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.

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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)