I’m not going to beat about the bush but tell it like it is: I absolutely gobbled up Kate Jennings’ Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings 1970-2010. It took me a fortnight to read it, partly because I’ve been pretty busy but also because there was so much to savour and take in that I did a lot of stopping and thinking. That said, I do have one whinge, so I’ll get it over with now: it has no index. The book is described as an “unconventional” or “fragmented” autobiography and it is chock full of content. She mentions people, she discusses books and genres, she talks about politics, economics and feminism, not to mention all sorts of enthusiasms including, would you believe, swimming pools and shopping! I can see myself wanting to refer to it again and again but each time I’ll have to flip through it to find the idea or topic that I want to explore. Just as well I’m a marginalia person is all I can say!
So, who is Kate Jennings (b. 1948)? She is an Australian-born writer (poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist) and feminist, who stunned Australia with her Front Lawn speech in 1970, confronting progressive men, in particular, with their sexism. She moved to New York at the end of the 1970s and, in one of her iterations, worked as a speechwriter for a couple of large Wall Street firms in the 1990s. Somehow, she seems to have managed to do that without losing her critical eye. I have not yet read her novels, but will (finally, and rather coincidentally) be reading Snake in the next month or so.
Why did I like the book? This is how Jennings describes it in her preface:
This book, then, is a stand-in memoir. I’ve assembled pieces – essays, speeches and poems, along with short stories and passages from my novels that actually happened – so that a reader might have a narrative of sorts.
On reading this you could be forgiven for fearing a mish-mash but fortunately that’s not what you get. The book is divided into 9 parts, each introduced by Jennings with a current reflection on the aspect of her life and career covered by that part. These parts move more or less chronologically through her life, though the readings themselves jump around a bit. This is because, like most of us really, she revisits some parts of her life many years after they occur, while others are documented at the time of their occurrence. The press release which came with my copy describes it in the following terms: “no-holds-barred” and “pull-no-punches”. What’s that, you say? They’re clichés! They are, but they describe the book perfectly, because this is a fiercely honest book written by a rather formidable woman. How else to describe someone who defiantly affirms, in almost one breath, her commitment to feminism and Jimmy Choo shoes, who calls herself a pragmatist but also argues passionately that “these are times of moral poverty”.
I think at this point I will just dot-point the parts to give you a sense of what she covers, because I fully intend to explore many of her ideas in more detail in the coming weeks/months.
- Presumption: the making of her intellect, covering the years from 1970 to the late 1980s.
- A child of grace, a landscape of progress: her childhood in the Riverina area of New South Wales, told mainly through excerpts from her novels and poems.
- Cause and not symptom: her youth, focusing particularly on her introduction to alcohol (and subsequent joining of AA).
- You don’t understand! What do you know! You don’t live here!: the life of an Australian expat in the USA explored mostly through her interviews with three other expat writers: Sumner Locke Elliott, Shirley Hazzard and Ray Mathew.
- Catching a man, Eating him: her romantic life, which, with some self-mockery, she views through the songs of Dusty Springfield.
- Crazed, delinquent fabulousness: an eye-opening sampler of her essays from 1990 to 2009 showing what a hard woman she is to pin down!
- A bright, guilty world: more essays, these ones about her life as a speechwriter on Wall Street during the 1990s, including the full text of her Quarterly Essay 32, titled “American revolution: The fall of Wall Street and the rise of Barack Obama“. She has much to say about the GFC.
- Irrelevance is deadly: how literature has (or hasn’t) dealt with the issue of business and finance.
- Cut the shit: two no-holds-barred (yep, bring on the cliché!) essays which, she says, bring us back full circle to her main themes: “The first, a foray into my dusty childhood and Aussie alcoholism and masculinity through the re-release of the movie Wake in Fright, and the second, into poetry and the reasons I forsook it – or it, me – and a pet peeve: closed minds”.
I know it’s a bit of a copout, but I feel I can’t do justice to this book without writing my own Quarterly Essay and so, as I’ve already said above, I will return to it in future posts. In the meantime, the question to ask is: How does it work as an autobiography or “stand-in memoir”. I say very well. It does the things I look for: it tells me the main facts of her life, it shows me her interests, beliefs and values, and it gives me a sense of her personality (which is intelligent, opinionated, fearless and principled). Fragmented it might be in structure, but coherent it is in portraying a life.
In one of the poems she includes in the book, she writes:
… Saying simple things
well or complicated things simply is an art
that is fast disappearing …
Fortunately it is an art that Kate Jennings has not lost.
Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings 1970-2010
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)