Way back in Match Two, Rebecca Giggs spoke of how she dog-ears beloved books to mark phrases and ideas that jump out.
I used to always feel guilty for doing that myself and so, like devouring raw tofu straight from the packet or masturbating, it’s reassuring to discover I’m not the only one who does it. I go even further than dog-earring though — I also underline beloved sentences with a Palomino Blackwing, a type of pencil I get sent to me from California. I do this because I want to capture, possess each magnificent sentence as I read, and also because I am a pretentious dick who believes pencils are made special-er in California.
Like Giggs’, my copy of The Children’s Bach quickly became a kennel of dog-ears, further defaced by the sleek dark tracks of the Palamino Blackwing. Practically every second sentence got it: ‘Pearl-grey stretchmarks’; ‘A glance of complicated camaraderie and relief’; ‘A military smell, like calico’. This is why I love Garner; her sentence assemblages have a knee-jerk effect on me, or rather, a wrist-jerk effect, and I’m not talking about masturbating or devouring raw tofu straight from the packet you sillies. She makes me compulsively underline.
But then I read My Brilliant Career, and I was also wonderstruck. I loved that book! Oh, cruel world. Sometimes the heart gets drawn and quartered and a late-term reviewer is forced to work with some extraordinarily idiotic and inane criteria if she wants to bring anything new to—what has been up until now—an intelligent, fair and considered conversation. I hope you will forgive me.
Here goes: in The Children’s Bach, the book’s chosen spelling style of the word ‘earring’ is ‘ear-ring’. With a hyphen! It stands out as charmingly out-of-date as a silver rod in someone’s tragus, and I planned to award the prize to The Children’s Bach simply because I adore such editorial curios. But how could I so casually knock out My Brilliant Career, which also enchanted me? I simply had to think of some equally ludicrous way to fairly (i.e. unfairly) judge it too.
So, here’s the what I’ve got (SPOILER/INANE REVIEWER ALERT): I have always been led to believe—and I blame my musical theatre upbringing for this—that men called Harry always get the girl. (See: ‘It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry’ from Calamity Jane, and also the lyric from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate: ‘I’m a maid who would marry any Tom, Dick or Harry!’) I fully appreciate that Sybylla has a brilliant career to look forward to (and in real life I would obviously fully support her decision)—but I just really liked Harry! I wanted her to marry Harry! Is that okay? It will have to be. Meanjin, you are mean for forcing us to even choose.
So, in conclusion: near the end of The Children’s Bach, Philip instructs a girl who is trying to write pop song lyrics: ‘Make gaps. Don’t chew on it. Don’t explain everything. Leave holes,’ and that there is a Garner masterclass; it’s precisely what her book does. You never find her doing something so obvious as, for example, rhyming Harry with marry; this book is all about the gaps and holes.
Thus, for its ear-rings (and once again for its dog-earrings), The Children’s Bach wins.
WINNER: THE CHILDREN’S BACH
Jess: Should we be worried that our second zombie round contains references to masturbation and binge eating tofu within the first two sentences, Ben? It seems to me that the Meanjin Tournament of Books is now specifically trying to appeal to the highly coveted single hipster market — and you know what? Now that I think about it, it’s not a moment too soon… (she says, hurriedly shoving yet another chunk of bean curd into her mouth).
Ben: I think, if anything, we should applaud it. The similarities between reading and masturbation are not remarked upon enough, and I don’t see how we can really reach a mature decision on what book is best without acknowledging the shameful acts of self-love we are indulging in even as we review. That said, I’m a little bit shocked that My Brilliant Career is out. It seemed unstoppable, but I guess everyone has their off days. Was it a tactical error by Franklin, not using Harry to his best advantage here, Jess? Or do we simply need to give credit to The Children’s Bach for an overpowering performance full of rough, ballsy holes?
Jess: If only Miles Franklin had bothered building herself a time machine, transporting herself a couple of decades into the future, and listened closely to the lyrics from popular musicals — perhaps then she would have fully understood the importance of having her protagonist hook up with a chap named Harry. You’re a fool, Franklin! A celebrated fewl with an important literary award named after you, but a fool nevertheless! Oh, I can’t stay mad at Miles. Not having the foresight to invent time travel is an easy enough mistake for an author to make, and it’s simply unfortunate that it has cost her the Tournament Of Books.
Meanwhile, as you say, Helen Garner’s rough, ballsy holes and pearl-grey stretchmarks have emerged the winner in this round. And so, with the unsteady metaphorical shuffle one would expect to see from a book raised from the dead to fight for its reputation once more, The Children’s Bach is now slowly lumbering toward Joan London’s Gilgamesh — possibly moaning “BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINS!!!!!!!” or at the very least, “PAAAAAAAAAAAAAPERRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!”. Remember, this is not the first time these two novels have rumbled, and it will be interesting to see whether the mystical powers that helped animate the corpse of The Children’s Bach to compete in this zombie round will finally give it the edge over the so far undefeated (and unburied) Gilgamesh.
Ben: London versus Garner: a clash of giants, sort of, I guess, in a way. What’s more, powerful evidence that zombie rounds work, and need to be incorporated into all major sporting tournaments and democratic systems. I hardly need to remind readers that the last time these two clashed, Gilgamesh came out on top despite the reviewer hating it as soon as she saw the cover: but this weighty epic can’t count on the same sort of comeback again. The Children’s Bach has gotten better since then, leaner, hungrier, sharpened its technique and polished its stretch marks. It’ll be bringing the noise, and Gilgamesh needs to get off to a flyer if it wants to maintain its record over Garner’s plucky underdog.
The people I feel sorry for are the reviewers, and not just because they spend all their time reading books instead of getting out in the fresh air and kicking a ball about like normal people. The pressure on them must be intense as we reach the culmination of what has been a suffocatingly intense exercise in competitive literature. One little slip-up, and a critic may hand the title to an undeserving novel, that error haunting them for the rest of their days. Let’s hope they stay cool, stay focused, and allow the competition space to flow. Good luck to them, and to these two probably quite good books.
Let’s get finalling!
© Lorelei Vashti