April 1, 2022


On the ruthless honesty of ‘Monkey Grip’

By Sean O’Beirne
Image of first edition of Monkey Grip. Image supplied

First edition of Monkey Grip. Image supplied

Helen Garner’s classic 1977 novel broke the usual social agreement about what can and can’t be said

In Monkey Grip, when Nora and Javo fuck, he can call off his self-absorption, and go to her properly, really be with her, give to her without trying for too much for himself. And she can do that too. In the fucking – in that care, that pleasure – both of them find their too-much falls away, and they become the best and kindest selves they can be:

… the way it happened was, that we began to stroke each other, and to kiss, and after a long, long time of slow, gentle touching and pausing, and kissing like an idle game that turned serious (he held my head hard with his two hands, we kissed and kissed) I rolled on to him and we fucked ever so gently. “Wait, oh wait,” he whispered, and I waited, and he started again with the slow and steady rolling under me, his mad crooked face very sweet in front of my eyes; I felt the thin bones in his shoulders, and my heart dissolved to see him change away from abruptness to this kindness.


Nobody knows what I get out of Javo, or out of knowing him. I don’t know to explain. It’s that when we fuck, or can be together quietly sometimes, we touch each other. No-one else gets that close to me. He behaves towards me, then, with tenderness, holds me when I’m half asleep, he says my name and looks into my face.

But Nora finds out slowly that this kindness and tenderness can’t last, can’t survive, because it doesn’t have enough to do with everyday life, everyday jobs, all the more boring things that really test if you can be together. They go on holiday to the beach, in Tasmania: he won’t plan properly, he won’t pack anything (“Oh shit,” he croaks, “we don’t need mosquito coils, all that shit.”), she has to do everything, and when they finally get to the beach he plunges on ahead in his stolen thongs, not even talking to her. Then at the campsite, he suddenly turns to her, his arms stretched out like a child’s: “Nor, help me – I’m freaking out.” This kind of stuff happens for months. Exquisite pleasure, exquisite kindness, their best, best selves, then he doesn’t turn up, he forgets he’s supposed to, she worries, she lends him money, waits for him, lends him more money. Their whole relationship starts to look like a cruel kind of trap – a trying to be with someone else that’s only really an addiction. With her addiction less grossly obvious than his, but as strong, really. Nora says – and she can say this – “Smack habit, love habit – what’s the difference?” But if there’s one thing the book shows it’s that it can be so hard to give up on the hope that you could stay in that other place, where your self seems to be un-selfed enough; reduced, calmed, healed. Next to that, the promise of that, the everyday doesn’t matter, for a while.

What’s extraordinary is that Monkey Grip can hold so much of what could be repetitive or unpleasant (Ugh, Javo, again) and make it bearable. It does this partly by taking all this anguished private telling and cooling it with just enough of what is outside the self: the sense of being kept so close in to Nora is relieved by carefully chosen exterior physical detail. “Atomic” bright concrete at the public baths, the “flutter” of poplars over “an ancient grey picket fence”. When Nora and Javo are still on holiday in Tasmania, they stay at a motel: and there is his ignoring her and falling asleep, but there are also the clean sheets, the hiss of the waves, the moon on their skin. Nora’s self-problems are always placed between pictures of what she can see, what her senses can apprehend, but what is not her: in with her close consciousness, we’re also given a sky, “covered with a fine net of almost invisible cloud”, or kids asleep, “cast across the bed in attitudes of struggle and flight”. It’s so, so skilfully done.

But then there is something odder, more controversial, in the method of Monkey Grip, which is that all the information that I, and maybe you, so badly need about what a self does, how it tries to love, was taken unusually directly from actual people, people Garner knew. Her actual boyfriend, her actual friends. Shaped, yes, so skilfully selected, and cooled, but still: much more directly taken. In an essay just called “I”, Garner said:

Shouldn’t a real writer be writing about something other than herself and her immediate circle? I’ve been haunted by this question since 1977 when a reviewer of Monkey Grip asked irritably what the fuss was about: as far as he could see, all I’d done was publish my diaries. I went round for years after that in a lather of defensiveness: “It’s a novel, thank you very much”. But I’m too old to bother with that crap any more. I might as well come clean. I did publish my diary. That’s exactly what I did. I left out what I thought were the boring bits, wrote bridging passages, and changed all the names.

And so the Javo in the book really was the same as the boy she knew, saying all those things, doing all those things. And people often don’t like this. The man who was Javo didn’t like it. In “I” Garner quotes him as saying that for a long time he thought Monkey Grip was the “worst thing that ever happened” to him. And years later in a documentary on the book, he said, “I hated it … I’m painted as this self-destructive fool, really … I mean what Monkey Grip does, it … gives Helen quite a bit of dignity … doesn’t give me much.”

The usual fiction protection rule is: don’t take so much from any one person. It hurts too much, it’s too much of a breaking of the necessary, the good part of the social “consensus” that nobody has to abruptly get shown a bunch of truth about themselves. We all see more, from the outside, of what each other is, but we can’t bear it said or suddenly displayed, printed, published, because we all have to keep going with what we’ve managed to assemble so far. People will be very hurt if you show too much of a vulnerable, trying self, all at once. This is why so much of the vulnerability and unsuccess of the human personality is often only shown in literature (or movies, or comedy), which conceals the real source of the information. You mix the details of whoever “Javo” was with the details of whoever “Lou” was – or “Martin”, or “Bill” – a little of each. And this way, mixing it up enough, everybody’s protected more. And you, the fiction writer, you still get what you wanted. Right? Good?

And so then the question comes: why do it the way Garner does it, in Monkey Grip? And again, in another fiction, The Spare Room? Garner has said that she pretty much took all the incidents and details in The Spare Room from one friend, who is put into the book as “Nicola”, poor deluded Nicola who has stage-four cancer but thinks vitamin C and ozone treatments can “scoop” that cancer right out of her body. You could think: maybe don’t take so exclusively from her? Given that she was even more vulnerable than most people trying to work a self? The more specific way of putting the question would be: what do you get, taking so much from this actual person, that can’t be got with the safer method of mixing up the people? Karl Ove Knausgaard asks exactly this in his book My Struggle, which is six volumes – more than 3500 pages – of taking and showing, publishing to the whole world, what happens to actual him and actual everyone around him; his own anxiety, selfishness, embarrassing sexual greediness, embarrassing sexual incompetence (that he won’t let himself masturbate until he is 19, and then later when he does get to have sex he prematurely ejaculates, a lot), as well as his father’s alcoholism, his wife’s anxiety and self-saving laziness, her blindness to the fact that he does almost all of the housework and looking after the children, all this, all this, he tells and tells and tells. And he says, in answer to the question why, that the social agreement we make to not directly tell about these things has to be broken. As harsh and “inhuman” as it sounds, it has to be broken to help and to free people. Because if you don’t do it, whole lives (his life, his wife’s life) are more often lost to the social agreement, more often distorted or spoiled by how much isn’t said. Which might sound fanciful, until you think how people can go on not saying the most important thing they privately know about their marriage, or a friend, or their work, for years. How people can live in an unhappy continuous dishonesty, for years. Decades.


This is an edited extract of Sean O’Beirne’s On Helen Garner, published by Black Inc.

Sean O’Beirne

Sean O’Beirne is a bookseller and critic, and the author of the short fiction collection A Couple of Things Before the End.

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