I recently read The Children’s Bach, a novella by Australian author Helen Garner. This is a very ‘literary’ portrayal of a surburban family facing a disruption. I have to give it 5 stars for the prose: it is full of gloriously observed details and striking verbs. However, I found it extremely frustrating. It is a 2 star book for me overall.
As a writer, what was interesting about it is that it took two pieces of sound writing advice and applied them in ways which, in my view, they undermined the effectiveness of the writing.
Advice: carry a notebook everywhere and jot down your thoughts and observations
Clearly, Garner is the kind of writer that carries a writer’s notebook everywhere. It’s highly unlikely that anyone could, simply sitting at a computer, randomly come up with the range of carefully observed details of life that this novel contains. This is the strongest part of the novel in my view, so this advice has not done her a disservice.
However, it does feel a lot like she has bullied all these randomly observed moments into a narrative and tried to give them post-hoc relevance. The result is a bunch of striking descriptions, many of which unfortunately do little to probe the complexities of the realities of domestic servitude, the book’s apparent subject.
It is not carrying the notebook that is the problem, I think, but that the writer’s notebook can be an internal hall of mirrors. You see it, you write your reflection on it, your reflection captures and reinforces your first instincts and prejudices and seems to confirm them. Carrying a writer’s notebook is an excellent piece of advice particularly for writers who are trying to find their voice and their own perspective. But it will only give you back what you put into it. So unless you stretch yourself to learn about the perspectives of others, to stretch yourself and put yourself in their heads, to research, it will not capture any of those things.
I do not feel that Garner did much researching or listening to other people’s points of view in preparing to write this story.
On the other hand, there is much name-dropping of Educated Cultural References, but not in a way that probes into them or connects them to anything. Rather, the name-dropping is reminiscent of the narrator in American Psycho, whose monologue is peppered with references to designer labels because these are cobbled together to form the facade of a ‘successful Wall Street trader’, to show how this role is a performative one, the realisation of a social expectation, and such markers of success tell us little about what kind of human being the person really is. In The Children’s Bach, it is not a character but Garner herself who litters her observations with such references. The point of view moves fluidly in and out of characters’ heads so that their personalities blur and their subjective perspectives are drowned beneath Garner’s own detached perspective.
Advice: omit cliches
At one point in this book, a character giving artistic advice says:
“Look, I’ll give you a tip. Go home and write it again. Take out the cliches. Everybody knows ‘It always happens this way’ or ‘I went in with my eyes wide open’. Cut that stuff out. Just leave in the images. Know what I mean? You have to steer a line between what you understand and what you don’t. Between cliche and the other thing. Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes. The music will do the rest.”
As another reviewer said, this reads something like Garner’s mission statement for the book.
The problem is, cutting cliches is all well and good provided you convey any critical parts of the story in a non-cliched way. Otherwise, you have just omitted critical parts of the story.
This reads like a book written by a person who either does not feel love or compassion, or who feels that such emotions are themselves cliches. Apparently, Garner was able to think of many non-cliched ways to describe people being selfish and detached, but whatever observations she may have had on love and happiness did not make the cut. The result is a book in which the prose is vibrant and evocative, but also where every character appears to be a psychopath. #priorities
The women in this story are all treated like anthropological exhibits, to be catalogued and observed from the outside in order to make them fit the author’s nihilistic world view. The treatment of a disabled child, whose point of view is assumed not to exist at all, is particularly telling. Any suggestion that the child (who is capable of walking around and expressing emotion) has a point of view is quickly derided by everyone as ‘being Romantic about it’. When the babysitter suggests thinking about throwing him under a bus, the child’s mother agrees that she’s thought about doing it many times.
This is presented a bravely honest observation. Uh… no. The primary carer of a moderately disabled child thinking about escaping the relentless burden of that work by throwing the child under a bus would be a bravely honest observation. But such thoughts do not exist in isolation. They are tangled in amongst love, complexities, guilt, not to mention social expectations a primary carer parent would feel in that situation. A person who secretly has fantasies of escape or admits them under pressure is one thing; a mother who casually agrees with a new babysitter about the desirability of throwing her child under a bus, and expresses no love or affection towards her own children at any point in the story is in a whole different category. Like, a diagnosable category.
Instead of throwing the child under the bus, the characters rid themselves of a rabbit. The rabbit tries to cling to safety. They tip it out to die and walk away feeling lighter.
No one in this book thinks about the future or the consequences of their actions. Indeed, no one really thinks about anything. They just feel (but only neutral or miserable feelings), float, and do.
Why this book didn’t work for me
I won’t spoiler what happens, except to say that the simple plot of the book culminates in this line:
“This was modern life, then, this seamless logic, this common sense, this silent tit-for-tat. This was what people did. He did not like it. He hated it. But he was in its moral universe now, and he could never go back.”
I am so very sick of this narrative. It reminds me of reading Anne Rice at fifteen, and feeling so very grown up that my understanding of morality could transcend conventional bounds, and the preachy simplistic rules we were given as children. It reminds me of alt-right ‘red pillers’.
The gist of the narrative, for those who are unfamiliar, is that at some point everyone realises that the world’s pretty shallow and awful, and everyone in it is shallow and awful, and freed of that terrible baggage, they now enter a world where hurting people doesn’t really matter any more, and we are freed from guilt about our actions.
This is the well-developed morality of the teenager who, having realised that Disney presents a distortion and their parents are fallible, assumes society knows nothing and stomps off to their room, leaving everyone else to do the dishes for them. Responsible people are a total buzz-kill.
Perhaps when this book was written in 1984, it was feminist simply to focus on a small-scale domestic drama in this way. Perhaps… but to what end?
Female empowerment and sexual liberation? For a novel about female sexual empowerment, the women appear to get little to nothing out of sex. Sex acts and sexual behaviour are not described, but are implied to be for the benefit of men, with the women getting no apparent pleasure out of them. But I suppose this logically flows from the fact that-like robots-none of the women appear to want anything, or aspire to anything. The characters appear to sleep with each other out of sheer boredom. #girlpower
The simplistic choice Athena makes in this story is one shorn of any real dilemma that most real women would have in that situation, and accordingly has little to say about what binds women into these family structures that restrict their choices. Love and attachment play a pivotal role in those structures, so Garner’s artistic omissions fundamentally undermine any kind of coherent feminist critique of Athena’s situation.