Helen Garner's 'Best Essays' triumph

The Best Australian Essays 2014 edited by Robert Manne. Black Inc. 

Cover of The Best Australian Essays 2014

JEN:

In his introduction to The Best Australian Essays 2014, Robert Manne writes: 'An essay is a reasonably short piece of prose in which we hear a distinctive voice attempting to recollect or illuminate or explain one or another aspect of the world.'

In such an anthology, it’s almost a given that we will hear the 'distinctive voices' of Tim Winton, J. M. Coetzee, David Malouf, David Marr (providing a withering take on one of my favourite topics – the pillorying of Prime Minister Tony Abbott), and Caroline Baum.

Christos Tsiolkas takes us to Greece as he engages in a lively dissertation on how the Left lost its way, and when the mighty statesman Noel Pearson offers his 'personal quadrant of the Australian landscape' you know he’s not just talking about the lifespan of the river gums. 

But there’s also an unmistakable chorus of youthful voices, and they’re not afraid to make a din. Antonia Hayes takes us through the maze of misdiagnosis and conjecture in 'A Wolf Like Me', Luke Ryan is both the heckler and the punch-line in his searing, self-deprecating piece on living with testicular cancer, and Jessie Cole returns to the juncture at which her family splintered in 'The Breaking Point'. 

These stories finely illustrate the 'unnervingly unclear' line 'between essay and short story', but no-one plays with form quite like the indomitable Helen Garner. Here she offers a brooding, aching ode to her mother. How does she do it? Get at the heart strings on that keyboard of hers? 

And so here we are again. Teasing out further definitions of what makes an exemplary essay. What Garner proves time and again is that good writing is an inexorable, spiritual exercise that seers itself into the reader’s memory.

What’s also required is an element of sacrifice. In 'The Dream Boat’, New York Times contributor Luke Mogelson poses as a Georgian refugee in order to elicit the services of people smugglers (for a hefty fee) to ferry him from Kabul to Jakarta where for a time he languishes with others dreaming of a new life in Australia.

Of course, with the awful refrain of 'Stop the Boats' still ringing in our ears, we – and Mogelson – know the refugees he meets, such as the proud Youssef and his young children, Anoush and Shahla, will never set foot on our soil. But the journalist writes with such verve and immediacy that you can almost reach out and touch those he meets along his travels.

The fact that we – the reader – would want to reach out at all is testament to incredible story-telling, certainly, but in Mogelson’s first person narrative we’re also required to walk in their shoes (albeit if only on the page), a position we must adopt if we’re to ever to move beyond the headlines and news feeds. 

BARRY:

What a class menagerie! An essay is a ‘distinctive voice attempting to recollect or illuminate or explain one or another aspect of the world’ – Manne can turn a phrase with the best of them, can’t he?

Our future is inexorably shaped by the voices of our present, duly formed by the strictures of their past. As such, these essayists are figures of hope for me; carriers of truth.

Thomas Carlyle once opined that ‘biography is the only true history’ (the looming prevalence of hagiography, and omnipresence of spin, serving as the obvious exceptions to his rule). There are biographical benisons aplenty among the essayists and I was most inspired when the personal became both political and poetical.

While we do indeed expect to hear from antipodean titans such as Winton, Marr and Garner, we are certainly the richer for it. 

Winton nails a stark truth for those of us who grow up distanced by the immensity of a Great Southern Land waiting to pick us clean and swallow us whole (‘space was my primary inheritance...an impossibly open sky, dwarfing every thing, imposing a pitiless correction of human perspective’).

Marr’s action figure addition to his myriad of pre-prime ministerial Abbott’s – ‘Freedom Abbott’ – is witheringly astute. It will be mulled over, celebrated by social justice champions like a fine wine. Don Watson’s surrealistic dreamt (nightmared?) Tony Abbott is more akin to a snifter of absinthe. 

With regard to the incomparable Ms Garner, fellow essayist Clive James notes that a ‘poet who can’t make the language sing doesn’t start’; the eloquence of Garner’s naked, ruthless self-disclosure of pain and regret will stay with me for life. Such honesty, such brutal truth telling, is hard-earned literary currency indeed.  

The same is true of Mogelson’s refugee odyssey, especially the verbatim quotes of his fellow pilgrims on their fated, foetid trek. The injection of their truths may well finally provoke empathy in Australia’s suburban heartland. The greater miracle of engagement may follow. I am not holding my breath.

I was pleased to find the 'lesser stars' in this essayist constellation of 28 writers do not disappoint. As well as those you’ve mentioned specifically, Jen, I nominate Peter Conrad’s examination of a pathetic, ‘grey, stooped, portly Peter Pan’ (‘A Rolf in Sheep’s Clothing’); Karen Hitchcock’s contrast of socialist Australia’s universal health care with the US’ lingering enmity against its poor, huddled masses, as evinced by the anti-Obama crowd; and Antonia Hayes’ brave chronicling of her battle with autoimmune disease systemic lupus erythematosus (‘Lupus is Latin for 'wolf'…My wolf will eat me, organ by organ, because it thinks my perfectly healthy body is a disease it needs to fight’).

A pearl of ancient wisdom – ‘know thyself’ – was prominently plastered over Apollo’s temple in Delphi. It still rings true. If Australians want to embrace our mixed past, dodgy present and dimly-perceived future, we’ll do well to heed the prophet voices lamenting our beautiful, spiritually desolate wilderness. 


Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor, and Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Helen Garner, Robert Manne, Best Australian Essays

 

 

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