Janette Turner Hospital, The inside story (#Review)

Between 1985 and 1990, Janette Turner Hospital wrote four books which had one-word titles – Borderline (1985, novel), Dislocations (1986, short stories), Charades (1988, novel) and Isobars (1990, short stories). I’ve read the novels, and they imprinted on my mind Hospital’s love of metaphor. In these works, her titles clearly herald her concerns, and I love that. All this is to say that I thought I might kick off my contribution to Bill’s AWW Gen 4 week, with a short story, so I checked The Oxford book of Australian short stories. I found a few to choose from, but the writer who grabbed my attention was Janette Turner Hospital. I’ve read four of her novels, and have her latest short story collection, Forecast: Turbulence, on my TBR. I enjoy reading her.

The story is “The inside story” and it comes from the Dislocations collection, which was first published in Australia in 1986. I specify Australia because, at the time, and for many decades, Hospital was living overseas, primarily Canada and the USA, but elsewhere too. I note, however, that her website says that she returned to live permanently in Australia in 2019.

And now, the story. There is, as you’ll have realised, wordplay in the title. It is set “inside”, with the first person narrator being a teacher of a college literature course in a jail – an American one I presume, though it’s not specified. However, it is also about the “inside” of the characters, about their selves, particularly the narrator. The story involves this narrator, speaking from a later time, telling about the period she spent as a teacher in the jail, sharing her experience and some of the interactions she had with the inmates. So, she is also an outsider, coming from outside, and also an outsider in terms of not having shared experience with her students. For the first half of so of the story, her students are simply “they”, suggesting they are alike in their attitudes and reactions to her, but towards the end two, Jed and Joe, are differentiated.

For budgetary reasons, our narrator is limited in what she can teach to what’s available, so she chooses Malamud’s The fixer as a follow-up to Sozhenistsyn’s One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich which had not gone down well. She’s surprised, thinking they’d “enjoy the prisoner as hero”. Not this lot. After all, these are the people who had told her:

We can’t afford your romantic empathy … Please check your angst in at the cloakroom, before you see us.

Still, our narrator tries:

‘Kierkegaard suggested that we are all equally despairing, but unless we can write and become famous for our despair, it is not worth the trouble to despair and show it.

You people with a tragic world view, they sighed, you make like so difficult for the rest of us.

And so the story continues, with the narrator trying to understand their experience, and how they manage the brutality of prison life, while they fend off her desire to understand and “reform them with culture”. When she suggests reading Franz Fanon, they are not interested in “another tragic bloody humanist–because that would be the kind of invasion of our head space we can’t afford in here”. In other words, while she is concerned about their “moral survival”, eschewing the cynicism of her colleagues, their focus is pure survival.

She’s not the only one who started with “idealism and compassion”. Another is a guard, but he learns:

The institution could only operate in black and white, he said. Grey got it from both sides. Get out, he said, while you’re still human.

Inevitably, there is violence, and the job comes to an end.

I enjoyed the story, though my brief search of the internet suggests that it is not mentioned the way some others are from the collection. Anthology editor Michael Wilding, however, must have liked it, though he doesn’t mention it in his preface. There is a lot to think about here in terms of dislocations – the prisoners from their lives, for a start, and our narrator’s confrontation with ideal versus reality. Who is our narrator? Does she stand for liberal do-gooders that I can relate to from the 1970s and 80s. Why did she take this job, and is her closing answer completely honest?

On Hospital’s website is a link to an interview with literary editor, Steven Romei, in which she tells him that

All of my writing career is about how human beings negotiate dark matter. I am extremely interested in how people negotiate catastrophe, not because I’m morbidly interested in it but because I’m interested in the secret of resilience, that’s what I’m always exploring in the stories and the novels.

As for how this story fits into Bill’s conception of Gen 4 (see my first paragraph), I’m not sure. Hospital was an expatriate Australian writer when she wrote this, which places her at a remove from specific Australian movements, but – maybe – you could read it as occupying a transition between 196Os and 70s idealism and the cynical neoliberalism of the late 1980s. Then again, it could just be itself, and reflective of Hospital’s ongoing interest in “moral survival” and outsiderness, not to mention “dark matter”.

Janette Turner Hospital
“The inside story”
in The Oxford book of Australia short stories (ed. Michael Wilding)
Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
Orig. pub. in Dislocations, 1987
pp. 288-294
ISBN: 9780195536102

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lost (Mini-review)

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus lostLast year I did a mini-review of Elizabeth Jolley’s An innocent gentleman using some scrappy notes from when I read the book long before blogging. This post on Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus lost has similar origins. I’m keen to add it here because I’ve read several of her novels, but none since blogging, and I really want her represented here.

Orpheus lost commences in Boston and is about Leela, a mathematician from the South, and the Australian musician, Mishka the subway-playing violinist, whom she meets.  They become lovers, until suddenly, after a subway explosion in which terrorism is suspected, Leela is taken to an interrogation centre where an old friend Cobb tells her that Mishka isn’t who she thinks he is. Meanwhile, Mishka is looking for his missing father, and heads off to the Middle East. The scene is set for what becomes, in fact, a literary thriller.

In a conversation* with Jason Steger on The Age online book club, Hospital said she had no political agenda but was interested in how people emotionally handle the shock of being randomly caught up in political action, and in what moral decisions they make. In other words, she’s interested in the moral and emotional repercussions of what happens when people get caught up because what they do looks dangerous but actually isn’t. (This is similar, in fact, to what happens in Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist). It’s nightmarish stuff. Hospital talked about the trading of civil liberties for safety in the post-9/11 world, something she sees as a dangerous response. It makes it rather relevant still today doesn’t it?

However, she also talked about Orpheus and Eurydice being one of the great love stories of all time, and suggested that it is as much about loss, grief and yearning, as it is about love. But she was tired, she said, of the women always being the rescued ones. So she decided to give it a feminist twist and invert it. Consequently, in Orpheus lost, the man’s the one snatched away, and she’s the rescuer. Now that’s surely political!

The novel is a multiple-point-of-view novel and opens with Leela’s voice. We learn that she is fascinated by maths (numbers) and on the second page she quotes a seventeenth century mathematician saying ‘Obsession….is its own heaven and hell’. This theory is played out in the novel. The three main protagonists all have obsessions: Leela is obsessed with maths (which she believes always provides an answer to things) and with Mishka; Mishka is obsessed with music and with his identity (which involves his missing ‘father’); and Cobb is obsessed with Leela. There are other obsessions in the novel, though, too – the Islamic fundamentalists, Leela’s father with his religious fundamentalism, and other obsessive musicians and mathematicians.

Into this world of obsessed people, comes terror – and alongside terror, as we all know only too well, is the desperation for safety. Safety is a constant issue throughout the book. For example Cobb describes two types of people – those who take safety for granted and those who know it’s a precious thing. He suggests that the former create risks for the latter.

Unfortunately, I seem not to have the book anymore – which is unusual for me. Perhaps I’d borrowed it! So what I want to focus on is my experience of reading Hospital, rather than on the plot. She’s one of our more structured or tightly-styled writers. This means that I read her with my head as much as with my heart because she always has a lot going on. There is, for example, her strong use of recurring motifs and metaphors, such as, in this novel, photographs. They play several roles: they represent love, connections between people, surveillance, evidence, and the idea of truth vs fiction. I enjoy teasing out these sorts of things. Music and maths are other significant motifs. For some readers, and for me on occasions, Hospital can push her metaphors too hard but I thought they worked here.

And then, alongside multiple points of view and these recurring motifs and metaphors, there are structural devices, such as her use of parallels to set up points of likeness and tension between her characters. The three main protagonists all lost a parent early (Cobb and Leela their mothers, and Mishka never knew his father); Cobb and Leela both have ‘damaged’ fathers; the main characters all have small town upbringings in ‘odd’ places (the Deep South in a town called Promised Land, and the Daintree which is described as ‘the promised land’). The whole idea of “promised lands” is rich for exploration in our modern world of nationhoods!

Anyhow, to conclude this mini-review, lessons are learnt in the novel. Cobb, who initially wants to make Leela fear, comes to regret his actions. And Leela, who has to confront the reality of fear, also learns that random events which you can’t always control do occur. Steger says the book is about redemption – but, despite what Hospital says, I can’t help thinking it is also about politics. Like most of her novels, it’s challenging to read, because she’s a writer who extends, probes and pushes – occasionally, perhaps, a little too much – but that, to me, makes her always worth reading.

Bill (The Australian Legend)‘s review will fill you in nicely on more of the details.

aww2017 badgeJanette Turner Hospital
Orpheus lost
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2007

* I couldn’t get the actual conversation to load when I checked this old link, but I’m adding it here in case it was just a temporary gremlin.