The sourer self of Sean O’Beirne
It’s not easy being a critic and Sean O’Beirne struggles modestly with the role in On Helen Garner, the latest in the Writers on Writers series by Black Inc.
O’Beirne works for Readings as a bookseller and can often be seen around the CBD in a professional role.
But he likes to keep a low profile even though he admires feisty behaviour on the part of authors.
When Garner writes that she yanked the ponytail of a girl being rude to others on the city streets, O’Beirne gives her a big tick of approval.
On Helen Garner is a strong, confessional kind of book, unusual for literary criticism in that O’Beirne is not trying to find evidence for a contention but to express his admiration for Garner.
He loves her strong sense of self and wishes he was more like her.
When he first read Monkey Grip as a teenager, he couldn’t believe that a narrator could stay so close to self. It was liberating for him to have a model for separating himself from the blokey dominance of the outer suburbs.
To this end, he explores the difference between fiction (he has published a collection of short stories A Couple of Things Before the End) and non-fiction in terms of self-exposure.
Garner’s oeuvre ranges from the auto-fiction of Monkey Grip through fiction involving characters to the non-fiction where she herself has turned outwards to take on causes.
He compares his own reticence, in which he reveals through character, to her bolder use of emotion and less-disguised telling.
In The First Stone for example, when the students wouldn’t talk to her, she wrote: “I wanted to … shake them until their teeth rattled.”
He values this confessional approach because it’s a less socially acceptable form of storytelling than the weaker but attractive acting out through impersonation that he employs.
There is no denying that Garner is excellent at attracting the reader’s attention to her plight as a writer.
In Joe Cinque’s Consolation she creates the impression of a broken-down hack onto her third failed marriage who writes the book because she has nothing better to do.
Some who have studied Garner at uni are resentful because she has dirtied up the genre of True Crime with these incursions of self.
But O’Beirne loves these incursions. He is swift to condemn some of her books such as Cosmo Cosmolino as “bad” because she stops figuring and lapses into metaphysical mode.
Is O’Beirne overly impressed by Garner’s willingness to express emotion, often in the form of rage or astonishment?
Does he undersell his own command of the emotional terrain, particularly disappointment, which features so heavily in A Couple of Things, even if it is fiction?
Who could forget the girl who hopes to impress Barry Humphries with her routine or the boy who gorges on candy to carry favour or the boy scout who always keeps a coin in his pocket for a call home?
Some roles are highly visible yet those playing the roles wish to remain invisible and that is their prerogative •