I blame Seinfeld.
Someone has to be blamed.
My kids watched as they grew up. My wife watched. I tried not to. There was the hapless George: no shabbier soul ever sullied a screen. Every so seldom Kramer might pop up. He’d break me up. A wondrous comic creation. But between cackles I could feel something niggling at my austere soul. It was only later, with the advent of ‘Friends’ – not as funny, the characters even more ordinary – that I could define what offended me.
Nowadays, what was subtext in Seinfeld and in Friends is the explicit in the great world. What those characters (Seinfeld) and those nonentities (Friends) did constantly was normative and, in time, became normal. The banks do it, the captains of cricket, the captains of industry do it. The incumbent in the White House does it, the churches, the military, politicians (of course) – they all do it.
They all lie.
In those TV shows the ethos was subterranean. You could feel the tremors but you didn’t always sense the accumulating weight of untruth; nor how truth as a value kept receding into distance. In response to any difficulty, every character lied. They lied by reflex. Awkward situation? Tell a fib. Everyone does it…
I’ll tell you a story from the Olden Days. It goes like this: A child goes into a bank with his piggy bank. The banker, a man in his fifties, helps the child to open a savings account. The banker congratulates the child on her thrift. The banker does not sell further products to the child.
Today that’s a fairy story. That banker will never drive a Ferrari.
Here’s a contemporary story: A customer goes into a bank and asks the banker a question. The banker replies, “I’m a banker. I tell only lies.” Should the customer believe the banker?
The makers of Seinfeld knew what they were doing. They were blowing a whistle on untruthtelling.
The makers of Seinfeld made us laugh. We laughed and we laughed. And we paid no attention to the whistle. And now the Liar in Chief sits in the White House tweeting. And the laugh is on us all.
We live in a world in pain. In that world dark deeds, harsh words, inhumane policies are normal. God is conscripted and deformed in every form of violence. Truth is lost, our planet poisoned.
Seeing all this, hearing it, feeling it,a person might surrender and despair.
Then life sends a message.
This is the message that came to me today.
Miles spent two weeks pocket money on this gift for his mother.
There’s a CD I listen to when I want to write about something serious or something true or sad. It is Disc Two of ‘Dirt Music’, the album compiled by Tim Winton and Lucky Oceans to accompany Winton’s great and sad book of that name. Two tracks on the disc speak from the darkest room in the house of sorrow. (I refer to Sculthorpe’s ‘Dijille’ and to ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’ by Arvo Part). The grief is absolute. It neither cries nor shouts nor tears its hair out. It simply quivers and ultimately exhausts itself and lapses into barely audible human breaths. And thus into harmony with life. The experience leaves me quiet, reconciled – I suppose – by sheer truth. And beauty.
What has that to do with Robert Hillman’s new book, “Joyful”? I read a passage in the later part of the novel where a character who has lost his only two children weeps silently in the utter darkness of a room in the mansion that gives the book its name. His quivering presence is sensed by his host, Leon Joyce, owner of “Joyful”. Joyce, who has been observing his own prolonged season of bottomless grief, stands, wordless and motionless. The weeping one comes to realise he is not alone. Each sorrows in silence, both men understand. No sign, no word. But something beyond words is known: the two men and the grateful reader make their way from that room in “Joyful” somehow reconciled to loss. And that is what Hillman’s book is about – its chief theme – how we humans risk all and lose all when we (inevitably) invest in passion.
Robert Hillman is not famous for misery, any more than Winton. The misery is there in the book as it is in life. But “Joyful” is also a story of the greatest vitality, the most audacious imagination, the most original characters, (from the carnal priest who absolves himself habitually, to Dally the Wordsworth-loving Iraqi Kurd, to the sexually hyperactive Tess, to the hapless Emily who cannot love any man who loves her, to the world-weary, gusset-guzzling, false-poet Daniel.) And the book is full of gems from the bowels of Hillman’s imagination that made me roar with unexpected belly laughing.
I defy the reader to get through “Joyful” without shedding tears of mirth and tears of joy. In short, I like it. I admire it. I respect it, I envy it, I treasure it. I’ll remember it.
“Joyful’s” characters are destined to live in memory alongside Winton’s Fish and Lamb families that emerged from “Cloudstreet” and took up lodging in a nation’s treasury.
Text published “joyful.” Howard Goldenberg will launch it at Readings in Carlton at 6.30 pm on Wednesday 7 May. Please come along.