Saturday, May 24, 2008

On reading The Spare Room, part 1: Friendship

NOTE: this isn't a 'book review'. Nor is it 'literary criticism', within the meaning of the act. It's a blog post. (Warning: a long one.) It's also the first of a planned several posts about this book, talking about one thing at a time. There is a highly specific and quite long set of (mostly unspoken) conventions in the writing of book reviews, and another, surprisingly different, set in the writing of literary criticism. But blogging is an activity and a medium, not a literary genre, and it does not require those conventions to be kept. So here are some non-reviewy, non-criticismy thoughts on The Spare Room and some of the things it's about.

But first, a plot summary:

The narrator Helen, who is a writer (yes yes, more about this later), lives alone in a settled, domestic way next door to her daughter and the daughter's family in a Melbourne suburb. Helen is preparing the spare room for the arrival of Nicola, her friend of fifteen years. Nicola is dying of cancer, but is convinced that her life can be saved by a Melbourne clinic offering 'alternative' treatments that will be fiendishly expensive. Nicola has asked if she can stay with Helen for three weeks while she has the treatments.

Nicola is ill enough to need close attention and periodically intense, full-on nursing, but is still convinced that the clinic's treatment will cure her. In the course of her stay, Helen becomes more and more enraged: by Nicola's behaviour; by the behaviour of the people at the clinic (and by extension the clinic's disgraceful ripoff behaviour, and by further extension all exploitative quackery, and by even further extension all exploitation of other people's weaknesses); by Nicola's impending death (and by extension death in general); and, finally, by her own rage.

Helen's own rage enrages her, and dismays and weakens her. 'The one thing I was sure of,' she thinks later, remembering the afternoon before Nicola was due to fly home to Sydney and back into the care of her long-suffering niece Iris, 'was that if I did not get Nicola out of my house tomorrow I would slide into a lime-pit of rage that would scorch the flesh off me, leaving nothing but a strew of pale bones on a landscape of sand.'

Finally the treatment ends and Nicola goes home to Sydney, not a moment too soon for all concerned; Helen is left not only exhausted but also bewildered and appalled by the feelings that the visit has brought to the surface in her, and the gap between the ideal and the real on several fronts.


This whole novel rests on what's actually a highly unusual set of circumstances. People with stage four cancer are usually not well enough to travel alone, much less to invite themselves to stay with a friend in another city, or to want to do so. Everything that happens in this novel happens because the dying Nicola is in profound denial about her condition.

She is, of course, not well enough to travel alone either, and goes into a state of near-collapse in the airport after what is, for the well, an easy hour-long flight from Sydney to Melbourne. The reason, we discover later, is that she has had, just before her trip, one of the ridiculous-quackery Vitamin C treatments ("High dosage Vitamin C will kill off lumps of cancer -- most doctors don't know this stuff") to which she knows she always has an extreme reaction.

One of the most distressing moments in the book (and there are many) occurs at this point, where the narrator Helen is forced to choose, in a public place, between the distress of a dear friend who is too weak to stand up and the distress of a five-year-old granddaughter:

Nicola couldn't sit up straight ... she was shuddering from head to foot like someone who has been out beyond the break too long in winter surf.

'Bessie,' I said, 'Listen to me, sweetheart. See that lady over there, behind the counter? Past the toilets? I want you to walk up to her and tell her we need a wheelchair. Right away. Will you be a big girl and do that?'

She stared at me. 'What if they don't have wheelchairs in airports?'

'Bess. I need you to help us.'

Nicola turned on her a smile that would once have been beautiful and warm, but was now a rictus.

'But I don't want to go without you,' said Bessie on a high note.

'All right. You stay here with Nicola, and I'll go.'

'Nanna.' She gripped me with both hands.

'We have to get a wheelchair. Go to that lady and ask her. Otherwise I don't know how we'll get out of here.'

I pushed her away from me. She set out along the carpeted hall with stiff, formal steps. I saw her rise on to her toes and try to show herself above the counter's edge.

This is maybe the first moment of rage, though it's not spelled out. Garner has always left spaces in her writing for the reader to come in and feel whatever he or she might feel, to think whatever he or she might think. One of the things that may well be happening for a reader -- certainly for this reader -- here, between the lines of dialogue and its frightful airport silences (for many is the silent moment of horrible dawning realisation that has taken place in an airport lounge) is rage with an adult for allowing the development of a situation in which a child must be pushed to her limits.

A similar moment occurs again when Bessie comes next door into her grandmother's house, where she has never been unwelcome, to do her flamenco dance for her Nanna and her Nanna's friend, and she's a few steps in when they notice her nose is running:

'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.

I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank.

The rage isn't simple and isn't always about Nicola; sometimes it even goes in the opposite direction and manifests as ferocious protectiveness. 'I thought, I will kill anyone who hurts you. I will tear them limb from limb. I will make them wish they had never been born. Almighty God, I thought, to whom all hearts are open.' In a most Garner-like way, she doesn't tell you for what purpose God is being invoked in this prayer, so I looked it up: it's Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts. In this context that unspoken plea is very ambiguous indeed.

Friendship can be far more durable than marriage, and can sometimes involve feelings quite as complex and as strong, but it isn't a relationship that was meant to withstand living in the same house, as everyone who has spent time in shared households knows. This is not to say that no friendship survives it, only that it can be very testing, and the longer the stay the harder the test, even when you are both young and well and have no close family, much less when you are both of an age to be grandparents.

In the flash-forwards at the end of the novel, Helen demonstrates how much easier it is, by comparison, to take it in turns with others to help Nicola through the last stages of her life, and to stay in loving, sardonically realistic postcard-and-email contact with her when they are in different cities: 'I would write to her on a postcard: "I miss you. I'm bored. I'd rather be scrubbing shit off Iris's bathroom tiles."' It's the unrelenting domestic proximity to Nicola and her deluded self-(mis)management that stretches the friendship to its limits, not least because Nicola's delusional state means she needs constant monitoring, chauffeuring and nursing, sometimes all three at once.

We conduct our friendships in accordance with some internalised ideal of what friendship is; and we judge our friends and ourselves by the same ideal. But it doesn't get tested in this kind of extreme way very often. There are probably far more one-off acts of demented bravery or sacrifice performed in the name of friendship than there are protracted episodes of steady, grinding endurance, where our life's work is hijacked, our granddaughters dismayed, our washing machines given a serious workout and our patience worn so thin you could read the paper through it.

Friends make room for each other in their lives, especially when one of them is in desperate need of help, but there will always be strong competing claims. Those sorts of moment-by-moment and inch-by-inch negotiations are the lifeblood of fiction: the way we endlessly shift, this way and that, between the people in our lives, between love and responsibility, between inclination and obligation, making room here, cutting corners there, making unsatisfactory compromises and horrible painful decisions that please no-one.

One thing this book brings out very strongly is the difference between the physical demands of carer-duty -- Helen carries these out gladly, even when they become heavy, as she has always known she would -- and the far more onerous and treacherous burden of one's own feelings about the caree, about her behaviour and her situation.

As so often in her work, Garner sets this conflict up in such a way as to evoke from readers their own similar experiences (like feeling your brain blow up as you stand by in the role of officially designated carer to someone who has been told they must not be left alone after surgery or treatment; say, the sister who reverts to ancient childhood patterns of sibling-rivalry strategies even when drugged to the eyeballs and unable to walk straight, or to the friend, also still full of drugs, who point-blank refuses do any of the things she's been told by the doctor that she must do. Ahem.)

And everyone who's done it knows that the wet sheets and vomit bowls are the least of it, that they are, indeed, nothing: it's the rage, and the helplessness of the rage, in both carer and caree. If you are sick and helpless, you hate the dependence and lash out (though Nicola is not like this; indeed, her sense of entitlement is one of the things that brings this character so vividly to life, though she has moments -- which, again most readers will recognise from their own lives -- of saying with a kind of noble woundedness whenever the carer's exasperation shows, 'No no, this is too hard for you, I'll go and stay in a hotel.'). But as a carer, you cannot yell at a sick person and you feel monstrous if you do. They are already suffering enough, and they will probably cry. And that will make you want to shoot yourself.

You do these things for family because you are, at the deepest level, stuck with them, as they with you. Robert Dessaix, in his review of The Spare Room for The Monthly in April, was harsh in a glancing way about what he sees as the book's implication that if Nicola had got married and had a proper family she wouldn't need to be impinging on someone else's.

But I see it more as a tension that is there in almost everyone's life: the dues to family are monumental and non-negotiable, while those to friends have invisible, expanding boundaries, 'like gold to airy thinness beat'. The boundaries might go on stretching forever. Or not.

Next -- Part 2: FAITH


Another Outspoken Female said...

To read this book I had to first let go of a set of prejudices. So much to the criticism of the novel when it was first published seemed to centre around the blurring of fact and fiction (that Garner's "Helen" is also a writer, lives next door to her daughter etc) and the taste of bile that some of Garner's actual non-fiction writing has left in the mouths of many feminists. Once I did this I could sit down for an afternoon and be totally entranced by the emotional journey the writing took me on. I have a deep sentimentality for "Monkey Grip" and this is almost 'MG grown up and aging', echoing the themes of non-conventional lives and alternative ways of living.

The only thing I found disappointing is the hurriedness of the ending. Sure it is the "The Spare Room" not Nicola's journey but it had a bit of a taste of wrapping up in a "...and they (didn't) live happily ever after" kind of way.

Garner does do some of the tough topics well. The rage of being a carer - absolutely, it is an unpopular story to tell but for me, she told it well.

Pavlov's Cat said...

I've already said everything I have to say on the F*rst St*ne affair, in this book, where there is a whole chapter on it, as was required at the time. It's now 12 years old but all still pertains, and of course because the book is lit crit it had a tiny print run and can be found only in libraries. But I'm really hoping this thread won't become a discussion of Garner-and-feminism. The (weird, to my mind) concentration in the initial critical response to The Spare Room on the 'fact and fiction' stuff was exactly why I've talked about something completely different in this post -- there'll be a (short) one soon on the question of the narrator's name and so on.

Another Outspoken Female said...

I know Pav, that's why I am so happy to actually see someone discussing the actual book :)

Ampersand Duck said...

Robert Dessaix, in his review of The Spare Room for The Monthly in April, was harsh in a glancing way about what he sees as the book's implication that if Nicola had got married and had a proper family she wouldn't need to be impinging on someone else's.

Yes, and if gay men could just meet the right woman and settle down...


Ampersand Duck said...

Woops, just read that PROPERLY. Not RD making a statement, but HG being accused of making that statement. [blush].

Ampersand Duck said...

Which still leads to the point about life choices, doesn't it? Nicola HAD lots of friends, Garner made that quite clear, but she seemed to choose Hel quite consciously, like a cry for help.

The issue of women leading their own lives and the implications of that in old age is one that is only starting to be noticed, and I think this is the tip of the iceberg.

Anonymous said...

I was pleased Helen Garner, an admirably fearless writer, chose this subject. I haven't read the book yet and I will, though I don't think I need to, but more power to her for writing about this.

This is only the third review of it I've seen and if I'd written one I would have referred to Tolstoy's novella the Death of Ivan Illich which, unforgettably, I read during the protracted death of my mother, shortly succeeding the protracted death of my father.

A year or so later I was sharing a house and helping to care for my partner's mother dying, protractedly, of breast-bone-liver cancer: the typical progression.

Tolstoy's poignant meditation on human death is told from the other side, from the point of view of the person who is dying faced with the fear, anger and plain emotional inadequacy of his closest friends, colleagues and family members, and his painful, rage-filled and finally triumphant journey towards recognising his own lifelong failure to live a life of authenticity.

Mindy said...

I hadn't planned to read this, but your post has spurred my curiosity. I suspect I shall be by turns enraged, in tears, and enjoying the book immensely.

BTW your bit about the 5 year old not wanting to go by herself has just reassured me that it is completely normal for my 5yo to be exactly like that and I feel so relieved now it's like a weight has lifted off my shoulders, so thank you for that (and thanks to Helen Gardner for writing it so evocatively in the first place).

flush said...

I steeled myself for my first reading of the book, knowing the subject and Garner's honesty by which she leads her readers to reflect deeply on their own lives. I'm always grateful to her for that.

Now in my second reading I feel very much that I'm deep into Garner's aesthetic territory: perfect syntax, deft dialogue -'Don't. Tell. Nicola.'; visits to Melbourne suburbs and the heart of the city -'I saw the beauty of my city...'. All very seductive stuff for me.

Nicola is a terrific character and very annoying. So is Helen. I was annoyed that she does so much for her friend, that she goes overboard on the physical care but she can't handle the emotional demands or the invasion of her space.

The example you give at the airport exasperated me: Nicola, the mad cow, has already flown down from Sydney so leaving her alone for a few minutes now while Helen goes with Bessie to order the wheelchair wouldn't make a scrap of difference; after all, she can see the counter from where she's sitting. And the mirror: who could expect a heavy mirror to stay up with a couple of bits of adhesive tape? These passages give the writer a chance to open up observations - Bessie's 'rise on to her toes' and the heavy symbolism of the shattered mirror, but I was bothered by Helen's impracticality, just asking for trouble.

I love the feel of the book, so sturdy and pretty with its dustjacket like old linen.

Looking forward to your next instalment.

Bernice said...

Garner's texts are so often stripped down, bone bare but here as she writes through that reality of harrowing intensity, she comes as close as I think it possible to write dispassionately. Which sounds contrary but in these moments of complication upon complications, and demands so unreasonable as worthy of a Catholic martyr, the you in the midst of this is stripped back and forced often to confront your own limitations. A knowing you have to begrudgingly receive. And Garner's sparseness, the unstated, the quiet in the text brilliantly evokes that.
And so at odds with Debra Adelaide's Household Guide to Dying. Now I AM confused by that...

flush said...

You're right Bernice. Garner leads her readers to confront themselves almost as a (very Protestant) spiritual teacher might do. Like all great writers she is honest with herself and the strength of her writing is to encourage her readers to also be honest with themselves. She, like Hel, abhors bad faith.Does she then stare voidness in the eye, or does she, as Robert Dessaix suggests with his question about the 'blessing' Hel receives from her priestly sister, blink? said...

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