S-S-S Snake, Kate Jennings’ Snake, that is

I thoroughly enjoyed Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay on Helen Garner’s Cosmo cosmolino (1992) in Reading like an Australian writer. Consequently, I plan, over time, to read and share other essays in this book – at least those discussing books I’ve reviewed here. As it happens, there is an essay by Debra Adelaide on Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review), and it’s the perfect next cab off the rank. Not only have I already posted this year on Erik Jensen’s longer essay on the book in the Writers on writers series, but Snake is a novella, so I’m using this post as a contribution to Cathy’s (746books) Novellas in November. I hope that’s not too cheeky.

I’ll start, though, by introducing Debra Adelaide. A novelist with a few books under her belt, including The women’s pages which I’ve reviewed, she first became known to me through her work on early Australian women writers, her Bibliography of Australian women’s literature, 1795-1990 (1991) and A bright and fiery troop: Australian women writers of the nineteenth century (1988). Like many writers, she also teaches creative writing, and Snake is one of the texts she regularly sets.

So Snake – for those who don’t know – draws from Jennings’ life, and tells the story of a lively, imaginative woman, Irene, who marries a decent but boring man, Rex. It cannot work, and the consequences are dire.

Jensen’s and Adelaide’s essays are very different. This is partly because Jensen’s, being in the Writers on writers series, focuses on the writer, whilst Adelaide’s in Reading like an Australian writer focuses on the reading and writing. Not surprisingly, the approach Adelaide takes is closer to mine – except that her writerly perspective is more astute, centred and expository.

The elastic novella

Early in her essay, Adelaide specifically address its form as a novella, saying that Snake demonstrates “how wonderfully elastic the novella can be”. In Snake‘s case, it is “so elastic that it can almost be prose poetry”. It is also “audaciously” abbreviated. She’s right – this is one spare novel.

Adelaide identifies three main reasons that she sets this text for her students – “its poetic brevity, its ‘experimental’ form, and its intriguing, sometimes maddening, allusions to and quotes from numerous literary and cultural references”.

It is, she says, the perfect set text, because it can be easily read in one night and remembered, but,

Brevity does not mean simplicity: its complex themes ripple out and take their time before finally landing on the muddy shores of our imagination.

This is what makes Snake such a good and memorable read.

The three s’s

Adelaide divides her essay into three main sections, those three s’s in the title: Structure; Serpents; and Scenes, sex and Serena McGarry.

I love discussions of structure, because structure can so often help inform the meaning. When a short novel like Snake has a complex structure, it is worth taking note. Adelaide talks about her own method of writing and wonders about Jennings’ approach. She doesn’t know how Jennings works, but she does say that this novel

opened up my eyes to the possibilities of writing a novel that was straightforward yet clever in structure, that was stripped back to its narrative bones, and yet at the same time managed to be multilayered, dense, poetic and unforgettable.

She discusses the novel’s four-part structure, and explains how, although the book is primarily about the mother Irene, it manages to convey the POVs of all four characters, thus “deftly” delivering a portrait of the whole family. Simultaneoulsy, with its use of second person at the beginning and end, “it offers a powerful sense of everyperson”. I love this analysis. I also enjoyed her further discussion of second person, which accords with some of my assumptions about this voice. One of the points she makes is how second person makes (can make) the reader complicit, which is one of the reasons Madeleine Dickie used it in Red can origami (my post).

Adelaide also briefly discusses an issue that fascinates her, as it does me – “the unlikable character in fiction”. Irene is “remote, ruthless and selfish”, and yet, despite Snake‘s “staccato delivery and disparate parts”, Jennings manages to maintain the focus on Irene “without alienating us from her”.

However, the section I most enjoyed is Adelaide’s discussion of Serpents. She references DH Lawrence’s poem “Snake”, which Jennings quotes from in the novella, and Henry Lawson’s short story “The drover’s wife”. She also references Jensen’s discussion of snakes, because, of course, he discussed them too. The point is that snakes are both metaphorical (the cause of the original fall of humankind, and so on) and actual (a real threat to vulnerable children, dogs and women.)

And so, the heart of Jennings’ Snake lies in, says Adelaide, “the universal fear of the serpent, that potent post-lapsarian symbol of all evil and danger”. All associations with snakes race through our minds, she says, as we read this novel. This is one of the ways a spare novel can lay down meaning on top of meaning.

In the third section, Adelaide discusses Jennings’ “scrupulous clarity”, using a few examples from the novel. One is the murder-suicide of Serena McGarry and her husband. Adelaide explores how much, in less than 100 words, Jennings conveys about Serena, and its implications for Irene. Adelaide makes the point that these “marvellously condensed” scenes “contain entire longer stories within them”. She sometimes uses them as springboards for students to develop their own stories. I would add that this sort of writing can make a book a great reading group book because it encourages readers to think about characters – who they are, why they are who they are, and why the writer has written them this way. Endless discussion can ensue!

Adelaide concludes by saying that Snake is “a novel that replays re-readings well out of proportion to its size”. I second that.

Debra Adelaide
“Structure, serpents and Serena McGarry: Kate Jennings’ Snake
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 219-232
ISBN: 9781742236704

Erik Jensen, On Kate Jennings (Writers on writers) (#BookReview)

It took Kate Jennings’ death for me to finally pick up one of Black Inc’s Writers on writers books, Erik Jensen’s On Kate Jennings. The series, says Black Inc, involves leading authors reflecting “on an Australian writer who has inspired and influenced them”. It continues, “Provocative and crisp, these books start a fresh conversation between past and present, shed new light on the craft of writing, and introduce some intriguing and talented authors and their work.” Let’s see how Erik Jensen goes!

But, who is Erik Jensen? Most of the series’ writers are well-known, such as Alice Pung, Stan Grant, Michelle de Kretser and Nam Le, but a couple are less so. Jensen is a Walkley award-winning Australian journalist and author. He’s probably best known for being a founder, and still editor, of The Saturday Paper. However, in 2014, he also wrote a biography, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen. It won a NIB Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Victorian Literary Awards’ Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction. As you’d expect for this series, then, he has some cred.

However, his writing seems to be primarily non-fiction, so why Kate Jennings? Fortunately, he answers that in the opening paragraphs:

I had looked up Kate because I was a fan of her essays – pieces about her life, mostly, ruthless in their precision.

In the next paragraph, he launches without warning into describing the opening of Snake (my review), Jennings’ autobiographical novel. You have to be familiar with Jennings and Snake to get what’s going on here, but it’s unlikely you’d be reading this, I think, if you weren’t. What follows is an introduction to Kate Jennings, realised through interweaving the content and trajectory of this novel with his interviews and communications with Jennings and, occasionally, others.

I was moved by the insights, and impressed by the richness of the portrait Jensen achieves in around 100 small-book pages. He is clearly very fond of Jennings. Indeed, he concludes his essay with

This essay is for Kate Jennings. It is a love letter to her work and to the life that produced it. As a friend and a writer, I am grateful for both. More than anything, I want to thank Kate for the generosity she has shown – in agreeing to this essay, in being so open with the material, and in how with her own work she has shown me what to do.

However, Snake is a tough book. It portrays a dysfunctional family, with a difficult and self-centred mother. Jennings tells Jensen, “I was so very lonely. And at the mercy of my mother.” To his credit, Jensen also talks to Jennings’ brother, Dare, whose perspective on the family is very different. Dare, writes Jensen, “remembers the same mother Kate does, although he remembers her differently. They had a very different relationship. It was warm, close.” Dare supports Kate, but his experience of the family was different. He was the adored son.

This brings me to that whole issue of autobiographical fiction, which is Jennings’ forte (much like her friend, Helen Garner’s.) Jensen writes that “Kate writes close to life. Not completely close, she says. She does make up things. ‘I round the corners,’ she says, ‘and make the really ghastly stuff a little better.’” She writes to work out what she thinks. She also says that “the emotions were autobiographical but not necessarily the story“. This is a significant distinction, and serves as a reminder that fiction needs to be “true” but should not be read as “factual”.

Much of this wasn’t particularly new to me, given I’ve read both Snake and her fragmented biography, Trouble. However, Jensen value adds. For example, he writes that he sees Snake as “the Great Australian novel”. He gives it to people inscribing it as such. One recipient was Ian Donaldson, a former professor of English at Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. Jensen shares Donaldson’s reaction:

‘The great Australian novel?’ he writes the next morning. ‘Yes, I’d agree, it certainly warrants that sort of ranking, though that phrase as conventionally used conjures up a kind of laborious realism which Snake so spectacularly lacks. I loved its spareness, its brevity, its ability – like the creature it mimics – to strike without warning then vanish without trace.’

You can see why I like Snake too – its spareness! I was interested in Johnson’s comment that a GAN “conventionally … conjures up a kind of laborious realism”. Do you agree? Anyhow, Snake, “a poet’s novel” as Jensen calls it, is not that.

After spending some time on the content of the novel, Jensen also discusses its path to publication (including the rejections) and its reception. Australian reviewer Elizabeth Riddell was not particularly impressed, but in North America, Carol Shields (in The New York Times) and the Publisher’s Weekly, were highly positive. Yet, the novel was soon “lost”, or, as Jennings put it, “pretty well ignored”, largely she felt due to the feminists who “couldn’t accept the treatment she gave her mother”. Seven years later, however, it was re-released, with the Age describing it as “probably the most accomplished, realistic novel about bush life to be produced in the past decade”.

Jennings shares much of her life with Jensen, including her challenges with alcohol and depression, and her loving marriage to Bob Cato. The result is a picture of someone who was both “obstinate and fragile”, as Jensen writes in his The Saturday Paper obituary (8 May 2021), who had great successes but also faced tough challenges, and who was, above all, an uncompromising and stylish writer.

In other words, through exploring Snake, from multiple perspectives, supported by critical truths about Jennings’ life, Jensen does meet Black Inc’s stated aims. It’s intelligent and compelling. I have now bought another in the series.

Erik Jensen,
On Kate Jennings: Writers on writers
Carlton: Black Inc, 2017
ISBN: 9781925435818

Monday musings on Australian literature: Kate Jennings (1948-2021)

Kate Jennings, Moral Hazard

Strangely, Australian writer and intellectual, Kate Jennings, has been in the air lately, even though she has lived in New York since 1979. She’s been in blogosphere because blogger Kim Forrester reviewed her novella, Moral hazard, just last month, but she’s been more broadly visible too because she features in the documentary Brazen hussies which screened in cinemas last year, and was broadcast on ABC-TV in a shortened version, this year. I saw both versions, and was inspired by Jennings’ bravery and passion in speaking for women at a 1970 Vietnam Moratorium march. This speech marks, many believe, the beginning of the second wave of feminism in Australia.

Kate Jennings, then, was quite a woman, and it’s incredibly sad that she died this weekend at the too-young age of 72. Yes, Virginia, 72 is too young.

“one of our essential writers” (David Malouf)

I’m impressed but not surprised that Australian novelist, David Malouf, described her as “one of our essential writers” in The Sydney Morning Herald’s announcement of her death. What does “essential” mean? I don’t know what Malouf means by this, but I agree with him in terms of my own meaning of the word. For me, essential, in this context, encompasses two things. First, it’s that the writer writes about important (though I don’t like this word) or significant or, perhaps even better, critical subjects. An essential writer will address the issues that are central to our being – personal, political and/or societal. But, I sense that Malouf means a little more. Certainly I do, and it’s that an essential writer doesn’t just write about, let us say, the “essential” things, but they confront us with them. They go where others don’t go – in subject matter, or form, or tone, or language, or … I’m sure you know what I mean.

Malouf thinks Jennings filled this bill, and so too, I think, does Maria Tumarkin who appeared in the first Sydney Writers Festival session I attended this weekend. A quick Google search retrieved the 2016 University of Melbourne Handbook (archived version). It includes the description of a course on The Art and Practice of the Personal Essay taught by Maria Tumarkin and Kevin Brophy. The description says “Some essayists we might read: Montaigne, Swift, A.D. Hope, Annie Dillard, Kate Jennings, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace”. This is quite a list, and it tells us something about Jennings’ stature, and how Tumarkin and Brophy view her.

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

So, in what way was Jennings essential? I’ll start with the above-mentioned speech that brought her to the fore when she was just 22. The women in the Vietnam Moratorium movement had fought (hard) to have one of their number included among the many male speakers scheduled to speak at the march. Here is how Jennings, herself, introduces it in her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings (1970-2010) (my review).

We persisted, and eventually the organisers gave in. As the most experienced writer in our group, I was given the task of composing the speech, which we decided would be deliberately incendiary. But what I wrote was so incendiary everyone balked at giving it, me included. In the end, with a big shove and no experience of speaking in public, much less in front of a thousand or more, I walked the plank.

The reaction to her speech, she says, was immediate – much of it negative, particularly from the men in the movement – but, she writes

the confrontational language of the speech worked: we could no longer be ignored. Right tactic, right time.

It was essential, in other words. (You can read it here.)

And Jennings continued in that vein, being true and uncompromising to what she believed in. Take, for example, her introduction to the poetry anthology she edited, Mother I’m rooted. She was unapologetic about what drove her choices. She states the problem, then says what she did:

I don’t know any longer what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I have been trained to know, in a patriarchal university, on a diet of male writers. We have to go back to bedrock, and explore thoroughly that which is female and that which is male, and then perhaps we can approach androgyny, and humanity.

I have chosen the poems mainly on the grounds of women writing directly, and honestly.

(Included in Trouble)

Jane Bullen, reviewing the book in the ANU’s student newspaper Woroni (23 July 1975), picked up this point:

Perhaps it is this that is most striking about the book; the form of the poem is subordinated to the intense desire to say something, to mean something. Sometimes what is said contorts the poem, and the words are clumsy in their attempt to say it. The honesty, the urgent saying of what is meant is expressed (in the flawed structure, the not quite balanced nature of many of these poems. The effect of this is a refusal to compromise, an insistence on meaning in the face of form and a book well worth the time it takes to read it. 

My point is that Jennings saw that this poetry was different, that it may not have met the “received” style, but that it had something to say and she was darned well going to let them say it.

Her own writing broke boundaries. Her novel Snake (1996) takes the autobiographical novel to a different place with its spare style, episodic form, and mixed voice, and her Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Moral hazard (2002) is a work of that rare genre, business fiction. She wrote an essay, “Gutless fiction”, for the Australian Financial Review (26 August 2005), on the necessity for

unflinching works of fiction that engage our public and private selves, our intellect and emotions. More able to inhabit the skins of its characters, fiction can capture the ambiguity and caprice inherent in human behaviour and then give it context and causality in ways that nonfiction rarely can.

(Included in Trouble)

Erik Jensen’s book, On Kate Jennings, in the Writers on writers series, provides tender but honest insight into Jennings. Her life had many troubles. It’s worth reading, but I’m going to conclude by sharing something he tells us Jennings wrote for the back cover of her first poetry collection:

‘Kate Jennings is a feminist. She believes in what Jane Austen recommended at fifteen: “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint.”’

(Jane Austen, Love and freindship)

An essential writer recognising another! Vale Kate Jennings. You gave us much to think about. A true legacy.

Lisa wrote a Vale Kate Jennings post on the weekend, and I have reviewed three of her books.

Kate Jennings, Moral hazard (Review)

Kate Jennings, Moral HazardHow often do you read a book that connects in some ways with something you’ve recently read or thought about? Kate Jennings’ award-winning Moral hazard, my latest read, links pretty directly to our discussion about autobiographical fiction in my Monday Musings post on Robert Dessaix two weeks ago. Dessaix, you may remember, criticised Garner’s The spare room (and other works) arguing she was just writing her life, but defended his own autobiographical fiction because he changed things around. Garner, though, argues that in her novels she shapes and orders, plays with time, examines motives etc. What is all this about? Why does it matter? The reverse – calling something non-fiction that is in fact fiction – does matter, I think. You all know the cases, I’m sure. But, if a writer draws from his or her life and calls it fiction, does it matter? Really, does it matter? Well, in this case it does matter, because, while Jennings is another of those writers who draws closely from her life, there are parts of the story that could be very tricky, legally, if they were, in fact, “fact”.

I’ve reviewed two of her works here before – Snake, her first work of autobiographical fiction, and Trouble: The evolution of a radical, which she describes as her “fragmented autobiography”. Jennings, like Helen Garner, is a fearless writer, and I love her for it, so when Text Classics published Moral hazard, her second novel, I was ready and waiting.

Moral hazard is about a woman whose husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and who, to obtain the money needed for his care in health-care expensive USA, gets a job as speechwriter for a mid-level investment bank on Wall Street. The wife’s name is Cath (not Kate) and the husband’s name is Bailey (not Bob Cato, the name of Jennings’ husband). Kate Jennings, though, did work as a speechwriter on Wall Street. Fictional Bailey and real Bob are both artists/designers, and both men were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but Bailey’s end has a particular drama to suit Jennings’ purpose.

From its very start, in fact, it’s clear that Moral hazard has been carefully written and structured, despite its closeness to Jennings’ life. Take the title, for example, and its pointed word play. Economically, “moral hazard occurs when one person [or organisation] takes more risks because someone else bears the cost of those risks”. Jennings, in the Wall Street component of her novel, explores this very condition with great – should I say scary – clarity. It is particularly interesting to read her description and analysis of escalating greed, because it is set nearly a decade pre-GFC. It’s all there, though, and the cracks were showing even then. For Cath the moral dilemmas are real. Not only does she need to rationalise her personal moral values as a lefty feminist against her financial district job, but she has to be the carer (also decision maker) for her increasingly ill husband. This is complicated care that encompasses not only economic and physical demands, but also emotional, mental and philosophical. And this care also has, not surprisingly, a moral dimension.

The novel (a novella, really) is told in short chapters that alternate, though not rigidly so, between Cath’s life with Bailey and her work life. It is told first person, and Cath tells us, on the first page:

I will tell my story straight as I can, as straight as anyone’s crooked recollections allow. I will tell it in my own voice, although treating myself as another, observed, appeals.

In other words, it’s from life, but there is artifice. The novel opens with this brief introductory chapter, which is followed by a chapter describing her first meeting Mike. He also works at Niedecker Benecke investment bank, and also, like her, is a square peg in a round hole, though he’s been doing it for longer! He becomes somewhat of a teacher to her, as well as a sounding board, and a welcome like-mind.

From this set up, we flash back to Cath, her husband Bailey and his diagnosis, and we don’t return to the bank until Chapter 6. The story continues chronologically following Cath. We watch her work out how to work within the company, and we feel her pain as she tries to manage Bailey as he becomes less and less stable and predictable. Cath chronicles the hedge-fund crisis – the increasing greed, the living on (the belief in) “zero capital and infinite leverage” – in parallel with Bailey’s decline. A true coincidence, perhaps, but a writing choice too.

I loved Jennings’ writing. It’s clear and direct, but has a poetic sensibility. She describes the bank as:

a firm whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA and Las Vegas. A firm where women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.

She describes the financial district, New York’s skyscrapers:

I looked at them and didn’t see architecture. I saw infestations of middle managers, tortuous chains of command, stupor-inducing meetings, ever-widening gyres of e-mail. I saw people scratching up dust like chickens and calling it work. I saw the devil whooping it up.

She sees the New York Fed, after bailing out hedge-funds, behaving “as if afflicted with Alzheimers” sticking with deregulation, letting the industry police itself, despite evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s decline is inexorable, he moves from home to an institution. He has a “living will” but it is ignored, so, she writes:

Scar on my soul be damned. He’d asked me to take care of it when the time came. Now I would. Mrs Death.

But far be it from me to spoil Cath’s story – except to say that as well as tackling Wall Street, Jennings also quietly buys into the euthanasia debate.

The good thing about Text Classics, besides their existence and excellent price, is that each classic is accompanied by a commissioned introduction. For Moral hazard it is by sport and business journalist Gideon Haigh. He concludes his introduction, which focuses on the financial aspect of the novel, with the statement that “Modern working life is replete with unpalatable compromises and perverse incentives”. Cath would probably say that this is true of life too. Moral hazard is a rare book in the way it looks not just at our contemporary globalised financial world, but more widely at work, our relationship to it, and the moral choices we make in work and in life. Drawn from life, yes, but a very worthy winner of the 2003 Christina Stead Award for Fiction!

awwchallenge2016Kate Jennings
Moral Hazard
Melbourne: Text Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 2002)
ISBN: 9781922182159

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

Kate Jennings, Snake

Murrumbidgee River

Murrumbidgee River in the Riverina (Courtesy: Mattinbgn, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In her “fragmented autobiography”, Trouble, Kate Jennings used excerpts from her first novel, Snake, to convey her childhood experience of growing up on a farm in the Riverina region of New South Wales. She had, she wrote, an “unhappy mother, diffident father”. Snake is the story of such a mother and father. While the novel is not totally “true” to her life in the factual sense, I have read enough novels and memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) about rural Australian life to know that it is “true” to the sort of experience it describes.

The blurbs on the back of my edition include the following descriptions: “a string of prose poems” (Times Literary Supplement) and a “domestic dystopia” (Sydney Morning Herald). The novel – novella in fact – is intriguingly structured. It has 4 parts. Parts 1 and 4 are short bookends, told in second person: the first part is addressed to the father and the last to the mother. The middle two parts are told in the more traditional third person voice and chronicle the life of the family: Rex the ironically named father, Irene the mother, and Girlie and Boy, the children who are caught in the middle. The chapters are short, some being only a paragraph or two long, and present vignettes of the family’s life rather than a simple this-then-that chronology. Dystopian is, unfortunately, an accurate description of their life. As Daphne, Irene’s sister, guesses on the wedding day,

Rex was a nice enough chap but about as interesting as a month of rainy Sundays. Irene will be bored with him before they arrive at the Blue Mountains guesthouse for their honeymoon.

While we never hear from Daphne again, she was not wrong. Rex is a “good man”, “decent”, a farmer of simple needs, while Irene, as her father realises, “dances to a tune no one else hears”. Not a likely recipe for success.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Despite its unusual mix of voice and rather episodic form, it has a strong narrative that drives us on to its inevitable (but no spoiler here) conclusion. The snake motif runs through the book. Snakes are a fact of rural Australian life and so are a natural, real presence in the book, but their symbolic allusion to temptation, deceit and danger lurks behind every reference. Early in the novel, we are told of Irene’s youthful romantic tendencies – her love of

… smoky-voiced singers and innuendo-laced lyrics. Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, they were the snake charmers and Irene the snake.

Later, Girlie looks at snakes in a book on Australian fauna: they are “fanged, flickering, unblinking”.

Kate Jennings is a poet – as well as novelist and essayist – and it shows. The language is accessible but full of imagery. This is particularly apparent in the chapter titles, most of which are obvious in meaning, though some are more cryptic: “Home is the first and final poem”, “Send my roots rain” and “My mother has grown to an enormous height”. They are fun to think about as you read. There are some beautifully apposite descriptions. Here for example is Rex experiencing misgivings about his new wife:

The sight of her caused his nature – practical, honourable – to assert itself … What was done was done. Without being conscious of it, he coughed importantly – I am a man, I have a wife – and squirmed inside the jacket of his uniform until it sat better on his shoulders.

And here is Girlie reading:

Girlie read books like a caterpillar eating its way through the leaves on a tree.

Their town is, ironically, called Progress. However, very little “progress” occurs in the book. Rex struggles to keep the farm going in the face of mice and locust plagues, hail and dust storms. Irene tries to make a life that suits her romantic, imaginative spirit – she creates a garden, seeks friendships with interesting people, looks for work – but in the end nothing works:

Rex and Irene had given up arguing. He no longer bothered to tell her that he wasn’t asking much – harvest his crops, care for his animals, share it all with a good woman, tra-la – and Irene didn’t reply that far from not asking much, he was asking everything.

Such is the life of a mismatched couple. We’ve read of such couples before, and we will again, but for a clear-eyed, finely balanced, while also touching, portrayal, this one by Kate Jennings is hard to beat.

Kate Jennings
Sydney: Picador, 2003 (first pub. 1996)
ISBN: 9780330364003

Kate Jennings, Trouble: Evolution of a radical

Kate Jennings, Trouble, bookcover

Bookcover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

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 ElliottShirley 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.

Kate Jennings
Trouble: Evolution of a radical: Selected writings 1970-2010
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954679

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)