two and a half pages of the story Cosmo Cosmolino in the novel Cosmo Cosmolino, “Helen Garner’s least loved, least praised novel”.

“Notice how active it is,” she says to them, “see all the Garneresque verbs: striking, spewing, bounding, slinging, slapping, laughing, blossoming. Severing, scorning, plugging on, singing, editing, chiaking.”

The first problem with Cosmo Cosmolino, which consists of two short stories and a long story, is is it even a novel. Apparently, for a long time prior to publication, it actually consisted of not three, but seven stories. My response is always if the author says its a novel then we must consider the stories connected, consider their relation to each other. TBD has a more classic response. She quote’s Tim Winton’s description, “a big sunny shack with all the windows and doors open”, and continues CC “is a book the reader can move around in. Its shape invites readerly freedom.”

Peter Corris, Robert Dessaix declare that none of Garner’s works are novels, just “transcribed diaries”. Novels, Dessaix declares, have an architectural (‘architectonic’) quality that Garner’s works lack.

Here’s what I [TBD] think: what makes a novel a novel is metaphor. Metaphor, central metaphor, when deployed in a novel, is as though life looked in the mirror and saw, not just its reflection, but something behind it… the novel is a collection of words shadowed by a larger meaning. Metaphor, just like faith or belief, is the sense of something larger underneath.

Tim Winton, says TBD, believes that ‘shadow’ in Cosmo Cosmolino is The Holy Spirit. Which says a lot about Winton and at least a little about my unease with Garner’s direction here.

Is it possible that in God, in belief or faith, Garner found the kind of metaphor her previous books had lacked? [.. big gap ..] We don’t condemn Toni Morrison or Marilynne Robinson or even Herman Melville for their use of biblical metaphor. Could we perhaps banish the sneering and cynical laughter for long enough to read this book as it deserves to be read?

TBD doesn’t address the ‘problem’ of the two ancillary stories other then to say that they were outbuildings which she personally would have knocked down while adding more ‘rooms’ to the big sunny shack. But she is firm that Cosmo Cosmolino is a novel and not just more Garner reportage (she is less firm, where I am not, about The Spare Room for instance). “I don’t believe in a god or gods, but I do believe in the power of fiction, the power of narrative, the power of metaphor to restore order. A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order. Order is restored in Cosmo Cosmolino; the metaphor that effects this restoration is a metaphor of belief.”

Yet another class I wish I could sit in on. Though interestingly she says most of her students – she is currently at CSU – don’t know Garner.


Currently reading

Belinda Castles ed. (F, Aus), Reading Like an Australian Writer
Elizabeth Jolley (F, Aus/WA), Lovesong
Martha Wells (F, USA), Network Effect (SF)

30 thoughts on “Cosmo Cosmolino revisited

  1. The Martha Wells is a good choice. In MHO, the best in the series.

    One of these days you’ll convince me into reading a Garner, but not just yet.


    • I zipped through the Murderbot novel (Wells) and thoroughly enjoyed it despite all the killing – not what I expect from a woman SF author, but of course the characterisation was excellent.

      Read Monkey Grip, you’ll love it.


  2. I’m not sure how the Australians approach it, but in the U.S. author are often offered teaching gigs based on what they’ve published, not on what they can do in a classroom. I’ve heard that many big-name authors are horrible at teaching creative writing. Interestingly, I find that all my experience reviewing assisted me in being a better fiction professor. I didn’t care what my students wrote about; the subject didn’t have to appeal to me. However, they did need to consider the parameters of their chosen world, and what gets under the reader’s skin in any given genre. I think back to my time as a creative writing student and am dismayed that I sat through so many classes in which a small group of individuals felt the need to tell me what they liked or didn’t like based on personal preferences. Very dismayed. I’ll confess there is even a level of embarrassment.

    I look forward to hearing more about Reading Like an Australian Writer and what exactly the scope of an Australian writer is, and how that affects the way a person would approach reading a book by such an author.


    • Looks like Sue, Lisa and I all have a copy of Reading Like an Australian Writer, so you may get a range of opinions.
      Writers who comment on blogs mostly seem thrilled to have worked under a notable writer. I think it’s the idea of seeing genius up close. Interesting that you and Teegan Bennett both had one book that you used as a teaching aid – respectively Malcolm X and Cosmo – I wonder how common that is.


      • I think it’s becoming more common to choose a memoir or autobiography as a teaching tool over a textbook for a couple of reasons. Textbooks are ungodly expensive. Plus, a textbook narrowly defines what goes in each chapter, where as a memoir-type of book can be whatever less you want it to be. You can look at the sentence structure, narrative structure, themes, etc. I used to have the students write a book review as their final exam.


  3. Whatever you think of her books (are they fiction, non-fiction, diaries?) they get under your skin. I enjoy books like RLAAW and the opportunity they give to revisit old books and look at them anew.
    I really liked the comment “A great novel unsettles, then settles – it causes disorder, and then order.” I think it may help me out with a review I didn’t know how to finish.


    • I imagine people in Garner’s orbit have no choice but to regard her work as reportage. What little ‘fictionalising’ she does, judging by the complaints, never seems to be enough to obscure real identities. And I don’t think she cares particularly. But I don’t know these people and am happy to read her works as fiction, albeit fiction based on her own life experience which is my favourite kind.
      I’ll try and remember to look out for the unsettle/settle thing in your next few reviews (I assume you don’t mean today’s cosy crime).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have Castle’s book, so I might try to do what you did and review Cosmo … and engage in a discussion! I will see if I can do it this weekend.

    I would have bought Behrendt!

    And, I have a love-hate relationship with gift vouchers, particularly with book vouchers, for the reason you’ve described. I want to do them justice and feel paralysed. I loved reading your process and it looks to me as thought you made a good decision, except, why not Lohrey?


    • I look forward to what you make of Teegan Bennet’s essay. It’s well argued, though I’m not interested enough in faith to want to read about it (I dnf’d a Winton memoir for just that reason). Old books are different, their faith is an ordinary part of their lives, and to some extent anyway I admire the Unitarians (eg. Gaskell and Spence) and Quakers in particular.

      I can see you valiantly attempting to honour the spirit of the gift. I tend assume the giver had no opinions, hence the voucher. As it happens, my brother in law, like Neil, was ahead of me with the Murderbot series, which I had not run into before. But except for SF we mostly read along different paths. My problem, I guess, was that I haven’t been buying many new books, so I couldn’t just grab the first four that caught my eye. I chose Behrendt over Lohrey because I though the former had had fewer reviews (then Lisa went and reviewed it the following day).

      You asked me elsewhere would I review the Mizumura. Probably. I’m even marking passages.


  5. I’ve bought this Castles book too, though I haven’t so much as opened it yet.

    I’ll be interested to see what you think of the Behrendt because as far as I know your travels have been elsewhere and not in BritLit landscapes. For me there were nostalgic memories of travel there, but even as I read it I wondered how it would work for readers who haven’t been there. I still think it would work well, but differently?

    Re book vouchers… my parents went through a phase of sending me book vouchers and I loved them for it because that’s my favourite kind of present, *but* they were always from Dymocks (who had a shop of the Gold Coast at Pacific Fair). Alas …um… how can I put it and not get into trouble for being a book snob? … let’s just say that I usually bought books for school or recipe books for Tim because I could never find anything else.

    PS Happy belated birthday for the Big Birthday that should have been in Paris.


    • I think the Reading Australian Writers book will be an excellent one to dip in and out of. I haven’t read the essay on Tsiolkas yet but I wish I’d had it to hand for The Slap.

      Dymocks seems to have shrunk. It and the ABC used to be in every large shopping centre, but not any more. I don’t go into the city but luckily Fremantle, which is some distance but which I like visiting, has a good range of independents, though Dymocks has gone from there too. My local cafe strip, Victoria Park, has an excellent indie but no second hand books (and again no Dymocks)

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. I had a very pleasant birthday one week and my daughter’s delayed wedding reception the following week, so I got my money’s worth out of the preceding weeks of iso. Rottnest is not Paris, nor even Hydra, but is still a very relaxing place to spend a few days.


  6. Belated Happy Birthday. I have had an awful week so just sat down with a coffee and finally had time to read this. I enjoyed this discussion very much. I have only read a couple of Garner’s diaries but have Monkey Grip on the shelf. I’ve been going through a diaries phase mainly on audible these days. The Castles book sounds great. BTW I really enjoyed The Wind Up Bird Chronicle as it was my first serious experience with magical realism. Maybe for your next voucher. I so enjoy your posts as well as Lisa’s and Sue’s. Fell like I’m back in school, haha, which I loved. 🤠🐧🌷

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry about your week, I’m chuffed if reading my post helped. And thankyou for the b’day wishes. I shouldn’t have said recent, it was more than 5 months ago.
      Monkey Grip was very much of its time when I read it way back then. Although I’ve never swum at Fitzroy Pool (where Garner would hang out) those suburbs and those people were ‘where I lived’. I don’t enjoy straight diaries unless the author expands them out into a narrative, but I’ve just listened to and enjoyed Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom. Murakami does magic realism very well – my first was 1Q84, which I’ve listened to a couple of times since.

      You put me in exalted company! I haven’t studied much literary theory but I enjoy researching and writing up the background of novels. I enjoyed school too, too much probably as my biggest wish is that I’d been made to work a bit harder.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved school too and was the typical “girly swat”.

    I don’t recollect much specific formal discussion of literary theory, but my studies at school and university were very close-text-based so I reckon it was New Criticism influenced. It affects how I read now I think. I’m certainly not closed to looking at literature through other lenses, and think there’s a lot of validity in that nd should be taken into account, but in the end I would come back to the text!


    • I will have to look up New Criticism – “the ideology of an uprooted, defensive intelligentsia who reinvented in literature what they could not locate in reality.” Tetty Eagleton in my much thumbed and bookmarked copy of Literary Theory: An Introduction. Not that I remember a word of it.

      I wouldn’t have said so after studying Barthes and Foucault not so long ago, but in the end, it is obvious from what I write, I would come back to the author.


      • That description of New Criticism/New Critics makes me laugh. I am in a decluttering mode at the moment – what else to do during lockdown – and my current job is ditching all my university notes from the 1970s! I’ve been gearing up to this for some time but I know they must go! When I get to the English lit notes, I’ll see what I can see (and what I’ve forgotten about what I was taught!) FR Leavis also comes to mind, but I think he was different again, focusing on moral purpose and intention. I think I still have The great tradition by him. It will have to go one day too. (Don’t tell Lisa, but really, the time is coming for reducing the library!)


      • The things you do (and subsequently regret!) when you are bored. I did mean to read the rest of that chapter but I’m bogged down in (writing about) An I-Novel.

        The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, which is much more boring, describes New C. as an American movement of the 1930s-60s relating specifically to poetry – “focusing on the intrinsic qualities of the work rather than on its biographical or historical context”

        I had it in my mind that Leavis was old-fashioned but Eagleton writes that his work was so central that all students of English today are Leavisites. “In the early 1920s it was desperately unclear why English was worth studying at all; by the early 1930s it had become unclear why it was worth wasting your time on anything else.”

        Lots of underlining so I must have been impressed when I read it, though I don’t remember writing any essays.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, then that’s why, when I was in American-dominated online bookgroups in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, New Criticism wasp often discussed to my bemusement! My sense is that it did influence teaching here too but that our teachers combined it with other ideas like Leavis. I also prefer the mushy rather than strident black-and-white approach so it would have suited me. Haha.

        But yes, “focusing on the intrinsic qualities of the work rather than on its biographical or historical context” this is what they talked about and is, pretty much how I was taught, but with also, I think, a Leavisite interest in moral purpose which would have appealed to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. How nice that all three of you have the Castles book. That should generate some interesting chatter and/or debate. And maybe inspire some rereading of favoured or averted books/stories. And it’s great that your birthday celebrations have stretched out for so long.

    A Wells (the first one, actually) is on my shelf; it sounds very engaging. More recently, I’ve added a Nnedi Okorafor novella. Although I might not get to reading it soon. My sci-fi/fantasy reading always gets pushed aside in favour of books I’ve borrowed from the library, which is even more the case this time of year. A great “problem” to have. (i.e. No complaints.)


    • The Wells just zips along, although the amount of killing is disturbing (‘Murderbot’ wasn’t clue enough?). I’ve read/reviewed a couple of Okorafors – she’s an impressive writer. Now I have more control of my audiobooks, ie. I have Audible and Borrowbox, not just what the local library cares to stock, I am getting a bit more SF back into my reading which is not always reflected in my reviewing.


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