Reviews: Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

Steph Maker takes a look at the late seventies Australian junkie tale Monkey Grip.

My book club’s discussion of Monkey Grip admittedly deteriorated into an angry duologue regarding the mediocrity of Australian literature. With that brutal honesty I feel compelled to admit another few things. Firstly, this learned book club I speak of – the brains trust, the think tank – is actually my friend and I gabbing on the phone about all kinds of nonsense, occasionally books we’ve poured over. Secondly, our bulk knowledge of Australian literature consists of the information imparted to us from a small collection of books forced upon us by a woman whose office was a hovel that smelled at least partially of weed and possibly urine. On receipt of this knowledge someone ripped open a packet of cereal and bequeathed us both arts degrees. Given this prestigious honour I’ve received I feel I’m in a position to rip on OzLit. I’m still culturally cringing after having read Monkey Grip. As such, I ask you to tell me about an Australian author you could mention in the same breath as Hemmingway or Joyce or even the inimitable Ms Woolf. I would imagine that you’d rather not.

Helen Garner?

Good try. But no. However, Monkey Grip might even be better than Malouf’s Johnno. Big Call, I know.

In Monkey Grip you have yourself another junkie drama. In essence, there’s this sheila who fucks about with a small collection of men. There’s one in particular though that seems to hold a greater allure for Nora – our heroine. Note the pun I’ve just made. The man that piques her interest is Javo (the junkie). Note Garner’s clever alliteration. See what I’m saying about the absence of quality on Australian novels. Nora develops this pseudo romantic coupling with this guy. They fornicate quite a bit. Then the book ends. Arguably, Monkey Grip doesn’t pack the same punch today as it might have done on its initial release. The synopsis “mad hippies fucking” just isn’t as off-putting as it may have been thirty years ago. Then again, I may be very wrong; it was the ‘70’s after all.

The thing that I think sets these people apart is not their drug use or their rampant sexual escapades (none of which are detailed particularly graphically, much to my disappointment) but something that is outlined on the very first page. Apparently, this household of fiends eat bacon for breakfast every day. Sure, your average Aussie, like Nora, has probably smoked up once or twice in their life, popped a few pills maybe – but could they possibly claim to have eaten bacon every day for even a year? I somehow doubt it. It seems like a great lifestyle; a fascinating way of life. In the end though, it’s no On The Road. It’s no Fear and Loathing. It’s not even Go Ask Alice. Nonetheless, it’s a page-turner. I was damned if I could put it down. And in closing, I suppose that I wouldn’t be a proper journalist if I didn’t say it was ‘addictive’.

– Steph Maker


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