One afternoon in 2012, on holiday in Melbourne, I was reading Helen Garner’s short story collection Postcards from Surfers over lunch. Her stories are short, terse, whole worlds in a dozen pages, and I had to set the book down after finishing one particular piece. What I thought – maybe I said it aloud to a surprised restaurant – was “That’s how you do it.” It’s an experience to be had again and again in reading Garner – comparatively little-known in the UK, and, for me, Australia’s best living writer.
On a previous visit to Australia I’d “discovered” her (I like to read local authors when overseas) by picking up her terrific maybe-roman-à-clef Monkey Grip, about a shambolic and disintegrating household of hippies in 70s Melbourne. I speedread it and, as too rarely happens, needed at once to read everything she’d ever done. This requires a bit of meting out: Garner’s bibliography is as compact as one of those stories: four novels, two novellas, two books of stories, and a handful of non-fiction books.
Yet something as potentially mawkish as a short piece on her local café changing owners ends with a kind of epiphany and a reaffirmation of her essential generosity
The latest of these is Everywhere I Look, her third collection of essays and occasional nonfiction. Like all such grab-bag collections, this book has a slight issue with bittiness, as essays on the life-changing butt up against those on comparatively inconsequential topics. (The cover – and Garner has seldom been well-served by these – is contrived and what she would call “daggy”, as if her publishers, too, are a bit uncertain of how to summarise what this book is doing.) But what links the essays here, as always in Garner’s work, is her empathy, her clarity of seeing and thinking, her wonderful prose – limpid yet rich – and the psychological acuity of her writing, which does not let her own assumptions and prejudices go unexamined. There’s an extraordinarily powerful essay, heavy with regret, about her dead mother, and a review of a film, United 93, about one of the planes hijacked on September 11th, that overlooks or forgives the unbelievable crassness of that being a topic for entertainment. On the other hand, a series of incisive diary pieces also includes some moments that teeter on the brink of mawkish, since “cute yet perceptive things my grandkids say” rarely charm non-family members whose empathy doesn’t match Garner’s. Yet something as potentially mawkish as a short piece on her local café changing owners – Garner, a regular, mourning the departed former owners and eyeing with initial suspicion the hipsterish newcomers – ends with a kind of epiphany and a reaffirmation of her essential generosity.
Sometimes it’s what doesn’t appeal to her that attracts her: struck by the odd disjuncture between Russell Crowe the much lauded actor and Russell Crowe the much lampooned human being (“The sight of him stepping out of a building, granite-faced in aviator glasses, can reduce the onlooker to helpless laughter”), she sets herself the task of watching a dozen of his films in a weekend to try and pin down the reasons for this parallax view of one of “the twin peaks of Australian self-creation in the Hollywood of our time” (the other is Nicole Kidman). This is investigative journalism of the “She does it so we don’t have to” variety. Yet Garner commits fully to her peculiar project and to an utterly frank articulation of her responses, while still retaining a full sense of its absurdity. There aren’t many authors who could compel me to read a five-page essay on the actor Russell Crowe, much less to read that essay twice.
There are people who can talk to anyone about anything; Garner can write about everything for every reader. Here she dissects films, watches ballet dancers practice, examines what makes the writers she admires tick, empathises with tragic child-killers, learns the ukulele. Her tone throughout is one of considerable charm and approachability. Five minutes in Garner’s company, you feel, and you’d be telling her your deepest secrets, carving out a private quiet moment in what she nicely calls “the constant onwardrushingness of life”. She would listen closely, then floor you with a skewering, summarising insight, of the sort that ends many essays here: a statement of such precision that it blooms into the universal. “Sometimes it seems to me” runs the conclusion to a typical essay, “that, in the end, the only thing people have got going for them is imagination.” Imagination and empathy are intertwined here: if I can imagine what it is to have done this thing, I can empathise with the person who did it.
what intrigues her is “the secret darkness that lives in every one of us”
My sense is that Garner is going to wind up best remembered as the author of three probing, fascinating, controversial non-fiction works somewhere between true crime and court procedural – the most recent of these, about a case in which a father drove a car containing his three small sons into a creek on Father’s Day, drowning the boys, is This House of Grief, which is as hair-raising and compulsive as the podcast Serial, and deserves to be as widely known and praised. Garner gets into trouble for showing empathy for – or refusing to straightforwardly condemn – people who have been involved in terrible crimes, but as she notes here, “The sort of crimes that interest me are not the ones committed by psychopaths”. A propos This House of Grief (that case hinged on whether the father’s act was accidental, deliberate or premeditated), she adds that what intrigues her is “the secret darkness that lives in every one of us”, and a central section in Everywhere I Look addresses similar horrors; several place Garner in court, watching hawklike the movement of emotions across the faces of the accused and the bereaved, and these vignettes showcase her ability to coolly report on wild extremes of human behaviour, and to needle and probe at her own responses.
Some people see the best in you, and Garner is certainly a generous and compassionate reader of people, but don’t be fooled: she sees the worst too
Some people see the best in you, and Garner is certainly a generous and compassionate reader of people, but don’t be fooled: she sees the worst too and does not flinch. At times she may even feign an ersatz little-old-me dottiness (the reader doesn’t buy it for a moment) – one example of how another throughline in these essays is to do with femaleness, and how a woman of a certain age will be ignored, dismissed, patronised, or otherwise reduced. An essay about how she and a middle-aged friend were treated by an overbearing waiter over drinks in Melbourne contains righteous anger, but also a curious and winning beneficence when the waiter twigs he’s done wrong. Garner’s telling of this incident is subtle and deceptively slight, doing a lot of work in a few brief paragraphs, and once again I found myself marvelling at how easy she makes writing look.
I went back to Postcards for Surfers as I was reading this new collection, but the strange thing was that I couldn’t identify what story it was that had so struck me on first reading it four years ago. This time, all the stories seemed terrific. Some writers can do anything they turn their hand to; Garner is one. She should be read and appreciated outside Australia far more than she has been until now. And meantime, to echo her gratitude and petition to Janet Malcom, who in a review of Forty-One False Starts Garner calls her inspiration, I want to say: please, stay with us, stay writing, for twenty years or more. C