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In which Netty comes to Grips with the Monkey …

April 30, 2012

There was a time, in the early 1990s, when you couldn’t step into a bookstore (remember those?) without tripping over the latest, hippest tome about disaffected, disenfranchised, drug-addled twentysomethings – and Australia was as guilty of this as anywhere else.

There was the good – Andrew McGahan’s Vogel prizewinning debut Praise, Leonie Stevens’ astonishing, apocalyptic Nature Strip – and the bad – Justine Ettler’s excreable The River Ophelia, Richard King’s coat-tail-riding Kindling Does For Firewood (also, most inexplicably, a Vogel winner). In keeping with the zeitgeist, it was also, lazily, tagged as grunge. And like its musical cousin, it soon realised it was better to burn out than to fade away.

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In the same spirit, you could well say that Australian author Helen Garner’s debut novel Monkey Grip is the grandmother of grunge lit. First published in 1977 – and set two years prior to that – it mines exactly the same territory, with the same sort of characters and the same goings-on, just set against a different chronological backdrop. As an enthusiastic devourer of such books, I am surprised that Monkey Grip never made it onto my radar; I guess I was just way too young at the time. It was later made into a movie, starring Noni Hazelhurst and Colin Friels (and, interestingly enough, Garner’s daughter Alice, essentially playing a character on whom she herself was based), in 1982; but all I remember is the soundtrack, in which The Divinyls played a large part (Chrissie Amphlett also has a role in the film).

Australian novelist Peter Corris (he of the wonderful Cliff Hardy crime series) famously commented in a review of Monkey Grip that Garner “has published her private journal rather than written a novel”.  Garner later admitted she had, in fact, adapted the novel directly from her diaries – which is not an earth-shattering admission for anyone who reads it. That is both Monkey Grip’s greatest strength and its greatest flaw: while it reads like a particularly gritty slice of real life, it also reads like a sometimes tediously girly diary. There are some gorgeous turns of phrase in these pages – although Garner does herself no favours by beating us around the head with some of them; I grew quickly bored with the endless, tiresome descriptions of Javo’s violent blue eyes, and his lantern head, and his long, long legs – and wonderful depictions of life in Melbourne’s northern inner city in the mid-1970s. But this is not a novel in the sense that there is no real story arc of which to speak. It meanders along for a couple of hundred pages, then sputters out in a particularly ho-hum fashion.

I suppose it’s a bit hard for it to do anything else, really, given its subject matter. It’s 1975, and Garner – uh, I mean, Nora – falls into bed, and then in love, with Javo, a junkie actor some 10 years her junior.  The pair embark upon an on-again, off-again relationship that is doomed to never really go anywhere, but will, of course, still cause both parties a great deal of pain, suffering and heartbreak before the end of the book. Nora, a thirtysomething who has a five-year-old daughter Gracie from a failed marriage in her twenties, lives in a series of share houses around the northern inner-city suburbs with a host of other likely types. She has a job of sorts that is never really elaborated upon – something about working for a university-based, women’s issues paper – but never seems to spend much time there. She and her friends sleep with each other, take drugs together, go to see bands together, go for trips down the coast, or interstate (how they fund all this, seeing that no one actually seems to do much work, is beyond me). And, uh, that’s about it.

All of this is conducted against a particular post-hippie, pre-punk backdrop, with Nora throwing the I Ching, banging on about her loneliness and endlessly cataloguing her dreams, while she and Javo continually leave each other tortured notes where they try to make sense of their feelings for one another and their relationship; and when that doesn’t work, they make do with sneaking peeks at each other’s journals.  I mean, jee-suss …

Possibly it is best to view Monkey Grip as a time capsule, much in the same fashion as Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s Puberty Blues (which I did read, once, back in the day, sneaking off with my older cousin’s copy, at about the age of 10). But much to my chagrin, reading Monkey Grip suddenly turned me into a puritanical old biddy, tsk-tsking my way through its pages (“oh, so they think catching the odd case of crabs, or coming down with hepatitis, is the worst thing that could happen to them from all that mindless inter-schlepping?”;  they’ll get melanoma years down the track if they keep doing all that sunbaking”; “why is she dinking her five-year-old around the city streets without either of them wearing a helmet?”).

It was very hard for me to stop trying to impose 2012 values on 1975 characters. And try as I might, I could not stop being judgmental about the character of Nora. “Oh, just grow up, will you?” I wanted to scream at her. “You’re a mother, fer chrissakes, so stop hanging around with all these people 10 years younger than you, stop taking so many drugs all the time, and don’t leave your daughter with your housemates while you go chasing your junkie boyfriend around Tasmania!”

Garner, whose background is teaching, was in her mid-30s when Monkey Grip was published. She has since gone on to a storied career – pardon the pun – gaining acclaim for her award-winning fiction and non-fiction, also producing short-story collections and screenplays. She does not shy away from the controversial, especially in her non-fiction, and if I was to read further into her oeuvre, that is the direction I would take, moreso than the novels.

One last note: a couple of months ago, reading the Age’s Saturday sections, I came across an article by a writer who had read and loved Monkey Grip as a twentysomething. She was horrified when an unimpressed friend returned her copy unfinished, and decided to revisit the novel, 20 years down the track. You can read Anne Myers’ piece, which is as much about the past, and memory, as it is the book, right here: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/revisiting-chapters-of-the-heart-20120302-1u7ni.html

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