Helen Garner’s debut novel Monkey Grip follows the bohemian life of Nora, a single mother living in share houses in Fitzroy in the 1970s who has a habit of investing way too much hope and love in rather feckless men – in particular the handsome but heroin-addicted ‘Javo’. Published in 1977 by Melbourne-based independent publishing house McPhee Gribble, the offbeat tale sold well and in 1982 was made into a film starring Noni Hazlehurt. A popular book and film, you may nevertheless ask why it has been included in an Australian Canon prepared by the IPA’s Centre for the Australian Way of Life? The reception from critics was mixed, its status as literature dubious, and its content not typically canonical. We might start with some of its early critics, as we find in their ire, some of Monkey Grip’s distinctive Australian charm.
Monkey Grip, is often considered of the ‘1970s feminist’ genre, however the novel’s evocation of Australian mateship was criticised by some radical feminists upon its release. Garner, and her protagonist Nora, is an egalitarian, and does not consider ‘mateship’ a ‘patriarchal construct’ designed to exclude women. On the contrary, Nora refers to both male and female friends as ‘mate’ throughout the book and in a memorable scene from the film, she rejects the advances of one such mate, because he used to go out with Angela, also a mate. She clears things up for him, an Australian egalitarian feminist through and through: ‘And we’re mates (you and I) it doesn’t matter if we f*** now, or later, or never.’
We can see Garner’s warmth, here, but the prose remained somewhat of an issue for critics. While Monkey Grip is sometimes elegant and the dialogue believable, great slabs of it read like a diary (Garner later acknowledged her diaries were the source for much of the book). Just as in a diary, characters come and go without being introduced, or described, and often, for long periods, nothing much seems to happen (just as in life).
But is exactly this idiosyncratic form and the novel’s appeal to the public and the reasons for it, that cements Monkey Grip’s place on the IPA Canon. Crucially, it captures a time and place in Australia that would otherwise not be represented in our cultural imagination. As discussed elsewhere in The Genius of Australia, the bush is central to the Australian ethos, but for a long time most of our people have lived in the cities. What we see in the book is that even in inner-city bohemia they are recognisably Australian: egalitarian, relaxed, living lives according to their free choices, and trying to do the right thing by each other (and they do escape to the bush for restoration of the spirit whenever they can). Literary critic, Peter Craven, has said of its selection in the Australian Canon:
It is good to see the IPA plumping for Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip––a less tidy book than the flawless novella The Children’s Bach, but with a tremendous heart which brilliantly captures the time and the place of inner-city Melbourne in the far off 1970s.[read here]
Hitherto, an assumption of Australian literature was that important matters and people worth writing about lived somewhere else. The famous expatriates, Greer, Hughes, James and Humphries, had decamped to England and America on precisely that premise. To write about one’s own country a novel might perhaps be set in the Australian bush, but the cities were such backwaters. But Garner disposes with the cultural cringe by, well, ignoring it, mate. Names of suburbs, streets, music venues and cafes are deployed in roughly the same manner as Marcel Proust would refer to the Boulevard St Germain, without elaboration, confident in the assumption that you would or should know exactly what and where they were. The now famous line that opens the novel is exemplary of how place—that Australian place—is so important:
At the Fitzroy baths, Martin and Javo lolled on the burning concrete. I clowned in the water at the deep end where the sign read ACQUA PROFONDA
This striking line, recalled by many who happen upon the Fitzroy Swimming Pool, could stand in for a kind of Platonic ideal of all Australian pools. As Charlotte Wood, reflects in her introduction to the Text Publishing edition:
When I think of Helen Garners’ Monkey Grip I think of blinding sunlight and suburban swimming pools. Is there an Australian who doesn’t know the particular tough pleasure of lying on a threadbare towel on concrete, nestling your pliant young body into that hard baking warmth. This book makes remember the person I was in my youth. Like all Garner’s work, it also makes me examine who I am now.
When in the early 1990s the newly-formed City of Yarra threatened to close said pool forever, I found myself in the strange position of explaining to the responsible Minister the iconic status it had in the community and particularly amongst the chattering classes, in large part due to Monkey Grip (the pool won that argument, and I still swim there from time to time, under the sign that still says AQUA PROFONDA / DEEP WATER).
In its radical localism the novel came as a shock to the contemporary urban readers, who saw their own society depicted in a novel for the first time. Professor Kerryn Goldsworthy likens it to the impact of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap of 2010, set just a little bit further out of town in Northcote. Of course, bohemia had long since departed Fitzroy in the wake of gentrification, but the movie is worth watching just to see how dilapidated were the terrace houses of the inner cities of mainland Australia, before the upper middle-class renovators moved in.
So do read Monkey Grip, or watch the movie, for a slice of an Australia that is different but recognisable, that captures some spirit of freedom we have lost and might yet regain. One which reminds us that the sexual liberation in the 1970s was no more the answer to the timeless puzzle of relations between the sexes than the modern censorious culture mediated by bureaucrats in which we find ourselves in 2022.
This commentary was written by Scott Hargreaves, Executive Director of the Institute of Public Affairs.