Book Review — Monkey Grip (1977) by Helen Garner

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

I have mixed feelings about autobiography passed off as fiction, works whose entire chronologies can be linked back to exact places, events and people in their authors’ lives. They require work to ensure they stand alone, be it in the structure or social commentary or themes or character work or anywhere else. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a favourite; On the Road is a bore. You have to be careful your work doesn’t read like a diary – because no one cares.

Or, you know … you don’t? Because Helen Garner not only did it here in her first novel, but also (apparently) again in The Spare Room, and neither of them went wanting for praise. 

Monkey Grip is the story of a romance between Nora the narrator and Javo the junkie, and while it doesn’t seem to have been written for this purpose, it now reads as a first-person record of inability to leave an unhealthy relationship.

It would be nice to say that it’s much more than that, because there are other things going here, but it’s not. The acclaim Monkey Grip received on its release speaks, I think, more to the contents of the diary, and the social context into which it was injected, than the diarist’s style it employs (slash defaults to; it doesn’t feel like an obvious choice). The appealing dual topics of heroin use and suburban feminism, in 1977, in Australia, written about candidly and without shame, would have been counter-culturally invigorating and exciting. But when you look beyond them, Monkey Grip has deep structural problems stemming from its style.

Nora, in true diarist’s style, is so self-concerned, and, in her character, unself-aware, that any greater truths revealed by this book are sought out by the reader, not prompted by the author. To give you an example, Nora is a single parent, but her young daughter is barely a factor in her internal monologue beyond her needing to be fed, minded and got to school.

Funnily enough, this day-to-dayness allows it all to appear on the page quite clearly, as documentary. And that is where its value lies, if you care to find it.

Nora is romance-prone and sexually capricious, forthcoming about things like when her period makes sex or dancing a bloody mess. She is blunt and inspiring, and often sensitive and gentle, but, counterintuitively, has almost no capacity for self-reflection. In fact, she seems downright shallow. She cannot describe the appeal of Javo through anything other than the colour of his eyes, the jaggedness of his nose, the slouching shyness of his posture or the way he “fucks with her” (in the parlance of the time this refers to sex, not antagonism). If Javo’s personality or intellect factors into his appeal to Nora, she does not mention it – but she mentions the other stuff again and again and again … and again.

And then Javo – sometimes sweet, just as often remote, a bit callous and self-serving, likely to wander into your bedroom at 3 a.m., doesn’t say much, might be trying to become an actor but is what the nineties would soon dub a slacker. You might assume he is perfectly designed to test the theory vs. practice of a young woman’s commitment to feminist ideals, but he actually just seems like a dumb crush with a junk habit, and Nora (in her mid-thirties) is too old for that to seem “cool” (although that could be the judgemental millennial in me talking).

And that said, 1977 was just before two big shifts saw heroin classified as the worst drug ever (until crack, and then ice). The first was the proliferation of heroin junkies; the second was AIDS. So when Garner, through Nora, writes quite casually of Javo going out to score, or “tying off” in the downstairs kitchen while her daughter is asleep, you have to take a minute and remember that stigmas are not retroactive.

HelenGarner

Or, you know … you don’t? Throughout this book, Nora is a relentless meanderer, and it’s not a short or varied ride. Snorting cocaine, inviting an emotionally distant drug addict into bed, invoking the wisdom of the I Ching as a means of weathering relationship woes (its passages lend this book several of its few moments of resonance), rinse-repeating literally until book’s end – it gets really old.

And there isn’t so much as a skerrick of “I know I shouldn’t, but …” to give you a sense that Nora is aware she’s doing something stupid or irresponsible (or, perhaps, not great for that kid she barely ever mentions). It’s all undertaken with a sheen of dreamy, indulgent, hedonistic repetition. By the two-thirds mark, it’s a fucking slog: day in, day out, did Javo steal it, didn’t he steal it, he’s handsome, he’s hopeless, will they, won’t they, sex, no sex, drugs, no drugs, hating men, loving men, until you wish for any semblance of a plot to swoop in and save this person from themself – or just for something else to happen, because Nora is so same-samey and comfortably bohemian-suburban that saving is too grand a gesture. But there isn’t a plot, and while that may be the point, it may also have just turned out that way. I cannot tell.

What helps you finish this book is Garner’s voice. She writes warmly and clearly, unpretentiously and with enough beauty and confidence that her brand of feminism, casual sex, drug abuse, the unending rabbit hole of social-sexual wandering that make up this diary, are still able to be got through. But Nora is trapped both in the moment and in the voice in which she was written, and while the former may have its curios and the latter its saving graces, both of them eventually seem tiresome and over-indulged.

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