HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureA boxer soaks up punishment in early-twentieth-century Australia

A boxer soaks up punishment in early-twentieth-century Australia

Grimmish is “the strangest book you are likely to read this year”, according to J. M. Coetzee. The author of the Jesus trilogy (The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus and The Death of Jesus, which are not about Jesus), among other great curiosities, clearly knows a thing or two about strange, so this can only mean that he hasn’t read many books this year. Because Grimmish may be good – indeed, it is good – but it isn’t strange. I’ve read half a dozen stranger books this year and I’m only me, it’s only spring, and my tastes and preferences are entirely vanilla.

The only really strange thing about Grimmish is that lots of reviewers and critics seem to have got very, very excited about it. This is partly because of the undoubtedly compelling rags-to-riches backstory: Michael Winkler is a debut novelist who couldn’t find a publisher for his work, so he self-published it and got it onto the shortlist for last year’s Miles Franklin award. As for Grimmish’s genre-bending qualities, many critics and reviewers claim there has never been anything quite like it. In fact there is a hell of a lot exactly like it.

The book begins with a fake negative review, designed to disarm actual negative reviews: “There is no narrative arc, close to zero love interest, skittish occasional action, incident rather than plot, and a narrator who prevaricates and self-deludes like a broody prince at Elsinore”. There’s a framing narrative involving a Shandean uncle figure, there are footnotes, metafictional asides and self-interrogating reflections, and direct addresses to the reader, there is interpolated material – and there’s a talking animal (a very funny sweary goat).

It might seem insulting in the pages of the TLS to list the many works of fiction that have, over the years, included some, or indeed all, of these well-worn devices, but for those reviewers and critics who appear to have no knowledge of the work of previous centuries and cultures, we might name here, for the sake of convenience, in alphabetical order, and just off the top of my head, some of the writers, books, movements and ideas likely to prove useful background reading: Renata Adler, Christine Brooke-Rose, Julio Cortázar, Dadaism, William Gaddis, William H. Gass, Clarice Lispector, David Markson, McSweeney’s, Haruki Murakami, Maggie Nelson, the New Weird, Oulipo, Claudia Rankine, David Shields (especially Reality Hunger, 2010), Laurence Sterne, surrealism.

But these are perhaps low blows: the real interest and actual qualities of Winkler’s book lie in its remarkable subject matter, which is the Italian-American boxer Joe Grim (1881–1939), a fighter renowned for his capacity to soak up punishment. Grimmish – as the title clearly indicates – is a kind of impressionistic metafictional portrait of the boxer (focused on his tour of Australia in 1908–09), as well as a meditation on the nature of pain.

What is the thing we call pain? It is something that captures the attention of the sufferer but otherwise has no meaning. It makes no sound, has no colour or smell, occupies no physical space. And yet at its most extreme, pain becomes the only thing of which the sufferer is aware, bigger for the victim in that instant than any object in the universe.

In addition to these musings and the metafictional stuff, there are some tremendous imaginative descriptions of Grim’s fights, which read like Harry Carpenter with added sprinkles: “Grim is up. Impossible! Roars! Moments later, another blow smacks into Grim’s face with a sound like a shovel hitting a watermelon, and he collapses again”. Given Winkler’s obvious knowledge, understanding and fascination with the fistic art, what is perhaps most interesting is to observe his frantic bobbing and weaving through the book, in particular his determination not to get hit by any knockout blows from imagined hostile readers. The author spends the best part of an entire chapter, for example, explaining why a novel largely set in Australia in the early part of the twentieth century does not depict any First Nations people: “Australians like me have stolen and continue to steal a lot from Aboriginal people, and at the very least I can avoid stealing their stories. So I avoid it, respectfully, while being aware that this becomes one more contribution to whitewashing”.

Winkler’s cunning literary fight plan is to anticipate and attempt to block every punch in order to achieve victory. It is an entertaining technique, and will be familiar to fans of defensive boxers such as Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr., Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux and the greatest defensive boxer of all time, Willie Pep, who enjoyed a twenty-six-year career and of whom fellow featherweight Kid Campeche once remarked, “Fighting Willie Pep is like trying to stomp out a grass fire”. In a world in which there is much talk of “toxic” masculinity, Grimmish provides a model for how a writer might confront the difficult challenge of writing about, and celebrating, masculine energies and impulses: acknowledge the challenge, absorb the blows. Chin down, fists up.

This may be the real reason why critics are making all sorts of extraordinary claims for the book: Michael Winkler is not afraid to go into the ring and battle it out.

Ian Sansom’s books include September 1, 1939: A biography of a poem, 2019

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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