Review Essay: Helen Garner

Comparative analysis / appraisal of non fiction styles and techniques of works by Helen Garner

Helen Garner has long been a controversial figure in Australian literature. Fired from her teaching post for engaging in discussions of a sexual nature with thirteen year old students, famously accused by reviewer Peter Corris of ‘publishing her journals rather than writing books’, and notorious for digging into the seamy underbelly of society for material, Garner’s work often deals with difficult and deeply personal subjects. Accomplished as both a fiction and non fiction writer, Garner’s non fiction work has developed a reverent following for her ability to accurately describe situations with a journalist’s eye combined with the prose skills of a skillful fiction writer. Versatile in her writing and a thorough researcher, Garner is equally at home taking centre stage or standing removed from the action.

Often eschewing the impersonal third person account, Garner places herself within her non fiction works as central character, protagonist, narrator or subject. Linking her experience with the story’s subject matter creates a work that serves two conjoined functions, to explore a particular subject and also to examine Garner’s connection to the subject. Garner creates a self that is an active component to the story and reveals through her interaction with the subject matter both factual information gathered from research and her own emotional or physical response to the situation. Readers learn about the subject, Garner’s opinion and reaction to it, and a little about Garner herself.

Garner’s long career as a journalist / non fiction writer began in the 1970s, and her body of work is extensive. Not all of her works contain Garner as narrator and main character, many of Garner’s reviews and news features are written in a more traditional reportage style, but those familiar with Garner’s other work will hear her lyrical yet precise prose voice emanating from the text. One of Garner’s best assets as a writer is her ability to describe with profound accuracy the very truth of the subject matter, to dive into uncomfortable or often unpalatable subject matter, and present it wholly unsanitised to the reader.

In her 2006 review1 of the film Capote, Garner so accurately summarises actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of a writer that it creates a kind of literal mind bender; Garner the non fiction writer creates a narrative telling how she, a writer, watches an actor play the part of a writer narrating the story of creating a non fiction work. The review is tightly written, draws attention to the novel and the controversy it creates, provides detailed responses to the actors’ interpretations of the characters and includes reference to Garner’s opinion of the general portrayal of writers in movies. Garner’s achievement here is to be in the piece without being the piece, but at the same time, by virtue of her unique descriptive style, be essential to the content and success of the piece.

‘At the Morgue’,1996, presents Garner as casual and chatty, a perfect foil to the subject matter and intense descriptions of the actual process of autopsy. The subject matter is ideal for Garner, visceral and gory with room for pathos and poignancy. Garner is central to the narrative, taking the reader on a guided tour of the autopsy process, describing every sensory experience and luxuriating in the fine details of death with an almost cinematographic touch. Garner here creates a hero role for herself, the intrepid reporter who faces what readers may not dare to physically confront, who unflinchingly witnesses the realities of life and then reports them truthfully in an elegant package. This version of Garner appears regularly in her non fiction work, and makes an interesting counterpoint to her other, more traditional and restrained journalist voice.

2001′s ‘A Spy in the House of Excrement’ is Garner at her excruciatingly detailed best. Masterful in her ability to unashamedly present herself in unflattering situations, Garner throws open the doors to her experience at a colonic cleansing and detoxification program in Thailand. Describing not only the process of self administering an enema, the end results and providing abundant information on the mechanics of the process, Garner admits without hesitation her transformation from her rational self to grouchy misanthrope with homicidal thoughts, to blissed out para-hippy being, and back to her return to reason. Garner creates a travel writing / feature article chronicling her physical journey to the resort and her personal, emotional journey through the experience, as well as a narrative with well drawn and entertaining supporting characters and presents information to the reader in a witty and engaging fashion.

In Garner’s 2005 article ‘Punishing Lauren’, detailing the case of teenage Lauren Curnow, charged with infanticide, Garner describes the details of the situation surrounding the furtive birth and how Lauren killed her own child. Garner renders Curnow delicately but without additional pity, allowing the description of Lauren’s very ordinary teenage self to contrast the horrible crime and create dramatic tension. It is really only when Garner gives background information on Curnow’s family situation, on the psychological condition of neonaticide and poses questions within the article of how this situation could have ever happened that Garner’s voice and opinion on the issue emerge more clearly. In Garner’s narrative, her depiction of Justice Bongiorno’s charater as the person to bear the burden for showing the ‘distress felt by all those present’, and her detailing of his treatment of Lauren and her sentencing unmistakeably mirrors Garner’s own judgement of the girl and the crime committed. Garner reports the story like a journalist, allows the facts to create the drama and uses a fiction writer’s ability to create compelling, detailed images to create an engaging, informative, emotionally resonating feature article. Readers familiar with Garner’s writing and her ability to portray the mindset and realities of teenage experience may find themselves wanting a version of this story with Garner as a more central character in the narrative, to read in more detail her reaction and connection to the story, a return to the approach of articles like ‘The Schoolteacher’, where Garner so vividly describes the conditions of that challenging and bewildering age.

Returning to Garner’s film reviewing, her 2006 ‘Rules of Engagement’ differs from ‘The Narcissist and the Psychopath’ in the sense that as well as ably reviewing Paul Greengrass’ film ‘United 93′, Garner describes in detail her physical reaction to the film and also poses questions regarding the wider implications and effects of telling traumatic stories as a whole. This article shifts seamlessly from revising the historical precis of the devastating event to a descriptive review and criticism to personal narrative and ends with questions about the meta experience of story telling, all the while maintaining a steady pace not bogged down by the extensive detail. Garner again creates an interesting scenario, of herself as a story teller researching and reflecting on a tragic and history altering event and asking the big questions, discussing the merits of the story telling technique about a film chronicling that tragic and history altering event, and expressing her reaction to both the event and the film. In this way her reviews are far more than a straight forward commentary on the work in question, they are an exploration of how the subject matter, style and historical and theoretical framework affect Garner personally.

Not all of Garner’s writing is based on tragedy, suffering or the corrupt and the profane. Garner can draw strong stories that speak of the human condition out of something as small as reporting on a series of magic shows. In ‘Man with the Pearl White Cord’, 2006, Garner creates a delightful character study of Illusionist Burkhard Augustin Hase. Hase’s own eccentricities and clever tricks as described in Garner’s faithful and detailed reportage are the bones of the story, but what gives the story life and lifts it up from mere description of an event is Garner’s presentation of adults relaxing their deeply ingrained and fashionable mistrust, addiction to logic and reasoning and giving over to the illogical, inexplicable and magical. Garner immediately sets herself as allied to Hase by initially hinting how her sister was the skeptic and Garner in contrast, was not, how Hase masterfully silences the snide and ‘less reverent’ and how Garner ‘worries’ for Hase in the din of a crowded nightclub. This allegiance paints Garner as the knowledgeable insider, further backed up by her casual insertion of her visit to Hase’s home for tea and cake. While this presentation of herself in the narrative may be bordering on gloating, Garner manages to pull back enough to return the story to Hase with her shared reaction to the wonder of magic tricks with a whole new table of Hase’s admirers.

Helen Garner spans the gamut of hero, storyteller, outwardly unbiased fact orientated reporter, teacher, confidant and philosopher. Her non fiction writing, while at times contentious and divisive, reflects Garner’s tenacity, skill as both a journalist and writer, and her intelligence. Garner’s voice, in all its different guises, is unmistakeably clear and candid. Garner’s blurring of the boundary between fiction and non fiction has provoked intense reactions, but what remains true is Garner’s commitment to the artform of good storytelling.

Annotated Bibliography

List of works referenced in this essay:

1. Garner, H, 2001, A Spy in the House of Excrement, ‘The feel of steel’, Picador, Sydney

2. Garner, H, 1996, At the Morgue, ‘True Stories’, Text Publishing, Sydney

3. Garner, H, 2005, Punishing Lauren, ‘The Monthly’ no. 2–43

Retrieved from online version of magazine August 2010

4. Garner, H, 2006, The Rules of Engagement, ‘The Monthly’ no. 15

Retrieved from online version of magazine August 5 2010

5. Garner, H, 2006, The Narcissist and the Psychopath, ‘The Monthly’ no. 10

Retrieved from online version of magazine August 2010

6. Garner, H, 2006, Man with the Pearl White Cord, ‘The Monthly’ No. 8–164

Retrieved from online version of magazine August 2010

7. Garner, H, The Schoolteacher (date and publishing details unknown)

Retrieved from Deakin University Library collection, August 2010

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