Everywhere I Look. Helen Garner.

Garner, Helen. Everywhere I Look. Text publishing Melbourne, 2016. Mixed; 12/16.

I love this honest Australian’s writing and I have a lot of sympathy for her plain courageous attitude. Reading her I kept having that bittersweet writer’s experience: God I wish I’d said that! These pieces don’t pay much attention to traditional genres. There’s criticism, short fiction, pared-down creative whimsy, and unclassifiables. But throughout I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite as self-critical and determined in its independence. It spans tender emotions, coarse Aussie tough-talk, and bless her heart cuts straight across the intellectual and literary silliness of both the far right and left.

Garner tacitly rejects a pragmatic materialistic understanding of the world by consistently adoring beautiful things. She is a committed aesthete and so would have no time for the stubborn failure of the hard right to appreciate mystery and beauty, and she is furious about hypocrisy and abuse of authority.

But she also has no time for exaggerated political correctness. It’s interesting to read James Wood in his New Yorker review of this collection discussing Garner’s criticism of girls who have been sexually harassed by bosses and teachers. Wood describing Garner’s attitude, says:

These are not ‘earth-shattering’ offenses, so why not deal with them swiftly, then and there? A repeated line of attack is that the students and their defenders use the word “violence” where, (Garner) believes, ‘it simply does not belong.’ To insist on abuses of institutional power, Garner suggests, nullifies the fact that all relationships contain asymmetries of power, and that there are ‘gradations of offence.’  

It’s what I have said to my own daughter and absolutely what my mother would have said: Come on! Step up and be a strong human being instead of a victim. Without in any way joining the doctrinary right on this issue, I have some sympathy for that.

About criticism of parents and the family she says she is “ashamed now of (her) bohemian contempt for the suburbs of (her) childhood, of (her) longing to be sophisticated.” Conventional people can be good people too.

She’s relentlessly self-critical without slipping into feeling sorry for herself. She says of a colleague author “… Auschwitz was his university… I with the benefit of university education that I have been too lazy to take advantage of, would sit there gazing… helplessly.” She speaks of killing her darlings as she writes, and got rid of a “fancy flourish” for example, humbled while writing about the hard work of police divers.

All this humility is the more impressive because she is a terrific writer and commentator on writing. I was thrilled by her light sendup of Victorian culture in How to Marry Your Daughters, a review of Pride and Prejudice. Garner quotes Elmore Leonard’s dictum: “if it sounds like writing rewrite it”. She says “I have a rule of thumb for a piece of art. Does it give me energy, or take energy away?” I learned to trust that she was going to be reasonable, similar to Capote in In Cold Blood: it’s consistently transparent straightforward reporting that passes magnificent events along intact and gives honest opinions just as directly.

Reading Helen Garner makes me want to be a better writer but helps me try to make sense of a conflicted world.  Faced with the bitter opposing claims of the right and the left, how should I make up my mind who to believe, respect, admire, elect? Insisting on what Helen Garner has: honesty, humility, and willingness to be self-critical might not be a bad place to start.

Garner also says, “Why do stories matter so terribly to us that we will offer ourselves up to, and be grateful for, an experience that we know is going to fill us with grief and despair?”

Life’s like that.

I’d sure like to be as good as she is, and if I were, I’d love to be as humble.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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