Saturday, 14 May 2011

A Little Tea, A Little Chat

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, brought home from some second hand book stall or other and then left to gather dust with the other classics of Australian literature which I feel I ought to read and occasionally do.

Stead is not for the fainthearted.  Living in various American and European cities in between bookending her life in Australia, she wrote amidst the horrors of the Great Depression and World War 2   Her books are depressing, dense and difficult.  You have to be determined.

Have I sold it to you yet?  Well, perhaps I should try a little harder.  Mediocre writing can be easy to read, great writing always requires an effort.  The reward for that effort is a rich reading experience and a different way of seeing the world.  That's what you get from A Little Tea, A Little Chat.  Not a way of viewing the world you would like to adopt, but one that, at least for me, gives me an extra point of reference.

The central character in this rather strange modern morality tale is Robert Grant, a New York business man.  Grant is apparently a cotton dealer although his business interests are broad and somewhat mysterious.  You know he is rich, although it is never clear how rich.  You also know, right from the beginning, that he is an extremely unpleasant person, and that most of the people who surround him are just as bad, some of them worse.  Even his most constant friend, David Flack, an apparently honest man, still does Grant's bidding enthusiastically and apparently for no reward except the distant promise of a quiet retirement in Rome, or on a farm.  Yet we know, and Flack must know, that Grant makes this promise to everyone who helps him, and to every woman he seduces (of whom there are many) and has no intention of ever keeping it.

The book has very little in the way of plot, and what it has is depressing.  In the midst of all his affairs financial and amorous, Grant has an affair with a beautiful woman called Barbara Kent, and she proves his equal in the game of seduction and deceit.  Their various attempts to get the better of each other, their mutual extortions, infidelities and negotiations, represent the core of the novel.  It is a kind of love story, the two dancing around each other until, in the end, Barbara finds a way to blackmail Grant conclusively.  She moves in permanently with him and the pair live in a kind of domestic harmony underpinned by the knowledge that they have each others measure.

Around this core are various scenes, often laden with a subtle black comedy that sneaks up on you to lighten the bleakness.  At one point Grant engages one of his shadiest associates, March, to use his supposed Washington and Toronto contacts to find out if Barbara is a spy.  The resulting double deception, in which March first dupes Grant with false information, and then Grant turns the tables and manages to gradually force March to return every cent paid to him, is intriguing and baffling by turns.  Equally intriguing is Grant's obsession with co-writing a play based on his life, culminating in a farcical reading of the apparently awful play to a prominent actress.  And what are we to make of one of Grant's nastiest associates, Alf Goodwin, berating him in public about buying him the wrong sized underwear?

These are, however, light relief from the more sinister scenes, in which Grant cheats his business associates, betrays his various sexual partners and neglects and abandons his own family.  Here, just as in the comedies, we see a man completely without principle or compassion, a man it is dangerous to know, and yet one who is oddly compelling and seems to come out the better of every scrape and deception. 

It is often hard to work out what is going on.  This is because much of the story is told through monologues placed in Grant's mouth, as he rambles about his business interests, his love life and his family.  These monologues change and shift throughout the book, and even in a single page you can hear Grant contradict himself, shifting his position so that both his listener and the reader are baffled and overwhelmed.  Where is the truth in all this? And what is he trying to acheive?  And why, despite his obvious lies and betrayals, do his friends stay around?  Right to end of the novel, none of these questions is answered clearly.

So why would Stead present us with such a character?  What is the purpose of this venal story, this reverse morality tale?  At one level, this is a story about the moral heart of the society she observed in post-war America.  All of our relationships, she seems to be suggesting, are bargains, negotiated with the ruthlessness of a black market business deal.  This deal-making amorality at the heart of New York society, the heart of the capitalist West, drives everything from our personal relationships to our decisions about war and peace.  The best we can hope for is an uneasy truce driven by mutual blackmail.  The various cryptic references to Barbara's communism and her supposed espionage are perhaps meant to suggest that as for Grant and Barbara, so for America and Russia. 

Indeed Grant is a bit like capitalism.  He promises everything to everyone, and they all want to believe him and keep flocking to him even though they know deep down they will get nothing from him.  He gives them hope in a future free from toil.  Everyone knows he will never deliver.  But what other hope do they have?  And this is the ultimate tragedy of this book. There is nothing better on offer. There is no white knight, no corruption busting official, no whistleblower to put a stop to it all.   Grant is a dangerous friend to have, indeed he is not a friend at all, only an associate who will fleece you unless you fleece him first.  Yet he is, in his own words, the honeybear, and if you want the honey you must get it from him or go without.

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