Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (#BookReview)

Maria Tumarkin, AxiomaticA couple of weeks ago, I posted a guest post by Amanda for Maria Tumarkin’s book of essays, Axiomatic. At the time that post was negotiated, I had no immediate plans to read the book myself, but that changed when Brother Gums and family gave me a copy for Christmas …

Now, if you are a regular reader here, you may remember that Amanda had mixed feelings about the book. She liked the writing, and found the analysis was “at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues”. But, she found the book “unrelenting”, “not balanced or fair”, and ultimately nihilistic in not offering hope or, to put it simply, ways forward. She concluded by asking what Tumarkin wanted to achieve with the book. Having now read the book, all of these comments make sense to me, but my response is more positive. Perhaps it’s because this Ukrainian-born Australian Tumarkin reminds me of Helen Garner whose bold, clear-eyed writing about tricky subjects I greatly appreciate. Indeed, Garner is quoted on the back of my edition, describing Tumarkin as charging “headlong into the worst and best of us, with an iron refusal to soften or decorate…” That’s Garner, and that’s Tumarkin.

Axiomatic comprises five long essays, each interrogating an axiom:

  • time heals all wounds
  • those who forget the past are condemned to re–––––
  • history repeats itself
  • give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman
  • you can’t enter the same river twice

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Tumarkin doesn’t unquestionably accept these axioms, showing them instead to be simplistic or misguided, if not, false.

In the first essay, she explores the notion that “Time heals all wounds” through the prism of teenage suicide. At one point she references psychologist Erminia Colucci’s study of “attitudes to suicide and suicidal thoughts among young people in Italy, Australia, India”, and adds, in parentheses:

(There are intellectually rigorous reasons for her choice of countries. There are lovely simple ones too: ‘I am Italian. I love Australia. I am fascinated by India.’)

This description could also be applied to Tumarkin’s rather idiosyncratic approach to her book. There is intellectual rigour – at least to the best of my knowledge and experience – but it also frequently feels personal, subjective, drawing on stories that interest her, that relate to her experiences, and that may not, initially anyhow, seem the most obvious choices. A lot of names – like Colucci’s, for example – are given, but this is not a foot-noted academic book, so you need to use your search engine if you want to check out the authorities she invokes. All this suggests that the book belongs to the creative non-fiction genre, one for which Garner, too, is well recognised. Amanda described Tumarkin’s writing as “a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique”. I’d agree, and add “personal reflection”.

But, now, how to discuss this complicated, rather slippery book? Discuss each of the essays, teasing out the ideas Tumarkin explores? Choose just one essay, and use it to discuss Tumarkin’s approach? Or, just focus on some specific aspects of the book that stood out for me? I’m opting for the latter.

What most appealed to me is the iconoclastic way Tumarkin thinks, the way she looks behind the assumptions we make, confronting the platitudes, or the way she asks questions from different (but often logical) angles. Regarding adolescent suicide in “Time heals all wounds”, for example, she identifies the nature of adolescence itself:

… one of adolescence’s constants is not knowing what’s happening inside you. And by extension not knowing what you’re capable of.

How do schools, society, handle this inherently unstable nature of adolescence? Then there’s the current “untreated depression” model of suicide causation, an explanation more common, Colucci tells her, in Australia than in Italy and India. What are the implications of this? This is a powerful essay – offering no resolution or answers. Just questions. I’d argue, though, that there’s value in that. Without asking the right questions, there can be no answers?

In “History repeats itself”, Tumarkin applies her pen to the justice system and the way it treats “offenders”, the way it assumes that they’ll re-offend, and then behaves, treats them, accordingly. It’s devastating – and certainly discomforts those of us, including herself she admits, living “cushy middle-class” lives.

Tumarkin discusses how offenders fall through the cracks. For example, she writes:

It’s a real issue, how to keep people real. And not make them into catchphrases for banners, appendixes to principles … Many of those who advocate on behalf of others don’t want a connection with those they are advocating for.

And yet, there are paradoxes, she sees, in connecting. Beware what you start if you can’t see it through. What, for example, does giving up drugs do to a person whose whole life is bound up in that community? What indeed? Do you have an answer?

(An aside: I can’t resist mentioning here that the idea of “connecting” recurs several times in the book, reminding me of EM Forster’s Howards End and its theme, “only connect”.)

Then there’s the notion of “knowing [my emphasis] your life is precious” and the assumption that that is “the default state of the human psyche”. But

How about all those people for whom their life does not feel precious? Why not is often the easy bit to get [and she then catalogues the reasons why not]. A harder question is can the feeling your life’s worth shit be fixed, whether from outside in, or inside out? Can it? All the services offering legal aid, food, counselling, employment (tedious employment), shelter, they cannot get close to this worth-shit feeling … I mean this feeling’s impervious to being messed with, it is too deep and diffused … And when this feeling is there it skews the survival instinct  …

“History repeats itself” also provides examples of another feature of the book – its writing. There are perfect (often gut-wrenching) descriptions like this:

Perhaps one way of putting it is that many of Vanda’s [her main “guide” in this essay] clients live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks. As they are bandaging their wounds, cleaning them out with rainwater, putting bones back into sockets, another truck’s coming.

Beyond this, the writing is varied, and rather eccentric, slipping from formal perfection, dialogue and narrative, to, at times, idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation that stop you in your tracks, forcing you to think about what she is saying. Compounding this are digressions and odd juxtapositions which also keep the grey matter exercised.

There is so much more to say about the content, style, thought processes, and inspirations for the book, not to mention the ‘yes’ moments – so many of those – but I’ll close with what I see as a unifying idea running through the five essays – the past. How the past affects us, how we perceive and deal with it. I’m not sure I fully grasped her meaning on one reading – and maybe there is no one meaning. But I sense she’s saying that although the past is significant, although it doesn’t “disappear”, we are not – to quote one of her contacts – “all sum totals of our histories.” That idea is too simplistic – and yet is the way it is too often viewed, which limits us, repeatedly, in our interactions with each other, personally, politically and systemically.

Axiomatic is, for me, a compassionate work. While Amanda sees it as lacking hope, I see it as realistic. True, it doesn’t offer answers. As Vanda says, “there are no fairytale endings.” Why not, Tumarkin asks. “Because,” replies Vanda, “people are people.” And that, I’d say, is the fundamental humanity of this slippery, uncomfortable, provocative book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMaria Tumarkin
Brow Books, 2018
ISBN: 9781925704051

34 thoughts on “Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (#BookReview)

  1. This set of essays sounds fascinating. I think that sometimes writing needs to be a bit dark and perhaps lacking in hard answers. The passages that you quoted are very well written. I agree that the one from History Repeats Itself is real quality writing.

  2. I admire both Garner’s writing and her honesty/self-examination. I might buy this one for a friend (who got (and liked) The Trauma Cleaner for christmas). I have a sort of Perth-wide TBR which means more books get read).

  3. Excellent review, Sue. I think your comment ‘what most appealed to me is the iconoclastic way Tumarkin thinks, the way she looks behind the assumptions we make, confronting the platitudes, or the way she asks questions from different (but often logical) angles’ nailed it for me. She is a very good guide to skewering those assumptions and platitudes, something I think we all need to do, and I certainly don’t do enough. Perhaps this is why I find the book refreshing rather than nihilistic. It’s exciting to see a mind working in this way.

  4. Excellent review, WG. The whole tenor of the book for me was it’s brave, fierce, unapologetic dismantling of the slick platitudes that have taken the place of genuine thought and compassion in our understanding of what people face in their lives. To be hit by a truck can too often mean you are fated to hit by another one coming down the highway.

    • Thanks Sara. I wanted to mention the Vera chapter on “survivors” too, given your previous comment, because there was such interesting discussion there, but there’s so much here, to discuss! I’m pondering a brief follow up post with just a few points, but that may be superfluous.

      It’s interesting how people can respond so differently to a work like this, I think.

    • I think it could very well be, Kate. It won the Best Writing Award in the Melbourne Prize for Literature. I’d love it to be there – because it’s good and because at least I’ll have read ONE book!

  5. She sounds a fascinating writer and its good to have somebody questioning platitudes (something that writers should always be up to). “Complicated, rather slippery ” books may be rather valuable to read.

  6. I don’t know that I’ve read too many works that are both scholarly essays and creative nonfiction. I feel like the combination would make me hesitate to believe the author, as it becomes my job to determine what is factual and what is shaped to be both “real” and engaging to read.

    • That’s an interesting point Melanie. I’d say that in relation to this particular book, and perhaps to essays in general, the point is not so much the facts but the ideas, in this case the questioning of assumptions. If the questions make sense, it probably doesn’t matter if “examples” used to explore them are 100% factual? However, my understanding is that creative non-fiction by definition is factually accurate. Edges can be pushed where gaps in knowledge exist, but in my experience that’s usually clear from the text. Anyhow, in this book, I never felt concerned about “facts” because her ideas were making sense and the stories she uses to explore them certainly felt reliable and authentic. It’s more that her technique for exploring them is not the traditional formal argumentation. She digresses, draws on case studies and other people’s experiences, inserts her own personal reflections first person rather than third person, alludes to literature (classics, contemporary writers), etc.

      I must say, though, that for me ideas and truths always trump facts – so I rarely get hung up on the factual side of what I’m reading unless the facts are the critical thing, the thing I’m reading for. Otherwise, I trust myself to know what’s “real” and to be able to discern the difference. Is that naive?

      • I’m not sure. I know that if I’m reading a biography or autobiography or book that explores a subject, I want it to be as factually accurate are possible. That’s what those genres are for. Creative nonfiction has loads of wiggle room, though. For instance, a writer may spend lots of time on a fictional story as a way to explore a time period in his/her life. The story is one big metaphor. In creative nonfiction, the story is supposed to be as truthful to reality as possible, but the way it’s told is made “more pleasurable” to read by including lots of imagery, metaphor, etc. They’re rarely straightforward and often explore one theme in a person’s life rather than the entire life.

        • My experience with biographies that are more in the “creative” vein is that those places where they are not “factual” is usually where there are gaps in the record – and the biographer makes it very clear where the line occurs between “fact” and their imagination. I’ve never had a problem with that. In fact, sometimes I have more problems with those that purport to be just presenting fact because those ones rarely give you the sense that the biographer (or autobiographer) has selected those facts – which distorts the “truth” in a way not clear to the reader – and has ordered the facts they’ve selected in a particular way to tell the story they want to tell. I therefore don’t easily accept those works that present the facts with no openness about interpretation as being the truth. I like it much better when the biographer takes us on their journey, letting us see the decisions they’ve made and often why they’ve made those decisions. That’s what I find in creative non-fiction, and why I like it.

          Helen Garner, for example, presents the “facts” from her perspective, leaving you in no doubt that it’s her perspective but making it easy for you to draw your own conclusions from those same facts because she’s been very clear about what she’s doing.

        • Oh! I see what you’re saying now. The type of biography you prefer reminds me more of investigative journalism in the United States. A person goes on a journey to find our information, and we get both that journey and that information. Creative nonfiction is actually a category of writing and study in the U.S. with fairly definitive facets, which is where I got confused. Yes, I definitely enjoy the type of book you’re talking about. And you’re right about biographers and autobiographers being biased. People generally agree that Zora Neale Hurston’s autobio is a heap of lies, but isn’t her ability to tell lies the reason we love her? 🙂

        • Thanks Melanie. I think what you describe as Creative non-fiction in the USA IS the same here (and Tumarkin I believe teaches it here) – it’s just that I think it has a broad definition. I wouldn’t call all investigative journalism creative non-fiction. For me it depends on the techniques used to present it as well as the “journey” approach. But, I think we understand each other better now!

          Haha re Hurston! Yes.

  7. So interesting to have both your and Amanda’s perspective on the book. My takeaway is that it must be a good book to provoke such good and thoughtful responses.

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