Review: Nathan Curnow: The Right Wrong Notes

Nathan Curnow: The Right Wrong Notes

Published 2015 ASM & Cerberus Press, with Flying Island Books

Reviewed for The Rochford Street Review: A Journal of Australian & International Cultural Reviews, News and Criticism.

This is a collection of 59 selected poems from previous and recent publications including No Other Life But This, The Ghost Poetry Project, RADAR, with recent works appearing in The Rialto, Meanjin and Land Before Lines.

Curnow displays an interesting ensemble of moments, memories, and experiences through prose form, traditional stanza and some nice extended prose like Gently Against the Grain (pg 76). There are some very tender moments in the poems dedicated to his daughters, his wife and his father – an overarching theme as he reflects on fatherhood, or the implicated fatherhood, family and life. I particularly enjoyed Goal Cat (pg 32) for the characterisation of the cat in question. As a performance poet you can feel the message in a lot of Curnow’s prose. His pacing and rhythm delivers a sound punch and gentle ebb purposefully placed with such gems as Broadarrow Café, Port Arthur (pg 49), The Doctor Asks the Elderly Poet to Read the Eye Chart, and Norman Lindsay upon visiting the Ballarat Art Gallery to discover that the entire family room he grew up in has now been donated and is now on permanent display (pg 74). Curnow’s writing is skilful and fluid, organising imagery so much without trying. His observations in Violent Light (pg 78), Slip Ice (pg 76) and I am the lion on the edge of your bed who has come to eat your heart (pg 72) delivers fascinating insights and snapshots surmounted into a short, sharp glimpse of the individual’s lives he portrays. An honest, reflective account of moments, memories, and experiences. Thoroughly enjoyable.


Fact vs Fiction

Fact and fiction in: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, by Helen Garner.


Fact and fiction are two distinct concepts used to define and analyse texts in a nonfictional literary context. Issues pertaining to fact and fiction include concepts of identity, authenticity, truth, objectivity. Fiction, in a nonfictional context surmounts to creative writing strategies that are relevant insofar as readers of biography are greedy, with an insatiable appetite for detail and [story] (Lee 2005). Modernist discourse contributed to literary techniques of stream of consciousness writing, interior monologue and free indirect style. For the scope of this essay the abovementioned elements will be discussed with reference to Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Garner 2004) and The Hours (Cunningham 2006).

Author, and journalist, Helen Garner is introduced as one of Australia’s best-known writers (Conway-Herron, 2015, p. 72). Identity of the author is connected to authenticity and truth in nonfiction. Helen Garner’s material is so refined that meanings emerge from the accumulated detail rather than from exhaustive explanation or description. (Conway-Heron, 2015 p 73). This represents a wholeness or certainty, or the desire for truth (for the reader) as stable ground from which to know what to believe (Nolan 2004) p. xvii). This foregrounding of the author’s credibility as a ‘best-known writer’ of nonfiction texts signifies a faith that in what we read in Joe Cinqué’s Consolation will be an accurate and truthful account of a real person’s life. Garner herself states, “..a reader of nonfiction counts on you to remain faithful to the same ‘real’ world that both reader and writer physically inhabit.” (Garner 1996), p. 6). Conversely, memoirs A Million Little Pieces (Frey 2003) and Forbidden Love (Khouri 2002) are examples of literary imposture. Australian literati labelled these hoaxes, which immediately conjures the idea that the reader must connect the identity of the author with the text in order to read the content in the way that it was intended (Conway-Herron 2015), p. 52). Interestingly, publishers are now more wary of author as celebrity when procuring their tales and promoting them as authentic (Nolan 2004). Cline (2010, p. 44) sums this point up brilliantly with the question; When is a fact not a fact? When it is fake.

Facts give us the foundation and from that concrete base we build up a picture of how each person became who they became (Cline 2010). Hecq (2011) criticises Garner’s work based on Booth’s Ethical Principle of purpose, stating that Garner has ‘conflict between a voiced ethics of reportage, and a demonstrable, compromised exploitation of its subject matter’ (Hecq, 2011, p. 4). Hecq’s criticism that Garner delivered a biased ‘construction’ of Anu Singh based on Garner’s own personal agenda and feminist attitudes may present some influence in the finished text, however Cline (2010) stipulates that as we tell the story of an individual (or group) we need to think about identity, [subjects] what constitutes a self. Facts cannot do that for us (Cline, 2010, p.43). In Birch (Birch 1993) the demonization of Myra Hindley over Ian Brady could be construed as a bias ‘construction’ also, within the signification system of a male point of view. Patriarchal paradigms of feminine and meaning of woman produce other views of reality too. As Cline suggests, there are many versions of reality (Cline, 2010, p. 43).

There are two points at which life writers are reduced to speculation: when there are gaps in the evidence about facts; and when speaking about the inner life of anyone but themselves (Cline, 2010, p. 18). Garner makes a lot of personal assumptions about Anu Singh where there was little or no direct evidence; in which Hecq (2011) criticises relentlessly, citing failures under Booth’s Ethical Principles, the author/reader contract, and in particular, Garner’s portrayal of Singh from both the perspective of objectivity in creative nonfiction and the representation of mental illness (Conway-Herron, 2015, p. 75). Most of Garner’s accounts of Anu Singh are based on her personal opinions and assumptions, and those of others. In Gaita (2011) on his memoir Romulus, My Father,  he quips that should one succumb to the distorting effects of fantasies and projections on our own thoughts about ourselves and others, that this would lead to descriptions that cannot lay claim to represent things as they ‘really’ are (Gaita 2011), p. 104). Garner has been criticised for taking real people and doing the novelist’s thing; running metaphors and finding patterns etc (Simon 2004, p. 256). Garner admits that the psychiatric evidence of Anu Singh was a cop out. She says she can’t bear it when [women] try to dodge responsibility for their actions (Wyndham 2004, p. 4). (Peard 2009) makes an interesting point stating that when writing an investigative, non-fiction or true crime book, an author has the freedom to approach a story differently from the factual reporting of a print journalist. Hence, one can capitulate to fictional strategies in order to fill gaps in evidence or to flesh out the inner life (supposed or imagined). “Everything one invents, is true.” Flaubert (Cline & Angier, 2010, p.13).

Fact and fiction in Michael Cunningham’s work The Hours (2006) present modernist notions of the inner self as reality; adopting Virginia Woolf’s writing style of revealing characters by installments combined with the application of stream of consciousness. His text is pastiche yet he asserts the ‘moral’ right to be identified as the author of the work (Cunningham, 2006, publishing & copyright notice). Cunningham admits that he has fictionalised actual people, yet has tried to render as accurately as possible the outward particulars of their lives as they would have been (Cunningham, 2006, p. 229). His credibility for truth in his depiction of Woolf stands firm as there are many accounts of her life and the more accounts of the same person or event there are, the more they begin to converge (Cline, 2010, p.15). Furthermore, Virginia is a character in another writer’s novel, where the stream-of-consciousness style so carefully emulating Woolf’s own writing gives The Hours an uncanny authenticity (Conway-Herron, 2015, p. 79).

One characteristic of modernism in literature, being an emphasis on impressionism and subjectivity in writing; an emphasis on how seeing (reading, or perception itself) takes place, rather than on what is perceived (Klages 2011, p. 165) conforms to the writing style of The Hours. From this perspective, reality (as fact in this sense) was increasingly located in the private, subjective consciousness of individual selves; that stream of consciousness writing is the literary expression of solipsism (Lodge 1992, p. 42). One could presume characters in a text written from this interior view could be seen as factual – from a modernist point of view. Indeed, the reader is privy to the inner worlds of the main characters in The Hours as their thoughts portray concrete details in their everyday of the one day. The scene where Clarissa is spotted by Willie Bass on the corner of Eighth Street, the reader is suddenly made aware of his thoughts as he considers her “certain sexiness” .. followed by, “She must have been spectacular twenty-five years ago” (Cunningham, 2006, p. 13) and then, as the light changes, walks on, unnoticed by her. There are many examples where a character is speaking to another character, as in where Virginia Woolf is talking to her husband Leonard, the reader is abruptly cut into his thoughts, ‘She may be the most intelligent woman in England,’ he thinks ..  transitioning in and out of indirect speech in places, amidst the formal grammar of dialogue encased in parentheses. This element blurs the line between fact and fiction, as inner thoughts, when they are about another character, are opinions; arbitrarily based on the subjective experience of the individual projected upon another (as in the case of Willie Bass mentioned above). Stream of consciousness writing serves a narrative purpose more so than a factual ‘real life’ account as it primarily dwells in the unconscious memory, which memory has been noted to be unreliable; no more an objective recording machine than we are, it is a living thing that changes with us (Cline, 2010, p. 14).

In summary, Booth’s Ethical Principles can determine a set ground for truth and authenticity in a nonfiction text. The identity of the author is another determinant for credibility in nonfiction citing literary imposture as its nemesis. However, speculation and creative strategies are often employed to discover the truth about the subject’s identity and story, often where there is a lack of evidence. With The Hours (Cunningham 2006), modernist theory of solipsism is the primary motivator for extracting a real world of real people and fictionalised ones through their consciousness, as such, techniques of stream of consciousness, interior monologue and indirect speech have been suggestive of concrete details in the everyday as well as inciting memory which cannot be completely relied upon for real life truths.

Reference List

Birch, H 1993, ‘If looks could kill: Myra Hindley and the iconography of evil’, in Moving targets; women, murder, and representation, Virago, pp. 32-61.

Cline, S 2010, ‘Reflections on telling stories, telling facts’, in The Arvon Book of Life Writing, Methuen Drama, Great Britain, pp. 42-7.

Conway-Herron, DJ 2015, ENG00401 Issues and Themes in Contemporary Writing, 5th edn, Southern Cross University, Lismore, Australia.

Cunningham, M 2006, The Hours, Harper Perennial, London, UK.

Frey, J 2003, A Million Little Pieces, Anchor Books, New York.

Gaita, R 2011, ‘Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative’, in After Romulus, Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.

Garner, H 1996, ‘The art of the dumb question’, in H Garner (ed.), True stories; selected non-fiction, Text Publishing, pp. 1-12.

—— 2004, Joe Cinque’s Consolation: A True Story of Death, Grief and The Law, Picador, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, Australia.

Khouri, N 2002, Forbidden Love Random House.

Klages, M 2011, Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum International Publishing Group, London & New York.

Lee, H 2005, ‘Introduction: Writing about Lives’, in Body Parts: Essays in Life Writing, Chatto and Windus, London, UK.

Lodge, D 1992, ‘Excerpt from The art of fiction: illustrated from classic and modern texts’, in The art of fiction; illustrated from classic and modern texts, Penguin, pp. 41-51.

Nolan, M, & Dawson, C 2004, ‘Who’s who? Mapping hoaxes and imposture in Australian literary history’, in M Nolan, & Dawson, C (ed.), Who’s who?; hoaxes, imposture and identity crises in Australian literature, University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia, pp. v-xx.

Peard, A 2009, Book Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation 18 June 2009, <>.

Simon, M 2004, ‘The woman with the hammer in the kitchen drawer’, in M Ricketson (ed.), The best Australian profiles, Black Inc., pp. 254-62.

Wyndham, S 2004, ‘Femme fatale’, Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald, pp. 1-6.