I So Love Being Old and Not Married

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From The Paris Review:

In the early seventies, Helen Garner, a newly single mother, found herself in the first of several “hippie houses” she lived in that decade in the suburbs of Melbourne. She read and made up songs with her daughter and fell in love with a heroin addict—an affair she documented daily in her diary. The writing deepened as her life became more complicated. Soon, she began to see an outline. “Story is a chunk of life with a bend in it,” Garner told Thessaly La Force in her Art of Fiction interview, published in the Fall issue of the Review, “and I could feel this one coming.” Every day for a year, after she had dropped her daughter off at school, she sat in the state library working on her first novel, Monkey Grip.

The book was a hit, although several critics (“almost always men”) accused Garner of simply publishing her personal journals. The truth is, she confesses, the novel really was closely based on her diary—and why not? “Underlying the famously big gap between fiction and nonfiction there’s a rather naïve belief that fiction is invented—­that it’s pulled out of thin air,” Garner says. “All those comments I’ve had to cop about my novels not being novels—­they rest on that idea that the novel is mightier than every other form.” When we asked Garner—­who is also an accomplished journalist who has covered criminal trials for decades—­whether she might share with us something from her recent journals, she sent us a true “chunk of life,” at once artfully sculpted and uncompromisingly honest.

. . . .

In the winter of 2017, when I wrote these entries, three things were dawning on me: first, that if my hearing continued to fade I would have to stop writing about criminal trials; second, that although I was probably burned-out, I would miss the courts terribly; and third, that I would be saved from boredom and despair by the company of my young grandchildren, who live next door.

*

Took the 17-year-old to the city to buy a pair of Doc Martens for her birthday. We walked past the Supreme Court. “Nanna, is this where you go to those trials?” “Yes. That big brown building.” “Can we go in and have a look?” At the door of the first courtroom we come to, a murder trial is rolling. I show her how to bow and we creep into the media seats. Young guy in the dock, pale, rigid, in a dark blue suit. The witness on the stand is giving a graphic account of what happens inside a skull when a head is smashed against a concrete curb. Oh God. I glance up at the judge. I know her. What will she think of me, bringing a schoolgirl in here? The girl is very still, straight-backed, bright-faced, watching and listening. I sit there gritting my teeth. Court rises and I hustle her on to the street. “Are you okay? Are you upset? Was it too much?” She wakes from a reverie. “No. I’m fine. It wasn’t upsetting. Because it was scientific.”

*

In the post office throwaway bin I find a CD of Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits. Secretly in the car I play over and over Jimmy Webb’s three works of genius: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” and “Galveston.” On the freeway my ten-year-old grandson digs out the Campbell from the mess in the glove box: “Who’s this?” I flinch, but he puts it on, and soon we’re singing along, him in his breaking voice, me in my old woman’s one which has dropped to a tenor. He loves all the songs, even the revolting ones like “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife.”

*

Court 4, pale pink with high, looped plaster garlands that glistened like ivory. The sentencing of the African refugee who’d killed three of her children. The judge read out the sentence. I was straining to hear, fighting my hearing loss and the muffled acoustic of the courtroom. Her husband was shot dead in front of her? They burned his body? They raped her? She began to weep and couldn’t stop. Her two robed lawyers approached the huge old timber dock, they had to reach up and hook their fingers at shoulder level over its high edge, I saw their pale hands grip the rim, like kids at a lolly-shop counter. She got 26 years, 20 before she can apply for parole. Even the tough-looking woman security guard was wiping her eyes. Walked away, walked and walked through the city, crying and raving to myself, bought a pair of black trousers and a T-shirt, went up the stairs to Gopal’s and ate a bowl of carrot and beetroot salad for $4. I’ll be dead by the time she gets out. What will she do, in prison, each day for 20 years? What will become of her other kids? It seemed the first time I’d ever seriously asked myself: Why do we put people in jail?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

1 thought on “I So Love Being Old and Not Married”

  1. “Story is a chunk of life with a bend in it,” and my fiction being based on my life, makes my life wound significantly more interesting than I thought it was.

    Walter-Mitty-like, your life gives you ideas, and your brain makes them somehow, sort of, about YOU, the center of your real life.

    That’s the best way to make your stories feel real to readers – you feel deeply, you write, they read, they feel depending on your skill.

    I like it.

    Now go see about my life by checking out the Look Inside on my fiction.

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