THE news that author and Fairfax columnist Kate Holden was naked in the kitchen when the phone rang prompted such an arresting image that, unlike most weeks, it seemed worthwhile plumbing her further thoughts, which have to do with the former prostitute and junkie’s disinclination to suffer criticism. One might imagine that a refugee from Melbourne’s mean streets and wearied mattresses would have acquired along the way an immunity to life’s smaller annoyances, but it seems she has left the hard road so far behind since the publication of In My Skin, her best-selling memoir, that the petty pratings of bedside literary critics and older gentlemen disconcerted by a nose ring now cause serious offence. Her taxpayer-funded book, a tale of pleasuring strangers, shooting smack and then pleasuring more strangers to shoot more smack, is no Naked Lunch, William S. Burrough’s hallucinogenic memoir of life at the point of a needle and, without a doubt, the most unapologetic manifesto for addiction ever put on paper. Nor does it bear favourable comparison with Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, which does a much better job of detailing a small, dark and drug-besotted Melbourne subculture.
None of this is to say that Holden is a poor writer, at least of a certain kind. If you are intrigued by middle-class girls from private schools running wild in St Kilda and if can savour the output of a nib dipped in nothing but narcissism, In My Skin is just the shot. Mind you, a reader’s tastes and tolerance will need to extend at least as far as lines like this: “I wrote of heroin as a scaly green lizard wrapped tightly around my mind, blinking its cold eyes at me, blinding me.” That and many, many other inept metaphors (is it do-able to look a lizard in the eye when it is wrapped about one’s head?) must have resonated with the Australia Council’s cultural arbiters, who put the ATO-harvested dollars of many non-addicts and never-were prostitutes into its publication, subsequently extending that largesse by sending the favoured author off to Rome for an extended stay, again at taxpayer expense. That’s culture, folks! They decide, she nibbles canollis, you pay for it.
What is intriguing about Holden’s column, apart from the author’s pink bits flashing lurid beside the stovetop, is its disdain for the middle classes, to which, or so one might imagine, Holden owes a considerable debt, and not only for underwriting that Italian travel voucher. Called by a telemarketing survey-taker, she tells of being quizzed about her investments and property holdings, of which she has none. This not only brings the conversation to an abrupt conclusion, it also lances a blister of self-pity which flows freely down the page:
Jeez, what a way to start the day. Like the ageing, lonely, pathetic one-step-away-from-sleeping-under-a-bridge arts-wanker-loser I apparently am, I went back to bed and hid under the covers. Now, I could comment on the doctrinaire assumptions of that survey: the bourgeois paradigm implied in every question, the offensive reduction of a life to assets and employment status. I could write about how irritated I am by the comprehensive lack of discourse around anyone who is not in a "working family" (though I would probably stab myself in rage). But why don't we start with people who, implicitly or openly, offer commentary and criticism where it's not invited?
All this irritation, and none of it inspired by anything more than a random call from some poor unfortunate chained to a phone bank in Manila or Bangalore. Bloody bourgeois stickybeaks and their little brown inquisitors, tormentors of Australia’s creative class!
There was no torment, though, when Holden was doing nicely by indulging bourgeois appetites with In My Skin’s invitation to share the life of a mainlining whore. It is the classic formula: shock those damn straights with the indignities of the outlaw life. “Here I am,” the cover note should read, “caked with the crud of commercial carnality, track-marked by addiction and eager to shock. You will take a voyeur’s delight in my degradation and marvel at my command of the graphic and the gritty. But most of, you buttoned-down property owners and grant-less mortgage-payers, you will enjoy the chill and thrill of fearing your own precious daughters might end up stoned, sniffling and extensively stuffed by strangers.”
It worked. The book sold very nicely indeed, especially to members of book clubs and reading groups – you know, those hopeless suburban souls who hew to that despicable “bourgeois paradigm”. Now the arts grants and flattering profiles keep coming and the author also has a profitable new sideline as a public speaker – a gig that sees the further baring of her misadventures before, yes, paying audiences of those same bourgeois knuckleheads.
It is a fine thing that Holden is off the junk and no longer hooking cash from the pockets of men “with big bellies pressing down”. But surely, rather than slighting her benefactors, Holden might have found the good manners to thank them. Or is it simply that the absence of a transgressive sneer invalidates one’s application for an arts grant, not to mention the extended use of a Roman apartment?