“I guess I was sick of reading novels that all felt a little bit the same. I wanted to try to see if I could create something different.” Melbourne-based writer Michael Winkler and I are talking about his cult-hit Grimmish – a glorious form-buster of a book that has earned praise from JM Coetzee and Helen Garner. Firmly rejected by Australian publishing houses, Winkler’s “exploded nonfiction novel” has been longlisted for the Miles Franklin literary award – the first self-published entry to make a list in the prize’s 65-year history.
“I was told it was wearisome, an acquired taste. One publisher called it repellent,” Winkler recalls some of the more pointed rebuffs. “Everyone said there was no way they could sell it.” But Grimmish found its way to readers: indie bookshops pressed it into hands, critics were jubilant, and the joyful bibliophiles on #booktwitter spread the word.
“It’s been truly astonishing to me how supportive people have been,” Winkler says, still sounding awed. “How they picked up this book as their own and wanted good things for it – as if they’ve been waiting for a book that tries something a little bit strange.”
And wondrous strange it is. St Kilda novelist and “semi-reformed punk rocker” Bram Presser is one of the book’s most vocal fans. “Grimmish appeared out of nowhere and pretty much-floored anyone who picked it up,” he says. “It does things with fiction that I barely thought possible.”
Winkler’s subject is the Italian-American boxer Joe Grim (1881-1939), a fin-de-siècle prize-fighter famed for his ability to withstand the battering. Lantern-jawed and relentless, Grim seldom won a bout but was nearly impossible to knock out. Known as “the human punching bag”, his matches were spectacles of brute endurance. A bone-crunching vaudeville.
There were very good reasons for me to feel that my whole creative career had been a failure. That’s very painful, Michael Winkler.
In 1908, Grim arrived in Australia to tour the national boxing circuit; by 1909, he was an involuntary inmate in a Perth psychiatric asylum. It’s this wretched, self-erosive year that Winkler animates in Grimmish – a year so archivally threadbare that Winkler abandoned his plans for a bog-standard biography and started meta-fictionally riffing.
Paradoxically, the qualities that make Grimmish so inventive – or, as Presser would say, so “batshit bonkers” – stem from a desire to make the process of storytelling transparent. “I was trying to play radically fair with the reader,” Winkler says. “Not only to present a story but to explain why the story was being presented the way it was – to own up when I was falling short or trying to make myself look good.”
And so Grimmish often calls bullshit on itself: plays the same scene over again to show how confected it is or disputes the facts from the footnotes. A talking goat trots across the pages like a cloven-hoofed heckler. Winkler opens with a fake review, a critique of these “stylistic shenanigans” and “rickety structures”. It’s an ego-puncturing prelude to a novel of writerly self-doubt.
The boxing ring has always been a potent metaphorical – and metaphysical – space, a world of contained brutalities and ferocious ecstasies, a grotesque mirror of our grotesqueries. In Grimmish, it also becomes an allegory for the torment of the page. “I’ve written for decades and never had much success,” Winkler tells me. “There were very good reasons for me to feel that my whole creative career had been a failure. That’s very painful.” And so, after years of banging his head against a creative wall, the 56-year-old has written a novel of exquisite pathos about a man with a notoriously thick skull.
It would be easy to turn the hapless Grim into a punchline – a thuggish jester – but Winkler treats the fighter with the wounded reverence we reserve for our fallen childhood heroes. As a boy, the author sketched designs for body armor and elaborate plating he could wear as protection. “It’s pretty obvious what was going on,” he reflects. “I found it too easy to have my feelings hurt.” Joe Grim was a fantasy figure, a man seemingly impervious to pain. It’s this longing for invulnerability, this boyhood attraction to Grim’s brand of silent, macho stoicism, that Winkler dissects in Grimmish.
A novel of bloodied knuckles, broken teeth, and the “realm of pain” sounds like a hypermasculine fever dream. But Grimmish interrogates rather than valorizes its violence. “A couple of people have said to me, ‘Oh, it’s just a book for men’,” Winkler says. “And I hope not! Grimmish is not a book about boxing; it’s a book about ideas. It’s about pain and life and Australian literary traditions. About how our stories are told.”
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It feels quite radical to hear an Australian author stake their novel’s intellectual claim – to talk so brazenly and earnestly of ideas. Still, it’s Winkler’s sincerity that has endeared readers to Grimmish. “I don’t come to this with a tertiary education; I’m not an autodidact,” Winkler says. “The ideas in this book aren’t esoteric; they’re about how we are and live in this country. About the things men do to each other and themselves.”
On Thursday, Winkler will discover if Grimmish has made the Miles Franklin prize shortlist. Still, the longlisting feels like a resounding vote for literary weirdness and thaciobigs of Australian readers. “I certainly think publishers aren’t as brave as they should be,” Winkler says. “Readers are capable of accommodating so much more than we give them.”