Dystopia and Drug Gripes

Had a first for me at this month’s book club in which I flat out hated one of the choices. This was more controversial because the book in question is considered a classic on these shores, and my somewhat fervent criticism surprised a few people.

Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip depicts life in a 1970’s commune in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Our protagonist Nora falls in love with a heroin addict named Javo and the novel deals with their tempestuous relationship. So, what was it about the book I disliked so much? Firstly, I found it an incredibly dull read. The scenes are repetitive to the point of boredom – the basic plot is Javo turns up, sleeps with Nora, tries to get off heroin, fails, leaves, continues to take heroin, repeat a hundred times. Vast swathes of the novel are scenes of people asleep, or dreaming, or lying down, or having sex (the characters describe sex as ‘fucking with’ somebody which is not only an irritating phrase, it also is not how anybody to my knowledge has ever described sex). These scenes form no apparent purpose that I could see, and could easily have been cut from the novel with no loss to the overall structure. Indeed, to me this novel was crying out for a good editor – a reduction of 100 pages would have made the prose a lot tighter and cut out a lot of the excess waffle.

Other, smaller factors got on my nerves. What does Nora do for work, for example. She always seems to have enough money for drink and drugs, but there is no indication of how she funds her lifestyle. Her daughter Gracie is mentioned a few times. Now I’m no Puritan but Nora has no qualms about letting her child hang out with hardened drug addicts who presumably take drugs in her presence. That sat uneasily with me, and formed part of my dislike of Nora. In fact most of the characters have very few redeeming qualities, most obsessed with the party, ‘anything-goes’ culture that existed in the 70s. Some of this criticism would be tempered if the character’s were better drawn by Garner. By the end of the novel a long list of names have been introduced but I wouldn’t be able to tell you any distinguishing characteristics of any of them, other than their appetite for drugs and casual sex.

I guess this novel reflected the attitude of the times, which would explain its resonance to that generation. I found it dated, badly written and it’s a mystery to me how it has obtained classic status.

After that disappointment I was much more enthused with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Any dystopian work will live in the shadow of Orwell and needs to be an interesting, challenging novel to distance itself from him. Thankfully, this book manages it. The novel is set in a near-future world of totalitarian Christian theocracy in which women are subjugated and required only for breeding purposes. The narrator Offred is a handmaid, used only for sex with The Commander in order to try and fall pregnant to arrest a declining birth rate. The Commander begins an illegal and ambiguous relationship with her in which they play Scrabble and he gives her gifts illegal under the new regime, like magazines. These meetings are interspersed with flashbacks of Offred’s life as a wife and mother before the regime took over. As the novel progresses the Commander’s wife allows Offred to begin sex with Nick, the Commanders driver, in order for her to try and fall pregnant. The novel ends on a very well-written and ambiguous scene where Offred is taken away by the ‘Eyes’ after the Commander learns of her relationship with Nick. The ending is deliberately open-ended so we have to draw our own conclusions as to her fate.

I found the book convincing in its portrayal of a dystopian world. Some of the constraints placed on the women are more extreme versions of what is happening to women right now in certain parts of the world. This link to the world of today gives the novel its importance and power – Atwood’s creation requires very little suspension of disbelief. Its a very believable tale. The tone and atmosphere of the book is pitched just right, too. Although much of the handmaids duties are mundane and quiet, there is an unsettling layer of terror just beneath the surface, that these women are one thought or deed away from being hauled off by the secret police for interrogation and possible execution. The boundaries the women are confined to are defined by the Wall, where the bodies of the executed are hung on display. There is a constant fear overhanging the narrative that death is only one step away and that gives every emotional exchange a gravity and weight.

So two contrasting views this month, and I learnt from both. Sometimes its good to read something you dislike, in order to learn what pitfalls to avoid and what makes a good writer. There’s always a lesson to be learned in whatever you read.