Narkiness and trouble

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: selected writings 1970–2010 (Black Inc 2010)

I was looking forward to this book. Kate Jennings and I have a lot in common. We both hail from rural Australia, had diffident but dependable fathers, were skinny when young (she still is), did Arts at Sydney University in the 1960s. We both hate alcohol culture. We’ve both had people with Alzheimer’s in our lives. We were never part of the same set, but had friends in common. We met at least once, when one of those friends had us both to dinner, possibly with ill-conceived match-making intent. (I have only the vaguest memories of that meal, not much more than being pleasantly surprised to find that the formidable Kate was a country girl.) As I’ve mentioned before, I was there for her famous speech to a Vietnam Moratorium crowd on Sydney Uni’s front lawn in 1970, I also vividly recall her tremulous presence at Balmain Poetry Readings in the 70s. Both the front lawn speech and the poem I remember most clearly, ‘Couples‘ (‘couples make me guilty of loneliness, insecurity, or worse still, lack of ambition’), are included in this volume.

Apart from one essay, perhaps in The New Yorker, I didn’t read anything more of Kate’s writing until her 2002 novel about Alzheimer’s and Wall Street, Moral Hazard, her 2008 book about her dogs, Stanley and Sophie, and her recent essays in The Monthly, all of which I enjoyed. Trouble, a selection in lieu of memoir, looked like an opportunity to fill the gaps: how did the rage-filled, nervy radical feminist of the 70s become the consummately urbane, confident New Yorker?

If you’re looking for a review, stop reading now, because I gave up just after the halfway point. Jennings describes herself as prickly and graciously acknowledges that Chris Feik of The Monthly and Quarterly Essay ‘gently moderates [her] frequent immoderation’. But it wasn’t lack of moderation or prickliness that got me down. I diagnose at least a mild case of expat syndrome: I’ve grown older and regret my youthful foolishness, you’ve grown older and have mended your immoral ways, expats have grown older and think they were once foolish and immoral because of the immutable culture of their native land. The essays and interstitial pieces pour scorn on Australian feminists (so trapped in ‘theory’ and waffle), on Australian drunks (so representative of all Australians and so unregenerate), on Australian poets (so caught up in ‘infinitely ridiculous poetry wars’, and while she’s on the subject, one side of those wars is historically ignorant and engages in ‘appallingly damaging’ games of Chinese whispers) and, with no obvious sense of the irony, on the Australian proclivity to pour scorn (her word is derision).

She complains that an essay making sweeping statements about what’s wrong with Australian feminism was ignored (‘Clever tactic to silence criticism’), but since the essay names no names, quotes no quotes, and seems to be broadly ignorant of Australian socialist feminism, the Women’s Electoral Lobby, Women Behind Bars and lord knows how much else, I suspect the silence was embarrassed rather than clever.  She complains that her poem about Martin Johnston led to disapprobation being heaped on her, and that unnamed persons (a weaselly passive voice implies that it was the entire corpus of Australian poets) referred to her as the ‘execrable Jennings’, but an angry response shouldn’t have surprised her given that the poem virtually accuses unnamed people of taking ghoulish delight in Martin’s slow suicide by alcohol,  and if anyone used the phrase ‘execrable Jennings’ in public they managed to keep it hidden from Google. A former lover once threatened to sue her for a portrayal of him which she claims was a caricature that no ordinary readers would give a fig about identifying with any actual person. The story in question, included in this book, seemed to me a nasty piece of work that might as well have conte à clef as a subtitle: you don’t have to be a member of any in crowd to recognise Helen Garner (incidentally one of the people who don’t exist in Jennings’s version of Australian feminism). Poor Kate, always being misunderstood.

I could multiply examples of annoying moments:

The chief characteristic of Australian feminism is a proud  combativeness, best illustrated by the refrain of a song popular in the first days of the movement: ‘I’m a shameless hussy and I don’t give a damn.’

It may be nitpicking, but the song, as I remember it and confirmed by 30 seconds of research, goes like this:

We’re shameless hussies and we don’t give a damn
We’re loud, we’re raucous and we’re fighting for our rights
for our sex
and for fun
and we’ll win.

”Proud combativeness’? I would have thought the tone was more like  rowdy optimism. And KJ’s slip from plural to singular is surely indicative of something.

By the time I reached page 174 I realised the book wasn’t fun any more. On that page Jennings says a friend ‘complained that he had to keep backtracking to figure out what was going on’ in a detective novel she  is enthusiastic about, and I caught myself reading that as a sneer at her friend’s philistinism. Almost certainly it was nothing of the sort, but my cumulative annoyance had reached a level where I was reading with half my mind on the lookout for the next annoying thing. I even started cavilling at an occasional turn of phrase, and that had to be me not Kate, because she writes beautiful, concise prose. This book and I needed some space from each other. I may go back to it, but for now I’m going to read Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. Sorry.

4 responses to “Narkiness and trouble

  1. Pingback: Eliot Weinberger, list virtuoso | Me fail? I fly!

  2. I can see what you mean about this book. I have read all of Kate Jenning’s books (poetry and otherwise), but it was with a gap of a few years between each. I did find the sample selected for Trouble focused on some themes too often, I thought perhaps the recurring feminist theme was to cash in a bit on the Greer/Eunich anniversary. I remember finding the “Australian-ness Critique” theme a bit too much, but thought perhaps it was me being a bit too sensitive. Good to hear someone else’s thoughts.

  3. Hi Melissa. My take on the feminism / Australianness emphasis is that in selecting writings that gave a kind of indirect autobiography, Kate exposed a lot of unresolved issues. A bit like someone who migrated from Italy to Australia as a child and revisits the native land in maturity, speaking a version of the language that’s 30 years out of date; or an ex-Catholic who is bitter about their repressive upbringing and can now see only those parts of the Church (which, granted, may include the hierarchy) that fit hat bitter model, discounting the vast changes that have happened in much of the institution. I wouldn’t want to push either analogy too far, but I’m reasonably sure that if she’d stayed in Australa, got dry and found a decent life companion (as many have) she would see things differently.

  4. 2 good analogies. I can see that.