Tag Archives: Kate Grenville

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.


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.

Character and consistency

Most novels and short stories operate largely within the conventions of realism, and so their fictional worlds are inhabited by lifelike ‘characters.’ But what makes a character credible and interesting?

Dickens with his characters

Charles Dickens dreaming of some of his characters (detail from a painting by Robert W. Buss, 1875; public domain)

Although we know that characters are artificial creatures, illusions created entirely by language, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief in them as long as their attributes seem quasi-human. (Of course it’s more complicated than that. There’s a sophisticated theoretical analysis of ‘the centrality of fictional character – and, by extension, of social models of personhood – to reading of almost any kind’ in John Frow’s book Character and Person, newly published by Oxford University Press. My own book Narrative Exchanges, recently reissued in the Routledge Revivals series, also has a chapter on theoretical aspects of characterisation.)

When we read a work of fiction in the realist tradition, we want to be convinced that its characters are lifelike. But believing in them isn’t a simple matter. It often requires a reader to hold in mind two different things: on the one hand a sense that the actions, thoughts, words and attributes associated with a particular name (Heathcliff or Cathy or whoever) hang together credibly enough to represent an individualised personage, and on the other hand a sense that not everything about this personage is perfectly consistent. Total consistency would imply the repetitiveness of a robot, the flatness of a caricature. This may be appropriate for some minor characters in certain kinds of hyper-realist fiction (Dickensian figures such as Uriah Heep, for instance) but not otherwise.

So usually – unless the story is feeble – a major character will turn out to be less homogeneous than first impressions suggest. Readers can miss much of the point if they assume that a character in a story represents (or should represent) an entirely unified personality, a stable set of coherent and consistent traits. In reality that’s not how we ourselves are, and sometimes the point of a story may be to reveal incoherence and inconsistency within a character’s sense of self.

‘To thine own self be true…’ says Shakespeare’s Polonius – but let’s not take this long-winded old codger’s sententious advice at face value. Quoting his remark in her Journal, Katherine Mansfield comments scornfully:

True to oneself? Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like it’s coming to – hundreds of selves? For what with complexes and repressions and reactions and vibrations and reflections, there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests.

One of the Australian novelists I most admire, Kate Grenville, has some astute remarks on characterisation in The Writing Book, an excellent practical how-to manual which is well worth the close attention of any aspiring author. Here’s part of what she says about consistency: 

Consistent characters run the risk of being boring characters. People aren’t consistent and characters don’t have to be either. Inconsistencies can make characters interesting, as long as they’re inconsistent in a way that adds something to the story.

While perfectly consistent characters may be boring, perfectly inconsistent ones may be frustrating to a reader: they never add up to a coherent personality. Inconsistencies can add depth to a character, but they have to be carefully controlled by the writer.

Exactly a century ago, while working on the novel that became The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence wrote a letter to Edward Garnett in which he tried to explain his view of characterisation. His aim, he declared, was to move beyond ‘the old-fashioned human element – which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent.’ He went on to say, ‘You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states…’ The analogy here is with different states of the same element, just as diamond and coal are forms of carbon.

Even in classic nineteenth-century realist fiction, what looks like inconsistency is sometimes just the gradual development and disclosure of a character’s complexity. Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is introduced to us as an idealistic young doctor propelled by an ambition to reform medical practices. But time goes by, and under the weight of an unhappy marriage, he abandons his high social purpose and behaves in contradictory ways towards his wife. So in a sense the later Lydgate may seem hardly consistent with his previous self. But the change in him is credible because there have been early glimpses of a fundamental flaw: from the start his altruism is tinged with an arrogance that makes his attitude to the common people ‘benevolently contemptuous.’ There’s a Reader Alert when Lydgate first enters the story and the narrator advises us not to jump to conclusions: ‘For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown – known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.’

Think, too, of Dickens – not in the cartoonist mode he employs for minor characters but when he traces the intricate workings of a fully rounded personality as it moves this way and that in response to different pressures. David Copperfield, telling his own story from the vantage point of maturity and looking back at his younger selves with their incomplete self-knowledge, remarks: ‘These, with their perplexities and inconsistencies, were the shifting quicksands of my mind…’

Copperfield’s reflection sums up the topic nicely for me. When I read or write fiction, what interests me above all is an engagement with those same aspects of character: perplexities, inconsistencies, the shifting quicksands of the mind.