Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection

Almost any Writer’s Festival program, such as the one coming up next month in Perth, focuses in a promotional way on what’s recently published. This buzz of topicality tends to push aside books we’ve read a while ago, though some of them may have more lasting value than anything that happens to be current.

Grenville

So as a counterbalance, I like to post occasional comments on memorable literary works first encountered a few years back that now seem well worth revisiting. In that spirit I wrote a blog piece about Peter Carey’s early fiction. Now I turn to Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, a comic masterpiece which came out in 1999 and received great acclaim at the time, including the award of the prestigious Orange Prize.

I love this novel, but can see why it would probably have little appeal to readers who crave page-turning excitement, dramatic events and energetic characters. The Idea of Perfection offers something different: a low-key humorous story about two gawky city-bred people, newcomers in a small unglamorous country town, who bumble their way through a series of seemingly inconsequential episodes.

What makes it an outstanding novel is the quality of the writing as a vehicle for sharp observation. Grenville’s style manages to convey both irony and empathy towards the socially clumsy self-thwarting pair at the story’s centre and also towards an assortment of minor characters and their environment. There’s a satirical edge to it, but without scorn; the general tone is affectionate.

In a few quick brushstrokes the opening chapter evokes the lethargic atmosphere of ‘Karakarook, NSW, pop 1374,’ with its deserted main street ‘lying stunned under the afternoon sun,’ a dog ‘stretched out lifeless across the doorway of an empty shop,’ and a few cars ‘parked diagonally into the gutters like tadpoles nosing up to a rock.’ This scene is filtered through an observer, visiting engineer Douglas Cheeseman, who watches the street from behind a dusty curtain of his unlovely hotel room, noting the grey corrugated iron roofs, the shop window with nothing on its shelves except dead flies and the broken sign ‘Merry Xmas Peace on Ear.’

Karakarook once had great expectations, reflected in names that are ludicrously discrepant with its down-at-heel rustic ambience: Parnassus Road, Virgil Street, the Acropolis Café, the Mt Olympus Panorama Café… The pretentiously labelled town buildings look puny in comparison with the real grandeur of a huge sky and an untamed landscape:

Up beyond the flimsy little shops the hills were very close, very solid. They were a structure of another kind altogether. Up there, dark timeless pelts of bush folded themselves over the curves of the land. Air moved in stately tides. Clouds made large bold gestures in the sky.

Douglas Cheeseman, baffled by diffidence and self-doubt, is in Karakarook because Head Office in Sydney has decided to replace a deteriorating local landmark, the Bent Bridge, and put him in charge of this little engineering project. He soon encounters opposition from the town’s Heritage Committee, which has been joined by the other endearingly inept main character, an angular woman called Harley Savage, visiting consultant for the pioneer community museum. As I observed in a blog piece a few weeks ago, one person’s heritage is another’s can of worms – so it’s not surprising that Douglas and Harley find themselves in a pickle. By this stage a reader knows that awkward situations are fairly normal for each of the excruciatingly shy misfits, yet there is still the hopeful possibility of a fortunate outcome: the narrator’s genial irony allows us to interpret optimistically the book’s epigraph (from Leonardo da Vinci) as applying to the relationship between Douglas and Harley: ‘An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.’

In several respects The Idea of Perfection deserves to be cherished as a manual of exemplary writing.

For one thing, Grenville’s ear is extraordinarily well attuned to the quirks of colloquial Australian speech. Every passage of conversation or of interior monologue – and such passages comprise much of the story – is precise in its use of idiomatic phrases that capture distinctive personal traits and social attitudes. There are amusing examples on page after page, but perhaps the most richly comic dialogue occurs when Douglas is being driven at alarming speed by Chook Henderson along rough gravel roads to inspect the Bent Bridge; the cumulative effect of their mismatched vernacular exchanges is hilarious. In some other passages, little or nothing may be said aloud but a character’s voice is implicit in a sequence of inner thoughts; e.g. the second chapter is especially memorable for the pitch-perfect manner in which it renders Felicity Porcelline’s stream of self-deceiving consciousness as she lingers in the butcher’s shop, Alfred Chang Superior Meats.

She brushed away a fly that was circling her face, and shook her arm when it landed there. Then she bent down and brushed her leg, although it had not landed there yet.

Sometimes person could actually be pleased at the diversion a fly could provide.

Partly it was that the butcher was Chinese. She was no racist, and wanted him to know that she did not count it against him, him being Chinese. The trouble was, not wanting to be thought racist always seemed to make her too friendly. She could hear that her voice was a little too loud and a little too sprightly in the quiet shop. She smiled too much, and did not know how to stop.

She was no racist, but noticed, every time he spoke, how he spoke exactly the way everyone else did. She was no racist, but listened for something Chinese in the way he talked, the little foreign something. The funny thing was, it was never there. She had tried closing her eyes when he talked, and you would never have guessed. If you happened to find yourself with him in the dark for any reason, you would never know he was Chinese.

The vacuous Mrs Porcelline has made her first entrance in the story just before this passage, but already her scatter-brained thoughts are telling us a good deal about her, and we’ve begun to anticipate her eventual discomfiture when she does find herself with Freddy Chang in the dark.

Other features of Grenville’s prose are also worth close attention from any reader, especially from one who is also an apprentice writer. I admire in particular her deft way of weaving description integrally into the text so that it never seems static or obtrusive; it always contributes to the portrayal of character. Here, for instance, is Douglas walking around the town at night: being depicted from his point of view, the nocturnal details provide much more than background scenery.

Away from the stony light of Parnassus Road and the grim little sinister shops, under the big empty sky, there was a feeling that anything might be possible. Somewhere frogs creaked and croaked and other things made secretive clicking noises, getting on with their invisible lives, driven my urgencies and delights known only to themselves.

His senses felt clarified by the dark. It was not a barrier but a fluid medium, bringing him sounds and smells that lapped him around. Swimming through them, Douglas was no longer hunched under the weight of his shortcomings. He felt his shoulders pull back, his spine straighten, his senses come to the alert. He stood on a corner enjoying the way the moon lay on its back and slid in a dignified way behind the curve of a hill.

Since the divorce he had found himself often walking at night. It was not that he was any kind of Peeping Tom. He had no interest in ladies in their underwear. It was more the chance that you might learn something. The thing he would have liked to learn was not something you could ask anyone, although it was so simple. How do people get on? He had the feeling that others, somehow, had been born knowing things about how to manage with other people that he himself had been born without.

I’m tempted to go on quoting from this wonderfully clever and moving novel – to illustrate how well it blends social comedy into quietly tender moments, how lightly it touches on pathos without lapsing into sentimentality, how appreciatively it recognises the simple virtues (along with the tiresome constraints) of small-town life while avoiding anything parochial in its narrative tone. If you haven’t read The Idea of Perfection, get hold of a copy and see whether you agree with me that it lives up to its title.

7 thoughts on “Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection

  1. Wow, fabulous post! I am always on the hunt for great books for my Literary Masters members, and I try to mix it up with a selection of old, new, and in-between. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention; I will check it out. Happy New Year to all!

  2. Thanks, Pip and Liz, for these responses – and Happy New Year (and happy reading) to you both.

    If my post does no more than encourage one reader to revisit the book and another to approach it for the first time, I’ll be satisfied. The huge and well deserved success of Grenville’s later (and quite different) novel The Secret River seems to have eclipsed her achievement in The Idea of Perfection, so I wanted to bring the earlier work back into view.

  3. Cheers, Paula. I hope you find time for some great reading before workplace priorities reassert themselves.

  4. Mrs. Porcelline sounds as though she might have resided in Sarsaparilla in a previous life!
    This novel sounds intriguing, and I never even knew it existed. Must investigate.

  5. Astute comment, Glen – I think Kate Grenville’s satirical perspective owes something to Patrick White and his portrayal of ‘Sarsaparilla.’ Actually I’ve been making notes for a future post on White’s Comic Legacy…

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