The city of Melbourne churns at the centre of Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, sustaining the plot of a book lauded as the ‘quintessential Melbourne novel.’ The streets of the inner north on which the story unfolds still exist: Delbridge Street down through the ‘green tunnel’ of Edinburgh Gardens still leads to Fitzroy Baths where one might still dive into the cool blue ‘aqua profonda.’ Yet they also never existed.
As I read Monkey Grip now, thirty-five years after its initial publication, two Melbournes collide, the one I read and the one I inhabit when reading. And then there is the Melbourne to which I return after having read—one that is now lived beneath the novel’s ‘blue, blue air’ and warmed by hot concrete beneath. The colours and tones of this place, which is now both written and read, echo and anticipate the world of my Melbourne, lying a mile or so east of the novel’s Fitzroy. It is this encounter of places, of multiple cities in one, that underpins this reflection, one that is written in the wake of reading and in so doing rewrites the written place.
Despite speculation that the novel was ‘little more’ than Garner’s own diary, a negation of the lived experience as much as an attempt to reinforce a proscriptive account of ‘the novel,’ Nora’s life remains one of fiction (it’s also worth noting that Garner recently published her diaries from that time). The world of Monkey Grip is Nora’s, not Garner’s. As much as the story is embedded in something real, it is literary, not literal. Garner wrote a world when she wrote Monkey Grip, one whose depth and colour exist beyond the Melbourne streets from which they draw their names, for indeed those streets do not yet exist for those who aren’t in Melbourne. When claims are made in promotional material that this is the ‘real’ Monkey Grip house, and another elected to the Heritage Council of Victoria as the ‘Monkey Grip house,’ something is lost in the move from the literary, a world that exists in its being read, to the literal, to one that is even if it isn’t opened.
Tensions of place and space frequently appear in the writing of so-called psychogeographers, a generic group whose writing resembles what Garner achieved through fiction in Monkey Grip. Cartographers of something less rigid than space and place, psychogeographers exact their craft in discovery of what might be called the ‘spacedness’ and ‘placedness’ of space and place. What determines the ‘representational’ is no longer abstract but lived, affected, and embodied. The origins of the term can be traced to the writings of Guy Debord and the Lettrist Group of 1950s Paris, where the notion of psychogeography was described as the study of the effects of geographical environment ‘on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.’ Yet the history of such writing extends back far beyond this moment. The psychogeographical can be seen in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, whose labyrinthine depiction of London was published in 1722; in William Blake’s 1808 poetic resurrection of a New Jerusalem; and in Thomas de Quincey’s 1821 drug-fuelled ramblings through London. Each text rejects an instrumentalist account of place as stretching from here to there and celebrates an experience of being, of space as a locus of lingering, marked by the perpetual possibility of encounter. Monkey Grip exists somewhere in between these masculine tales of public walking and the foreclosed world of the (feminine) private.
Garner accounts for her writing practice as one that celebrates domesticity— the overlooked world of the interior. She describes walking past Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, a painting of little more than a bed and a chair—‘there’s not even a person in it!’—and writing that it’s ‘a painting that fills you with hope and with life.’ Perhaps ironically, this anecdote appears in an interview published in the collected volume, Rooms of their Own, a series of interviews with women authors. Yet, the ‘room’ of Garner’s writing is never a room in the straightforward sense. Garner lived in spaces of openness, not only of collective communality—literary spaces that play host to her reader. In Helen Garner: Criticism and Interpretation, Kerryn Goldsworthy credits Garner with saying that she ‘would like the text to be such that the reader has room to come in.’ In an act of assertive displacement, Garner recasts Woolf’s literary advice, creating space within literature that might function as a room.
In a world of law and order, of emergent neoliberalism and enduring patriarchy, Nora’s Melbourne functions as an inside-out world, one the reader might inhabit in order to exit and return to something larger. The written Melbourne of Monkey Grip, the criss-cross of Carlton North to Fitzroy that Nora exacts not with ease— after all the novel recounts an intermittently destructive love story— but with blunt candour. Garner’s Melbourne identifies an alternative cartography inscribed atop (alongside? below?) the ‘real’ Melbourne of the reader.
Garner simultaneously deploys the real and translates it, creating a hybrid space in which Nora— and only Nora— exists. When Nora journeys down Elgin, Easey, and Peel streets, what is made apparent is the anachronistic contemporaneity and plurality of place. Her missed encounters of friends driven or ridden past signal an occupation in the streets of more than one ambler, more than the roaming of de Quincey or the ego of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed male protagonist in Hunger.
When the novel is read today, an historic chasm divides the world: eleven prime ministers and forty-four AFL premierships, yet a single stretch of tarmac unites them. As Garner brings Nora into the street, she adds another layer to the imaginability of Melbourne without ever heralding Nora’s experience as Melbourne. The novel does not construct Melbourne any more than it locates in Melbourne a flash of something else—something that will be true only for Nora, and yet in that singularity expose a richness that can be grasped by each reader.
In his monograph Geocriticism, Bertrand Westphal explores the interaction between the real and the imaginary, citing a map as the canonical text in which the two are brought together in supposed faithfulness— though, as he goes on to ask, ‘faithful according to what standard?’ He makes this point in dialogue with Fredric Jameson, whom he cites as ‘[evoking] the schizophrenia of the individual who attempts to map spaces in which the real and hyperreal no longer coincide.’
One might pause to ask at this moment if it is schizophrenic in the sense outlined by Jameson to locate and sell ‘the Monkey Grip house.’ In the translator’s preface to Geocriticism, Robert T Tally Jr describes the literary reality of JRR Tolkien’s middle earth, the fantasy realm of the Lord of the Rings, alongside descriptions of Dickens’ London and Balzac’s Paris. His point isn’t to elide the reality of these constructions but to highlight the literary imagination out of which each is disclosed.
What is affected by each text is a transformation of the extra-textual world as world. The individual novel’s ‘world-making’ is both constructed in relation to the world at large and only ever in relation to its own literary parameters. And so, this relation is not one of either mimesis or constitutive projection. Garner did not ‘write’ Melbourne when she wrote Monkey Grip any more than she wrote herself into a narrative. What the literary city imparts is not an effect on the city itself but on the psychogeographical experience of being in the city. The ‘Monkey Grip house’ is any number of houses that impose themselves as such, indeed the ‘house’ as a psychogeographical reality may not even be a house. The cartographic project of the written text is not a matter of either tangible or intangible product but a process-in-creation, of the Monkey Grip house becoming house, rewritten and redrawn in each moment of reading.
More is perhaps gained at this closing juncture through the writing of Jorge Luis Borges, frequently celebrated as the writer of his home city, Buenos Aires. Borges’ paragraph-length short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ echoes the ambivalence Jameson notes in the attempt to reconcile the real and hyperreal. In it, Borges imagines an empire of cartographers who become so obsessed by the idea of pure representation that they make a map coextensive with the size of the empire. A purely useless and perfect form, the map plays with what it means to represent place. After generations, the map degrades until only tattered fragments remain, ‘delivered up to the inclemencies of sun and winters,’ such that the map now exists in its own psychogeographic state: weathered and lost, ‘inhabited by animals and beggars.’ The generative tension in Borges’ story, which is both mimetic and productive. reappears in the imaginary Melbourne of Monkey Grip. The ‘real’ city of Melbourne is scattered with the tattered remains of the novel’s pure representation, a perfection that is profound in its uselessness, unable to represent anything other than what it is and precisely for the purity of its form, unable to represent.
Moving from the Empire of Cartographers and back to Melbourne, Monkey Grip in hand, I walk down streets coextensive with a novel that can only chart what they are and yet can never coincide with their reality. To walk down Easey Street is now never just a walk down Easey Street: for it’s possible that, somewhere in the tarmac under the pinkish-yellow sky, a scrap of writing on which Nora rides her bike might be seen.