February 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Life juices

By Helen Garner
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Fasting at a ‘Fat Farm’

At 5 pm on Boxing Day we sweep up the drive of the establishment my sister refers to as “the fat farm”. Its modest buildings are set in an old, deep garden: lawns, curved hedges, huge native trees. Our rooms give on to bushland that chinks all day with bellbirds. If anybody asks, we’ve come to give our digestive systems a rest.

At dinner, I enthuse about our five-day juice and water fast. But it turns out I’ve misunderstood: my sister hates fasting. What? I have to go through it on my own? We begin to squabble. I rebuke her for continually listing things she hates. She snaps back at me that I’m always telling people how I “adore” things, and suggests I stop sneering at people who believe in “the toxins coming out”. Why don’t I ask the naturopath what a toxin is? I might learn something. Returning from the smorgasbord, officially known as “the smorg”, she reports that a woman has asked her if we are twins. Our laughter has a tinny edge. She is younger than I am by eight years, and looks it. She decides to go the yoga option.

This retreat must be what a recently discarded wife I know kept calling, in her initial panic, the world of women. But what’s not to like? It’s sweetly daggy – flowery tablecloths and napkins, a writing desk with monogrammed paper, everything old-fashioned and demure and punctual. I don the standard-issue bathrobe, and go in search of human touch.

I crawl into a quivering, thumping old contraption called a Vibrosaun. I am coated in pink mud, wrapped in plastic, steamed, scrubbed and moisturised. Silent young women massage my feet, my face, my whole body. Awful New Age ambient music oozes into the treatment rooms; I drift off into jungles of dripping dark foliage. I spend hot hours in the garden, sprawled on a plastic chaise longue in thick shade, or lie in my dim room reading the Times Literary Supplement, sleeping, and practising my ukulele.

On a regime of five vegetable and fruit juices a day, plus two litres of filtered water, I never think of eating. Some switch has clicked in me. I can sit at a table, holding a tumbler, and watch without a twinge while my companions devour a three-course meal.

What’s harder is being sociable. Until I’m told, I don’t realise that my eyes are half-closed and my response time has trebled. I try to sit near the quiet, older women, who simply smile and nod as they pick up their cutlery. I need their protection from the mouthy girls.

For places like this attract monomaniacs. Every big talker here has her body problem, and her draconian theory on how to manage it. One scorns food with additives, the next eschews all things processed. A third speaks earnestly of food combination. Many wouldn’t drink fluids with a meal in a fit. I sit numbly under the cataracts of obsession, inserting the odd query in the hope of an exchange. But none of them ever asks anyone else a single question. What happened to conversation? It’s become a series of monologues that intersect only by force.

One lunchtime I’m trapped at the table by Sonia, a universal expert and compulsive talker whose life situation I have drawn from her by dint of ordinary social labour, but who has shown not the faintest interest in my life or anyone else’s. When everyone else has fled, she begins to harangue me about skin cream. Apparently the brand she uses is superior to any other on the market, in that no chemicals at all are used in its manufacture. Watching her mouth moving, I become aware that I am going to have to take her out.

In my starved stupor, I dig up from the depths of my scientific ignorance a series of disingenuous questions about what chemical processes actually are. She bluffs. She patronises. She tries to derail me. We are leaning on our forearms, staring right into each other’s faces. I keep laboriously drilling in, ever narrower, driving her back and back. “Things without chemicals,” she says wildly, “are just better for you.” I lay down my trump card: “But Sonia, what exactly is a chemical?” At last she’s silent, on the ropes, her head at a sharp angle, her cheeks flushed. “You can say ‘I don’t know,’” I hiss. “I won’t think any the less of you.”

At that moment my sister wanders up to the table: “Want to go for a walk?” The young know-all sits back. I head for the door, suddenly ashamed.

That night I can’t sleep. I’m nauseous. My hips ache. My shoulders are in the way. At dawn, when I stand up, everything blurs and bleaches, and I have to grab at the window frame. Shocked, I sit on the edge of the bed and wait for my head to stop spinning. Why am I doing this to myself? Who’s the deluded one around here?

Each morning I’ve been pulling up my nightie and looking in the mirror for my former body, the youthful one with the ribs and hipbones. Is it showing yet? Is it still in there? How many more layers to go? But today, sitting dizzily on the bed listening to the calm chinking of the bellbirds, I finally come up against the brute fact of the matter. Starve myself as I might, the body I once had is never, ever coming back.

Crossing the garden to break my fast, I meet my sister, straight-backed and serene from meditating. “I suppose this place is good to come to,” she says. “People can whinge to strangers about their problems, and give their families a rest.” She flashes me her sardonic smile. “I propose that the government set up whinge farms all over the landscape, to harvest negative energy and power the nation.” We stroll up to the smorg with our empty bowls, and take our places in the queue.

Helen Garner

Helen Garner is a novelist, short-story writer and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s BachThe Spare Room and This House of Grief.

Cover: February 2011

February 2011

From the front page

Image of prime minister Gough Whitlam addressing reporters outside Parliament after his dismissal by governor-general John Kerr on November 11, 1975.

Palace fetters

An elected Australian government could still be dismissed by the Queen

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016.

The many faces of David Gulpilil

Gulpilil’s surrealist performances reveal our collective unconscious

Still from ‘Contempt’

The death of cool: Michel Piccoli, 1925–2020

Re-watching the films of the most successful screen actor of the 20th century

Image of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg

Cluster struck

A second wave of COVID-19 cases is dragging the country down


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

John Peter Russell & Vincent van Gogh

'How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly - And the Stark Choices Ahead' By Dambisa Moyo, Allen Lane, 224pp; $32.95

‘How the West was Lost’ by Dambisa Moyo

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A tale of two cities

Mahmoud Saikal and Kabul’s ‘New City’ Proposal

'Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage' By Hazel Rowley, Melbourne University Press, 352pp; $36.99

‘Franklin & Eleanor’ by Hazel Rowley


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Weathering the cost

After 300 inquiries into natural disasters and emergency management, insurers are taking the lead

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Tour de forced cancellations

How Port Douglas, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, has been quieted by lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Wage deals on wheels

Delivering your dinner for half the minimum wage

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Call for submissions

Hands-off operations for sex-work dungeons in the time of COVID


Read on

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016.

The many faces of David Gulpilil

Gulpilil’s surrealist performances reveal our collective unconscious

Motorists waiting near a police checkpoint in Albury, ahead of the NSW-Victoria border closure on July 8, 2020.

On edge

Closing the borders is an exercise in futility

Image of Olivia Laing’s book ‘Funny Weather’

Small, imperilled utopias: ‘Funny Weather’

Olivia Laing’s book takes hope as an organising principle, asking what art can do in a crisis

Image of Labor’s Kristy McBain and Anthony Albanese

A win’s a win

The Eden-Monaro result shows that Morrison’s popularity has not substantially changed voting patterns – and Labor has still not cut through


×
×