On Melbourne summer mornings the green trams go rolling in stately progress down tunnels thick with leaves: the bright air carries along the avenues their patient chime, the chattering of their wheels.
I might stop my review right there. How Melbourne is Helen Garner!
I should have stopped there. The much praised Cosmo Cosmolino, as far as I was concerned, was almost completely incomprehensible. Not the individual words and sentences, not of course Garner’s always perceptive accounts of Melbourne inner suburban share-house life, but where the hell was she going with it.
My Text edition (not the one pictured – the Text edition has a boring black cover with a few stars) has an Introduction by Melbourne biologist and radio presenter Ramona Koval, which I didn’t read, two short stories – Recording Angel (25pp) and A Vigil (27pp) – and then Cosmo Cosmolino (217pp).
The narrator is unnamed. Let’s call her Helen. Helen’s friend Patrick lives in Sydney with his wife and son. On a visit Patrick tells Helen he has brain cancer. Helen is devastated.
.. Patrick recited my life like a poem he had learnt by heart; and over the years of our friendship I had come to endure his version without open rebellion ..
They discuss Helen’s friend Ursula who Patrick had filed under ‘Became an Alcoholic and a Prostitute’ and who threw herself under a tram after the death of her daughter. A visit or two later and Helen is at Patrick’s to support Natalie while Patrick undergoes an operation. The night before, they talk and talk. After Patrick comes out of the operation the two women gape “with shock and fear at the foot of the bed” then rush out of the hospital.
Kim was hanging on by a thread, taking pills, waiting endless months for her father to come down from Queensland, pay her uni fees, take her away. Raymond, living with her, or in the same house anyway, uses her
The nightdress was twisted up round her waist and her skin was loose, like old sacking. She had about as much life in her as a half-deflated dummy, but without complaint she opened her legs, and he kept his face turned away, to avoid her breath.
Raymond stays away for four days, at his brother’s in a rooming house in another part of the city. When he comes back he passes Kim’s mother in the street, a man tagging along. Ursula. Kim is dead. He finds her, still in bed, her face flyblown, and rushes back to his brother’s, where Ursula finds him a few days later to drag him to the funeral. And then to be punished.
Janet has an old two storey terrace house that used to be a vibrant share-house. Those years are long gone. She’s been married. The stain is still on the wall from the saucepan of beetroot soup she flung at him as she told him to get out. Now she works from home with a battered typewriter, making a living knocking out short pieces for magazines, the decaying house an albatross around her neck. Over the years she had ..
retreated before chaos, closing doors as she went, leaving timber half-stripped and plaster unpainted, until only in the kitchen was any kind of order maintained.
Maxine “lived in a shed and called herself a carpenter”. For money she did cleaning, ironing, mowing. But the property she lives on is sold, and she is homeless. She ends up at Janet’s, in the shed at the end of the garden.
And there’s a guy, Ray, who is taken in the same day, down from the North where his brother, Alby, has fed him stories of communal living, half naked women, food always on the table in vast quantities. He takes Alby’s old room, upstairs at the back. Is disappointed to discover they buy their food separately, and eat at different times, hurriedly, “in a kitchen corner, or bowed over a newspaper at the white table”.
So far, so Helen Garner. But the story develops a fanastical element. Where did that come from?
Something tells Maxine that she will have a baby. Fathered by Ray.
Janet swallowed. ‘And – Ray does know about this, I suppose?’
‘Perhaps not with his conscious mind, yet,’ said Maxine. ‘That depends on the number of his incarnations.’
‘Sorry?’ said Janet.
‘Oh, everybody,’ said Maxine, ‘at some stage has to do a spell on earth.’…
‘I know it sounds strange at first’ … ‘See – angelic beings aren’t necessarily aware of their status.’
Ray, on the other hand (being a Queenslander) “knows Jesus”. Sure, Garner is making fun of them, but somewhere along the line she buys into it.
Life goes on. Maxine makes a ‘bride’ out of straw and Ray’s best shirt (a doll with magic powers) which assumes an importance I don’t understand. Ray somehow gets a job, saves money, hides a grand at the bottom of his dirty clothes basket. Maxine gets involved with a pyramid scheme for getting rich. ‘Borrows’ Ray’s grand and blows it on the scheme. Alby arrives with a truckload of worthless second-hand furniture. Maxine floats away in a cloud of jonquils.
If an author, as Garner has done here, declares a collection of pieces to be a novel, then that is how I will read it. But these pieces don’t speak to each other at all. If this is a novel, then as far as I am concerned, it is a failed novel.
Helen Garner, Cosmo Cosmolino, first pub. 1992. My edition Text, Melbourne, 2012. 283pp.