Monkey Grip (1977) is famously Helen Garner’s first novel. It comes mid-generation, marking a clear point of no return, a clean break with with Australian writing’s past. If any one novel represents AWW Gen 4, then this is it.
When I first read Monkey Grip I saw it in the tradition of the Beats – Kerouac, Burroughs, and as I read more widely and time passed, of Kathy Acker and Irvine Welsh, leading on to Australia’s brief Grunge movement in the 1990s – Ettler, Tsiolkas, McGahan. With this re-reading, I don’t resile from those connections, but I’ve also read a lot more Garner. This is more than just living poor and taking drugs, this is Garner’s deep connection to co-operative living, to co-operation between women, to caring for others, and of course to autofiction.
The book it now reminds me of most closely is her fictionalised account of her friend’s treatment for late-stage cancer, The Spare Room (2008).
In December 1972 Garner, who was then 30, was fired from her job as a teacher for talking dirty to her 11-13 year old pupils: ” …the words some people think of as dirty words are the best words, the right words to use when you are talking about sex. So I’m not going to say “sexual intercourse”, I’m going to say “fuck” and I’m going to say “cock” and “cunt” too, so we’d better get that straight. Is that OK?”
Joseph Steinberg writes in an ALS article that “the terms of Garner’s firing inform the countercultural realism of her first novel Monkey Grip (1977), which is unabashedly fluent in, and indeed narratively yearns for, various forms of the four-letter contraband that got her sacked in the first place.” He quotes Kerryn Goldsworthy: “[male] reviewers were made uneasy ‘by frank, serious, knowledgeable utterances about sexuality made by a woman’ in Garner’s early novels and sought ‘to query her status as a literary author: in a word, to sack her’ (again)”.
In Monkey Grip, Nora – who stands in for Garner – is a single mother, with a five year old daughter, Gracie, living in share houses, old workers’ cottages in nineteenth century terraces around the CBD and Melbourne University (both presences which are felt but hardly ever mentioned); if I’ve got it right, first in Fitzroy, then near the Victoria Markets, and then back in Fitzroy.
It was early summer.
And everything, as it always does, began to heave and change.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t already have somebody to love. There was Martin, teetering as many were that summer on the dizzy edge of smack… But he went up north for a fortnight and idly, at the turning of the year, I fell in love with our friend Javo, the bludger, just back from getting off dope in Hobart.
Or as Steinberg summarises: “Nora needs to fuck Javo, Javo needs dope; Nora needs Javo not to need dope, but Javo needs it to need Nora, and Nora needs to be needed by Javo, ‘must learn not to need him’ though he needs her, for when it is her turn to need him he will ‘he will have nothing to give’. ‘Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?’, muses Nora midway through the novel.”
Gracie is an odd presence throughout, bored witless in her first year at school, already able to read, and at home, a Jiminy Cricket, seeing everything, an independent spirit with her own opinions, her own life.
One of the most interesting things about the story telling is the complete absence of back story for any of the characters. You get to know them as they appear on the page, entirely without explanation. Anything that’s not relevant at that moment, you don’t hear about.
Kevin Brophy in another ALS essay writes about Monkey Grip‘s reception over time. Especially early on, male reviewers were unhappy with Garner’s focus on women’s issues; Garner was an author who ‘talks dirty and passes it off as realism’; male and female reviewers, as was always the case with works by women, shrugged it off as a love story; almost no attention was paid to the innovation in both writing and subject matter. Brophy suggests an alternative reading, one which was resisted by nearly every reviewer:
The text proposes that people can throw conventions aside and reinvent themselves and their social relations in a process of change that is self-imposed, liminal, unpredictable and spontaneous. These new possibilities involve the reader in a world where communal living and single parenting can be the norm, where children are relatively independent and have insights to offer on the behaviour of the adults around them, a world where women insist on meeting men as equals. It is a world where a woman can speak and write of sex explicitly, dispassionately, even ‘tastelessly’ in a literary work — an accomplishment long granted to male literary figures. In these and other ways Monkey Grip invites readers to recognise and reassess the conventions by which they take their ‘realist’ fiction and by which they live.
Today, forty something years later, Garner’s autofiction is still controversial. In 1977 it was just plain un-literary.
I haven’t made it clear, but we make our way through a year and a bit of inner Melbourne life; hot summer days at the Fitzroy baths; cycling through Carlton and Fitzroy’s achingly familiar plane tree lined streets; in and out of each others’ share houses; in and out of beds in all the painful permutations of ‘open’ relationships; struggling to a resolution.
One last quote from Brophy:
[T]here is a further, more socially fundamental and political perspective on addiction offered in the novel. The patriarchal value system— the ideology that socialises us from childhood—is here presented as the overwhelming addiction suffered by characters who are wanting to reinvent value systems for social relations.
Garner is a revolutionary, remaking the way we think about living, about bringing up children, about relationships; remaking the way we think about Literature. If you haven’t read Monkey Grip yet, do yourself a favour.
Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, Penguin/McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1977. 245pp.
Joseph Steinberg, Helen Garner’s Education, Australian Literary Studies, 28 Oct 2021
Kevin Brophy, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, The Construction of an Author and her Work, Australian Literary Studies, 1 Oct 1992
Lisa/ANZLitLovers is first off the block for AWW Gen 4 Week with a review of Amy Witting’s, The Visit (here) and Sue/Whispering Gums has promised to be on topic in tomorrow’s Monday Musings, and now (Sunday afternoon) I see she’s reviewed a Janet Turner Hospital short story (here) as well.
Re my North America Project 2022, I’m sorry but it’s weeks since I’ve been in the truck so I have not made a start on Their Eyes Were Watching God audiobook. As I have Octavia Butler’s Kindred on my shelves, I am reading that and will put up a review on 31 Jan. Next month is still The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and March is Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (BIP, I know you suggested Salt Roads, thank you, but I decided to go with MR because it is earlier.) I’ll advise other months, including Their Eyes, when I get more organized.