What can you say about the small number of people out there who can’t stand Corinne Grant? My theory about the Corinne haters was always that Grant’s brand of humour is just a bit too cosy for some tastes. In her routines on The Glass House and the live stand-up scene you’d get hardly any of the snark with which other funny-men decapitate their fellow humans day after day, and none of the excruciating embarrassments that plenty of comedy relies on for comic effect.
For more than a decade now, Grant’s schtick has been that of an ex-country girl who still gets herself in a tangle adapting to the big smoke. Even when she’d try out a bit of lazy smut, or did take-offs of the freak show of city street-life, she’d always keep enough of the girl-next-dooriness to save her routines from shading off into any sort of black; she’d fess up to her fantasies about coming home with the balls of the bogan on the tram wrapped in plastic, but then she’d hunch over or cover her mouth in embarrassment — and that was almost as funny as the gag.
Well, Lessons in Letting Go is here to tell us that it’s been harder work being Corinne Grant than we might have assumed. The book’s about being a hoarder — something Grant wants to tell us is a specific condition in its own right, a very serious condition, involving a pathological inability to throw out any of the stuff you’ve ever accumulated.
The tale starts in what is Grant’s recognisable comic mode. To warm us up, she rattles off self-deprecating stories about her days as a junior try-hard from Corryong, Victoria. Within a chapter or two, she’s down in Melbourne at uni, and we learn about her obsession with stuff as she shacks up with a guy called Thomas. The comic set-pieces follow a basic formula, which works well enough: as she moves between flats she digs up bits and pieces that remind her of moderately funny misadventures from the Corryong days. Pretty early on she meets comic-to-be Adam Richard, who gets most of the best lines in the book and is there to offset Grant’s desperately straight ways with top-shelf gay self-parody. (If she’s the clueless country kid, he’s Liberace in tracksuit pants.)
Boyfriend Thomas comes off second best as a character. Grant spends the greater part of the book grieving about what never was, or taking advantage of Thomas’ patience as the friendly ex. The relationship that preceded all this is next to non-existent: Thomas is fundamentally decent, not obsessed with hanging on to his stuff (and therefore in Grant’s mind “brave”) — and, apart from that, he’s just there to calm her down and reason with her about her stuff.
Lessons in Letting Go tries out two types of explanations of her hoarding ways — straight explanations and jokey explanations. The second type often rings truer than the first type, making the second half of the book, when Grant’s efforts to come to terms with her obsessions get deadly serious, a bit of a drag.
Until she starts “de-hoarding”, one of the main things Grant can’t get a grip on is the difference between the social ritual of buying stuff for other people, which isn’t always a token of live human feeling, and the reality of genuine emotional bonds. She’s accumulated so much stuff because she’s never thrown away a single Christmas card or any of the 20 bottles of skin-cream she’s been gifted since the 1980s.
This is the personal essence of the hoarding behaviour: it’s as if her connections with other people are so tenuous that if she bins the unused 20-year-old presents she’ll be standing n-ked in the present, utterly alone; or as if her sense of herself depends so much on the past that she needs physical reminders of every little incident to know that she’s still alive in the here and now. She’s almost hysterical in her nostalgia, and she knows it. Every old scrunchy sends her bowling down memory lane, like an elasticised version of Proust’s madeleine.
The book though seems to toss up more questions than Grant herself can answer without the help of the psychological professionals. Is her hoarding a side-effect of the way she over-empathises? (She does it with things as well as people.) How does the localised problem — the fear of turfing out all the pressies and mementos — relate to her wider set of fears — the paralysing neurotic fear of offending people, appearing rude, appearing stupid, appearing timid, or the circular neurotic perception that it’s pathetic to have all those fears in the first place? If her habits as a hoarder open her eyes to a generalised anxiety — the classic existentialist heeby-jeebies — then how does sorting out the localised problem with excess stuff allow her to neutralise the wider anxiety, and do so without any neurotic remainders?
Neutralise it she does, with a dose of spirituality and some casual humanitarianism. Off she flies to Bali, for 10 days of yoga and psychic purging, some encounters with women who have done an impressive amount of their own letting-go, and a spot of what my anthropology lecturer used to call “exoticism”: a highly satisfying attempt to project a fantasy of wholesome simplicity onto the Indonesian natives she doesn’t really get to know.
The best of all this is still the funny bits — the cute Dutch girl who says things such as “Every Dutch person has class. We don’t have bogans. What is ‘daggy’?” (Corinne is tactful enough not to answer “Straight young Dutchies.”) The worst is the self-helpy tone Grant gives to it all: her purpose in visiting this tourist-brochure “tropical paradise”, she tells us, is “to learn to let go of my pain”.
It’s hard to knock another person’s journey of self-discovery. Surely one human being’s journey of self-discovery is as good as the next? Yes, but is one person’s journey as worthy of a novel-length memoir as the next? The answer has to be no: whether the journey’s worth writing about depends on the depth of the experience involved and whether it comes through in words and sentences. Now: if this seems to reduce a comic’s confession to very serious terms, with Lessons in Letting Go you have to get down to serious issues at some point.
The book stops functioning like an extended stand-up routine quite early on. It wants to tell us that spiritual retreats, human companionship and contact with the suffering of the earth can make us into better people. Who could possibly doubt it? The point is that most of us already know those kinds of things can change our lives. So someone writing about them has to show us how with a lot more vividness than Oprah and her blithering guests, or else it’ll sound clichéd.
In the end that’s why Lessons in Letting Go sours its own fun: because what it boils down to is a lengthy, comically unreconstructed indecent exposure of Grant’s neurotic consciousness. “Unreconstructed” is the operative word here. Because obviously the material itself — hoarding, and the convoluted guilt and shame that make Grant into a hoarder — could’ve made for some funny and perceptive summer reading: aren’t intense guilt and shame the neurotic feedstock of the routines we know and love in Woody Allen, or Phillip Roth, or Corinne Grant when she’s at her best?
There’s no comparison, unfortunately. The shamelessness with which Woody used to moan about being a loser is the motor of his best films: the shamelessness is what perversely suggests that he’s master of all the stuff that he’s telling us over and over he’s not master of. Midway through Lessons in Letting Go, Corinne Grant enters into a vicious circle: she tells us how ashamed she is of her hoarding and showers us with the details, but that’s all.
When she does eventually break the pattern, turfing out half a house worth of stuff, throwing a party and presumably deciding to write a book about it all, you realise how far she’s left comedy behind. Apart from a handful of good smart-arse lines from Adam Richard, there aren’t that many funnies to speak of towards the end of the book.
In becoming a reformed hoarder, Grant seems to create for herself the safe domain of comfort, tidiness and self-contentment that she somehow fell away from during childhood. She returns wholly to a sort of comfort zone, one that her fellow hoarders and the rest of us are supposed to find edifying.
Some people will find it edifying and some won’t. The reason it rings untrue is because you know the tidy ideal is exactly the kind of thing Grant in stand-up mode is expert at mocking.
Dr Cameron Shingleton is a critic and lecturer at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy