Reading about unpleasant characters can be as compelling an experience as it is frustrating. Well-written literary antiheroes, from George du Maurier’s sinister Svengali in Trilby to Bret Easton Ellis’ groomed but grotesque Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, have simultaneously attracted and repelled us for decades. But what about true stories depicting people whose words or actions are unpalatable or unconscionable? How do creative or narrative non-fiction writers who dare to dissect the darker aspects of humanity keep their readers engaged, rather than simply horrified?
Two new releases from Helen Garner and Erik Jensen describe captivating but unsettling true events. Simply by telling the truth – or at least, as much of it as they’re able to divulge – both authors allow their readers to draw their own conclusions, lacking in clear-cut answers though these may be. Garner’s This House of Grief follows the murder trial of Victorian man Robert Farquharson, who drowned his three young sons by driving them into a dam on Father’s Day 2005; Jensen’s Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen is a biography of Archibald-winning artist Adam Cullen, based on the author’s intense four-year working relationship with his subject.
Although the books are notably different in style and topic, both deal with damaged people whose deeds and experiences ultimately sent their lives into downward spirals. Garner and Jensen’s strong authorial presences inject a narrative twist into their retellings of these tales: with their candid first-person observation and investigation, their astute recall and reflection, they tread the tightrope between immutable fact, and truth that is stranger and more confronting than anything fiction could conjure.
Arguably, their books sit within a particular tradition of narrative or creative nonfiction writing: works that attempt to explore aspects of society and the human condition, while its authors willingly expose their own emotions, perceptions, vulnerabilities and uncertainties. Garner and Jensen’s presence in their own texts is far from intrusive. Instead, they become conspicuous mediators between the reader and the subject matter. Skilled authors of narrative nonfiction make difficult material – the tragedies of communist East Germany in Anna Funder’s Stasiland; the institutionalised racism of the Palm Island death-in-custody case in Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man – engrossing and provocative.
Garner subtly unravels the complexities of the Farquharson case, which seems to demand a definitive moral judgement in addition to the legal verdict that saw Farquharson charged with murder. ‘Since when has loving someone meant you would never want to kill them?’ asks Garner. It’s a frightening but pertinent question. Her close retelling of the trial, interwoven with her own feelings and interactions with others present in the courtroom, interposes layers of drama and pathos into this true crime commentary, allowing us to look beyond the simple but shocking reality of Farquharson’s fatal act. Garner narrates not only the legal proceedings, but her own experience and interpretation of them. She writes about the people involved in the case with a novelist’s nuanced eye: the judge removes his spectacles and violently rubs his eyes; a pair of key witnesses are ‘thin, dark-clad figures with haunted eyes: two souls fleeing before a blast’.
Of course, even in a courtroom – or perhaps especially in a courtroom – truth is never absolute, and Garner’s concern over certain pieces evidence which are omitted from the trial and discussed in the jury’s absence, lends the case an especially troubling dimension. Garner watches the jury members as they file back into the courtroom ‘unenlightened, with their bowed shoulders and serious, trusting faces’.
Truth is a more shadowy presence in Jensen’s biography of Cullen, a frank and fascinating portrait of a drink-and-drug addled man prone to flights of fabrication and bouts of violence. Jensen’s friendship with Cullen is the lynchpin of the book; he was 19 when he met Cullen, and the artist soon grew obsessed with him, inviting Jensen to live with him in order to write his biography.
During the time Jensen spent with Cullen, he was subjected to ‘tests’ of his loyalty, including being thrown from a speeding motorcycle, and getting shot in the leg (possibly by accident). This tumultuous period forms the basis of Acute Misfortune, which seeks to lay bare Cullen’s mythology. The book opens with an email exchange between Jensen and Dale Frank, one of Cullen’s close friends, in which Frank points out that Cullen ‘presented to other people what they wanted’.
But Jensen knew Cullen, probably as well as anyone could have, considering the artist’s fondness for lies and overstatement (Cullen ‘had a series of acts’, writes Jensen, ‘and I think I saw most of them’). Consequently, Jensen also knew exactly what he was taking on in writing Cullen’s biography. If, as Jensen notes, ‘all journalism involves the Sisyphean task of trying to understand other people’, he does a remarkable job of elucidating Cullen’s self-destructive path without allowing himself, or his readers, to be overcome by the allure of the tragic artist trope. ‘Adam spent a career creating a character for himself,’ Jensen writes, ‘but eventually he tired of the role he had spent all that time writing.’
The protagonists of both Garner’s and Jensen’s books are undeniably difficult to empathise with, and in a sense they are unknowable. In their honest and unsparing portraits, Garner and Jensen strike a delicate stylistic balance between fact and fiction, offering up hard truths with compassion and perspicacity. Perhaps it isn’t necessary to solve the puzzle of Farquharson and Cullen’s lives and fates; perhaps the puzzle is the point.