Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Essay: Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: approaches to narrative structure in non-fiction

The communication of theme and meaning in non-fiction can be affected by the author’s narrative approach. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner (Garner 2004), the narrative is both helped and hindered by the author’s structural choices. Garner’s approach is examined in comparison with other non-fiction crime novels.

Theodore A. Rees Cheney in (Cheney 1991, p. 129) states that ‘structure is what gives overall coherence to a piece’. In fiction, linear chronology is the most common form of structure. The non-fiction author however will typically open with a ‘hook’: a scene which gives the reader a summary of the central event or climax – in crime this is generally the events or discovery of the crime – within the first few pages of the book. This trend differs greatly from fiction, wherein the climax will usually occur towards the end of the story.

The hook is an interesting device: usually the content of the hook can be discerned from the book’s blurb. It acts as an equaliser, putting all readers on the same footing[1] in terms of their knowledge of the true events, so that all readers have the same expectations throughout the rest of the narrative. The hook also provides an incentive for the reader to continue reading the book. The most exciting part of the story has been presented first in hopes that the reader will not put the book down. In Writing Creative Nonfiction, Theodore A. Rees Cheney observes that: ‘nonfiction articles often being in medias res, in the middle of things, of some action, some event’ (Cheney 1991, p. 13). ‘In a good piece of nonfiction, if life doesn’t get somewhere in the opening lines ... readers will not wait long’ (Cheney 1991, p. 12).

This non-fiction structure is the opposite to that of fiction: in fiction the reader must read most of the book, learning about the characters, following the build-up of the narrative, before reaching the climax. This difference arises from the fact that non-fiction tends to turn on an event; the examination of the surrounding circumstances and the psyche of the perpetrator becomes more important than the event itself. In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Capote 2008), the hook is given succinctly in two sentences within the first few pages:

At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterwards the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again – those sombre
explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbours viewed each other strangely, as strangers. (Capote 2008, p. 17)[2]

Garner’s work has a more extended hook – beginning with a transcript of the emergency call from the murderer and then a third person narrative of the ambulance arriving on the scene. Unlike Capote’s hook, however, Garner’s hook is not reflexive of the rest of the book in style or focus. It therefore has a misleading effect on the reader. The hook is told in a third person, omniscient narrator style which is commonly found in creative non-fiction, engaging the reader by immersing them in the action. The rest of the book however is quite dissimilar. Following the hook, the narrative switches back to first person, to Garner’s account of how she came across the story; a retelling of the events predominantly through the device of the court system and heavily influenced by the author’s opinion. Garner uses ‘the usual range of techniques available to a first-person narrator: positive or negative readings of characters' attributes and actions, qualification or not of their dialogic contributions, suggestive symbolism, and the direct expression of her own thoughts and feelings’ (Eggins 2005, p. 129). While Garner does forewarn her reader about the nature of the book: ‘This is the story of how I got to know (Joe Cinque)’ (Garner 2004, p. 3), the reader’s expectations of the narrative style that can be found in a non-fiction book, or reportage, is misplaced as the narrative is more of an account of an author writing a book rather than an account of the crime that took place. As Suzanne Eggins observes:
In the end, Garner does find a form. Or, rather, she evolves one from the forms that characterize (sic) much of her creative non fiction work: she writes a meta-narrative. She uses narrative devices to write the story of herself researching and writing the story of Joe Cinque's life and death. (Eggins 2005, p. 128)

Garner’s inconsistent use of style in the hook hinders the communication of meaning by misleading the reader about the narrative’s purpose.

In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, the focus on Garner’s story, rather than the crime, is perpetuated through the author’s choice of narrative approach. The events of the crime itself: the chronology, when the scenes occurred in relation to the crime, and the ‘characters’, can be hard for the reader to keep track of as Garner uses the devise of the court investigation to report on the events. This may have been more successful if the author had chosen to write in
a chronological manner in relation to the crime, switching certain court room scenes around for the benefit of the reader. Instead the events are related to the audience with reference to how the author came across them. The character of the author becomes central to the story in this way as we are learning about the events through the eyes, the criticism and the subjective comments, of the author.

The book’s use of vignettes – a characteristic style of Garner’s[3] – are not grouped into traditional chapters. Garner uses typesetting for dramatic effect, with pauses and larger breaks to highlight certain points.[4] However sometimes it is difficult to determine why the author has made certain breaks,[5] the result becoming a reflection of Garner’s own scattered thoughts during her meandering research,[6] strengthening the narrative tendency towards the focus of the novel being on the author.

Some scenes feel artificially constructed to suit the author. On Garner’s first day in court – during a trial that has already begun – Garner walks into the room to find Anu Singh’s father conveniently providing a summary of the life and upbringing of his daughter. Similarly, the final section of the book in which the victim’s mother and the author are watching a video of Joe when he was alive, is supposed to have occurred several years after the trial. The scene feels more like an attempt to pull at the heartstrings of the reader one final time before ending with an innocent-looking picture of Joe and the line: ‘We gazed in silence on her undefended son’ (Garner 2004, p. 328). Part of the reason this sits uncomfortably with the rest of the story is because the narrative focus has been on the author rather than Joe. Garner has shaped the narrative in a way that takes the reader along for the ride on Garner’s emotional journey in researching the book. By following her thoughts in this way, the author is more likely to be able to enlist the reader into her way of thinking, providing a commentary throughout, giving her opinion and remarks about the events unfolding. Were the text in a more linear fashion, chronological with the crime in question, this sort of opinionated criticism would probably have been unsuccessful.

In Cold Blood is in stark contrast to this author-centric approach. The murder of the Clutter family and the circumstances surrounding it are predominantly in a linear narrative with complete omission of the author – despite his role in the events of the time. This was a deliberate decision of the author so as not to endanger the integrity of the narrative.

In Peter Lalor’s Blood Stain (Lalor 2002), the narrative weaves between a telling of the murder, investigation and trial interspersed with the background and psyche of the murderer. This varying temporal narrative allowed the author to convey to the reader a certain understanding of the motivations of the killer as well as sympathy for the victim. Garner’s book fails to do so, despite Garner’s attempts to make the book fair and impartial, the result is clearly far from that. Garner herself admits that this is not the result because she has failed to interview either Anu Singh or Madhavi Rao:

The women won’t talk to me. Suddenly I felt very tired. Here I was, back at the same old roadblock. My fantasy of journalistic even-handedness, long buckling under the strain, gave way completely. (Garner 2004, p. 269)

However, I find this to be a weak excuse; a good writer should be able to overcome this by looking to other sources to get to the character’s motivations, such as making more of an effort to interview more friends and family of Sigh and Rao who were not involved with the trial. Garner certainly makes the effort on behalf of Joe, for example talking with his ex-girlfriend (Garner 2004, pp. 321-325), but does not attempt to do so for the other point of view. It is as if Garner has already made up her mind about presenting a biased view. Garner was criticised for her similar approach in her earlier novel, The First Stone, in which ‘she aligned herself with one side of the case before researching it’ (Eggins 2005, p. 124). Garner is unable to achieve an even-handed account due to ‘her demands for a congruence between law’s judgement and her vision of justice’ (Pether 2007, p. 45). Furthermore, when Garner interviews Singh’s father and Judge Crispin, attempts to explain Singh’s behaviour are derided by the narrator. For example, Garner overuses exclamation marks in her recount of her conversation with Singh’s father, with the effect that his words seem trivial or over-exaggerated. In doing this, Garner is ridiculing what Singh’s father is saying, and not giving it the same consideration that she gives to Cinque’s parents.

The way in which Garner has chosen to narrate and structure this book, including the insertion of herself into the narrative as a character, does not allow room for even-handedness in the same way that other non-fiction crime novels do. When writing non-fiction, it is important for the author to consider how structure will affect the narrative and the reader’s ability to understand meaning.

[1] Some readers may have lived during the time of the events and be familiar with what occurred, whereas other readers may not have heard of the events prior to picking up the book.
[2] See page 8 of Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (Hooper 2008) for another example of a succinct hook.
[3] For example, Garner uses a similar style in her novel, Monkey Grip (Garner 1977).
[4] See for example page 30 – the typical ‘chapter’ layout, however on page 33 the same setting is used but the ‘chapter’ is only 10 lines long (Garner 2004).
[5] This, in parts, seemingly random arrangement of prose reminded me of Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Falconer 2005), in which the layout did not always have an apparent formula.
[6] This style could also stem from Garner’s background in journalism, where bite-sized narrative is the norm.

Capote, T. 2008, In Cold Blood, Penguin Group, Australia.
Cheney, T.A.R. 1991, Writing Creative Nonfiction: how to use fiction techniques to make your nonfiction more interesting, dramatic and vivid, Ten Speed Press, California.
Eggins, S. 2005, ‘Real stories: ethics and narrative in Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation’, Southerly, vol. 65, no.1, pp 122-131.
Falconer, D. 2005, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Picador, Sydney.
Garner, H. 2004, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Pan MacMillan, Sydney.
Garner, H. 1977, Monkey Grip, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne.
Garner, H. 1995, The First Stone, Picador, Sydney.
Hooper, C. 2008, The Tall Man, Penguin Group (Australia), Melbourne.
Lalor, P. 2002, Blood Stain, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Pether, P. 2007, ‘The prose and the passion: Penny Pether searches for an Australian ‘constitutional epic’ in our recent literature and cinema’, Meanjin, vol. 66, no. 3, pp. 43-48.

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