There’s no spare room in a two bedroom apartment that’s shared by four people

6 May

part one
I hold it in my hand for a while before I buy it. I hold it and rub my palm up and down its jacket. It has been on the bookshop shelves for a few weeks now, perhaps months. I have come to know its first page almost by heart as I pick it up, put it down, pick it up, then put it down again.

I have been saving this book. As it becomes obvious that my father will not be getting out of bed again, as he sleeps more, as he talks less, I have felt that this book is coming out just for me. That it will be something to read and reflect on in the days and weeks after his death. That it will help me to understand what it is I had been seeing these last few years, months, weeks, days and what it is that I am feeling now.

It is the Thursday night of the week that Dad died. On the ground, between my feet, is the paper-bag that holds the new wrap-around shirt in a delicate shade of green that I will wear to the funeral on Saturday.

Shoes. What shoes will I wear? It will be a long day and they should be comfortable.

I hold the book for a moment longer.
I count on my fingers. Five days.
I almost cannot breathe.

At the counter, I remember my PIN, I do not forget to say, ‘I don’t need a bag’ and I shake my head when she asks whether I need a copy of the receipt. It is as if I never left the world, as if I have been here all along.

part two
Now, nearly a year later, I am trying to work out what it is that I am writing. I look at the pencilled words and the printed pages and I wonder. Is this fiction or non-fiction? Whose story is it and who is telling it?

This question leads me back to, amongst many other essays and books, The Spare Room (it never did solve all my problems. I have read it – twice – but only lightly. It asks too many questions that I don’t feel like answering just yet).

But one thing I know: I like that she has called her protaganist Helen. I’m almost certain that once upon a time this aspect of the book would have troubled me. I think (though can’t know) that I would have turned my back on the book because of it.

I imagine that one of the reasons I’m so accepting of Helen-as-author and Helen-as-protagonist is because I’ve spent the last few years looking pretty carefully at stand-up comedy. In stand-up comedy, all narrators tell stories that may or may not be facts, but always have some truth.

part three
Every week, after I’ve finished the shopping, I buy myself a copy of The New Yorker and go to a cafe and sit and read. It lacks romance – I shop at a supermarket and the cafe is part of a chain – but I am trying to establish a routine. For safety’s sake.

It isn’t working yet. But it will.

Sometimes every one is with me, but today, I am alone. I sit by the window that looks across the road and over date palms and sand and I try to ignore the people who sit smoking in the clearly-marked non-smoking seats.

I order, and start flipping through my New Yorker. In this week’s* Briefly Noted column, there is a brief note on Helen Garner’s The Spare Room. After a good summary of Helen Garner’s story so far, the reviewer writes, ‘Here the author’s aims seem to shift in the course of the novel, which at times seems very close to nonfiction: the Garner-like protagonist, attending a writers’ festival in Sydney, observes, in apparent reference to J. M. Coetzee, how “the big names had scrambled to see the Nobel laureate get his Australian citizenship in a tent”.

I happen to know, because I wasn’t there, that the tent of which they speak was pitched on a lawn in Adelaide. Not Sydney.

When I get home, I find the quoted passage in the closing pages of the book. The reviewer has misunderstood the Sydney-Adelaide part. It’s easy to see how – it is a clunky little passage – but what I’m trying to work out is why this simple little mistake is making me feel more awkward about the fiction/non-fiction line than I ever did before.

*this week’s for me, because I don’t live in New York


13 Responses to “There’s no spare room in a two bedroom apartment that’s shared by four people”

  1. Pavlov's Cat May 6, 2009 at 3:31 am #

    Yeah, see, what that review story makes me angry with is Americans, but then I am hardwired for getting angry with Americans. (And you should see the hours I spend online making sure I have my geography and other facts straight when reviewing American novels.)

    Among other things (still cross with the New Yorker here) it seems very strange that reference to a known ‘real’ event should make the reviewer suspicious that the writing is ‘straying’ into nonfiction. Where does that leave all those Civil War novels? How about Paul Gallico’s Coronation, which has the Queen getting crowned in it, as does one of AS Byatt’s Potter novels. Is there some statute of limitations, about time, place, persons or degrees of historical importance, about what one is or is not allowed to refer to before one’s writing is loftily accused by reviewers of not being in the genre one said it was in?

    Elizabeth Jolley once told a story about the sort of letters she used to get from readers, one of which had been written in protest against a particular scene in one of her novels. ‘Don’t you know,’ it said, ‘that doves never roost in a Moreton Bay fig tree?’ That was the one that first made me this uneasy about the fiction/nonfiction divide. On the one hand yes it’s very funny, and on the other hand I find myself very critical of (say) a novel featuring an educated British 19th-century hero who gets his grammar wrong (‘Ermintrude gave the letter to George and I’) and never mentions God. Because neither of those things would ever happen. But most people don’t know that or care.

    My other favourite story along these lines is of AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble (who are sisters) fighting over authorial ownership of the memory of a vase in the childhood home. ‘She’s used that vase! I was going to use it! That was my vase!’

    The other thing this story reminded me of was my years of fulltime teaching, when on a daily basis some student or other would say to me indignantly ‘Oh, but you said [insert hopelessly distorted half-understood version of original remark here]!’ It doesn’t matter what you say or what you write, most of the people who hear or read will get it wrong somehow.

    Grapple, grapple.

  2. Pavlov's Cat May 6, 2009 at 3:32 am #

    Gah, sorry about length of “comment”!

  3. innercitygarden May 6, 2009 at 4:23 am #

    I wonder if one person’s literary licence is another’s distracting inaccuracy? I know that for me, an historical novel with historical inaccuracy or misunderstandings makes me cranky. I don’t mind the ‘inaccuracy’ at all though when it’s plausible fiction. I wouldn’t mind a novel set during the second world war that told me Hitler had successfully invaded China, I would mind if it went on at length about the invasion of Poland and got the seasons wrong or changed the sequence of real events.

    I’m quite sure that some of the things I would find distracted me enough from the plot and characters that I couldn’t finish a book, are things others would enjoy, or attribute to the book being fiction. Personally, the roosting habits of doves don’t bother me, the language and habits of the characters do.

    So are you writing for me and Pav, or the dove fanciers?

  4. Alby Mangroves May 6, 2009 at 4:40 am #

    Perhaps the reviewer has read the first and last chapter, or in particular, the last few pages? Perhaps I am unkind, but it smacks of the leaf-through to me.

  5. Laura May 6, 2009 at 5:48 am #

    Hm, yeah. That’s a pretty pissweak review note, IM-oh-so-HO; interesting that what a dim reviewer says can focalise feelings of awkwardness on your part. It doesn’t help matters that many Americans, like this one, seem to subconsciously regard Australia as basically fictional – thus the cringeworthy fixation on the Nobel Laureate, who seems ‘real’ in a way that the interchangeable Sydney and Adelaide do not. Still, their loss.

  6. Laura May 6, 2009 at 6:01 am #

    Although, in the interests of cancelling out or at least ambivalentising the anti-Americanism in that last comment, I’ve not found any better tool for thinking about the fiction/nonfiction question than E.L. Doctorow’s essay ‘False Documents’.

  7. Pavlov's Cat May 6, 2009 at 7:22 am #

    Yes, I feel bad about my prejudices too, hence the ‘hardwired’ remark, which was a lame attempt to suggest that the real fault lies with me not them.

  8. ThirdCat May 6, 2009 at 10:19 am #

    To start a bit off topic (but you know, my blog my rules) my boys are currently at an American school – it was the one thing I said before we came to have a look around, ‘no American schools’, but when we looked at, we loved it, and I still do (as do they) – I love the things they’re learning and the way they’re learning them. I’m much less prejudiced than I thought I was.

    Who am I writing for? innercitygarden, I think you’ve nailed it right there actually. Once I’ve worked that out everything will fall into place.

    I agree, and don’t know why I didn’t say in the original post, that that was a strange quote to use in the review, because yes, that’s just an event used to hang a narrative on and it does indeed smack of a quick flick-through to help make an obvious point. From all my earlier thinking on this, I have a sticky label in my copy of the book at this quote:

    ‘”Give me those,” I said. “I stocked up on manchester before you came”.

    “Manchester? This is like an Elizabeth Jolley novel.”

    We started to laugh. She sat on the chair while I made up her bed afresh. I saw her bare feet on the rug and thought of my mother, how she would clean up after me when as a child I had what she called “a bilious attack”‘.

    To me, that’s a much more interesting place to think about fiction/non-fiction.

    Laura it focalised things because as PC says up there, people read what they read of the things that you wrote – and I’m trying to work out what that means to me.

  9. genevieve May 6, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

    Well, this is an excellent post and terrific comments on the fiction/non-fiction question, among other things.
    I dips my lid.

    HG sent some email answers to a very popular British blogger this week, I think most of it is business as usual but there might be something interesting in it, TC:

    And the reading list is something most of us don’t see often.

  10. gardendog May 7, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    I’ve just read your article in SAWC newsletter and I still have tears in my eyes.
    It must be hard to be away from home, but always believe your friends are with you.

  11. Zoe May 7, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    And not just your friends, even People From The Internet.


  12. fifi May 7, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    Could you be writing for me?

  13. Helen May 9, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    Wow, thanks for that link, Genevieve. Definitely bookmarking that blog.

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