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Emplotting the Pugilist: Michael Winkler's Grimmish

Duncan Stuart

Michael Winkler
Westbourne Books, 2021 (AU)
Coach House Books, 2023 (USA)


e have come to think of suffering as beyond language. It is an old idea. In 1912 D.H. Lawrence—who sees “a tragedy in every cow”—walks amongst the crucifixes in the northern Tirol, amongst an “atmosphere of pain” and sees in these Christs “human attempts at deciphering the riddle of pain.” What might this riddle be? That of pain as inner experience. It seems much of my linguistic agreement with others depends on the ability to point at something and fix a term to it. If you do not know what a beetle or a box is, I will show you one or describe it with words you do know. Representation is key. We cannot, however, point to our inner experience.

The idea that pain is subjectivist and incommunicable is perhaps confirmed daily to us. Our friends and lovers reactions don’t match the intensity of our feeling, our doctors fail to take us seriously. Rushing into the emergency room the triage nurse asks you to rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. Ten is the worst pain you’ve ever felt. A pleasant, sheltered life of idleness or years of torment and suffering converge alike on the ten point scale.

Yet it gets worse than this. Elaine Scarry doesn’t just think pain is unshareable (in this discourse unshareable, incommunicable, unrepresentable are all interchangeable), rather pain “actively destroys” language. It removes the very conditions of its shareability in virtue of what it is. This can be seen not perhaps in our daily lives, but think of the victims of unspeakable horrors, of torture, those who survive genocide. Of their tendency to fall silent, to repress, to refuse to speak.

The problems of pain and representation lie at the heart of Michal Winkler’s strange and entrancing novel Grimmish. Grimmish is the tale of Italian-American boxer Joe Grim, born Saverio Giannone. Grim is a real historical figure, and a certain obscurity between history and fiction is at play throughout Grimmish. The novel’s plot is simple enough: Grim’s tour of Australia in 1908 and 1909 is recounted by the narrator’s sherry guzzling uncle who witnessed Grim’s fights. We are told a story of Joe Grim the pain eater, a near legendary figure in the world of boxing. Joe Grim never won a fight, but he was almost impossible to knock out. Crowds came to see him get beaten to a pulp, which he did, night after night. Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1908 to 1915 fought Grim in 1905, and came away believing that Grim simply wasn’t human. “I just don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood” Johnson said after their six-round fight. If one is to write about Joe Grim, in a fictional mode or otherwise, the first problem that presents itself is the problem of the incommunicability of pain.

Grimmish is aware of the difficulties of its subject matter. It opens with a review of itself, which serves not only as a synopsis but a warning of sorts. It is a mea culpa: the book is difficult, absurd and uncomfortably self-conscious, but of course it is because it starts with this fake review you are reading. Winkler here gets ahead of his future critics: he terms the novel “an exploded non-fiction novel” and both Emmet Stinson and Oliver Mol, unsure what else to call it, adopt his nomenclature. The review ends with avoidance, reaching for humor over sincerity, a thoroughly Australian gesture. Our fictional reviewer asks what all the book’s literary acrobatics have achieved, and ends his review with a joke: “Two anarchists are making Molotov cocktails. One says, ‘So mate, who do we throw them at?’ The other replies, ‘What are you, some kind of fucking intellectual?’ This great joke is perhaps difficult for non-Australians. We lack the earnestness and sincerity of North Americans, we are always worried about looking like a dickhead. The great apology of the novel’s difficulty, the cop-out via joke, is itself located in the world of pain, suffering and masculinity the book seeks to define. Act tough, take a hit and don’t dare to manifest your wits in anything other than a punchline.

In Grimmish, form and content merge. The difficulty of the text is encapsulated by the opening chapter proper. What would an attempt to get inside the experience of Joe Grim look like? Show me the pugilist phenomenology. Winkler addresses this immediately: “Red of slit eye. Red of Slashed Eyelid. Red of tongue sliced this way and that. Red of screaming echoes in cudgelled ears. Red of gashed nose.” An entire book like this, punctuated with tranquil scenes of Sydney Harbor, would prove difficult in the extreme, and so Winkler changes tact hard. Yet the novel refuses to settle into an easily established narrative mode or voice. The narrator and his uncle—called, for fuck’s sake, Michael— both take up the pronoun ‘I’ throughout the novel. Later we will get Joe Grim the narrator, as well as at one point Joe Grim shifts from speaking in accented English—“Ladies an’ gentlemens excusa ma I forgotta dat nona de ladies was present, I didda ma besta t-night an I like a gratta man do Bob fit wahcha ma calla him da Gratt Cornish.”—to sounding like a “tweedy don.” This is justified in a footnote (that the novel has footnotes is just another one of its oddities):

I don’t care to mimic contemporary newspaper reports’ offensive pidgin of ‘I fighta enny boda no bigga for da Joe Grim datsa de name anna I challenga da bigga himma’ and we need dialogues to give some interiority to a man who, in life, won attention very largely through deeds rather than words, and if he speaks a lot like my uncle, that is just because this is the way Uncle Michael remembered it. Of course.

This is then followed by a paragraph long quotation from Australian historian Inga Clendinnen on the unbridgeable gap between the historian and their subjects.

The book gets stranger. Some passages are newspaper reports of Grim’s matches, the narrative of Grim and his Australian tour breaks off so we can learn about a man who disintegrates another man’s cheek with a red hot iron poker, for several chapters we are introduced to a goat who says “fucken” quite a lot,—Muhammed Ali biographer Thomas Hauser reviewed Grimmish and had this to say: “And I might add that there are passages in Grimmish involving a talking goat where I had no idea what Winkler was trying to accomplish.”—at the Norguna Ladies’ Lounge men compete against each other in a skull cracking competition and the winner gets to take on Pigthug, some kind of strange creature with a four inch thick skull, who remains undefeated and responsible for two deaths. All of this is interspersed with footnotes and discussions featuring William Hazlitt, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Hayden White. It’s enough to make Jordan Peterson blush.

Yet this is not mere wankery. The question of pain, more precisely the pain of others, and the question of historical imagination are difficult epistemological questions. We have seen the ease with which we can construct an account of the incommunicability of pain, yet on similar basis it seems I can always undermine claims to historical understanding. E.H. Carr writes that “History cannot be written unless the historian can achieve some kind of contact with the mind of those about whom he is writing.” Yet, the problem of pain may be just one example of the problem of inner experience. Philosopher Sidney Shoemaker expressed this sentiment well when he wrote: “unless some relationships between physical and psychological states are not contingent and can be known prior to the discovery of empirical correlations, we cannot have even indirect evidence for the truth of psychological statements about other persons, and cannot know such statements to be true or even probably true.” Such a view returns us to Clendinnen’s unbridgeable gap between historian and subject. The problem is subjectivity tout court.

Pain and history alike depend, then, on the question of the knowability of inner experience. This is the strange insight that lurks beneath the surface in Grimmish, a problem it is posing, and answering as a ‘exploded non-fiction novel’, though one could also understand it as postmodern historical fiction. For one answer to the problem of pain and history alike, one I personally find convincing, is one the reunites the historian with the storyteller, one that returns us—however altered—to Herodotus.

First, pain. In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations he believes that we should be wary of claims of incommunicability, that it would in fact be impossible to have something I could describe but not communicate, a private language. To speak is to speak with others, to “imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” The point goes further—grunts, cries, groans—noises we associated with pain, communicate the experience of pain. So too then, the falling silent of the torture victim. The discourse on the muselmänner, so often taken to represent an absolute limit of human experience—as in Giorgio Agamben, but in Primo Levi too—is in fact the emergence of a new signal of pain and suffering, one that comes to be communicated. The limit becomes mere geography, another point on the map. It does not matter if not every pain is exactly the same, that we understand each other in our usage suffices.

Yet, Wittgenstein goes further than this. If the 20th century has taught us anything, it has taught us of our endless capacity to produce new forms of suffering, new forms of pain. Surely if I had a pain never before experienced by anyone this would be a private, inner experience. A purely subjective moment. Yet if I call it anything then it has become communicable: “when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’”. If we are at this point, then it is possible to imagine another in pain. If we can speak and communicate, if we have been inculcated in language, then we can imagine otherwise, as Stanley Cavell points out in The Claim of Reason:

the very ability to draw a rabbit, like the ability to imagine one, or to imagine what we would feel or do or say in certain circumstances, depends upon the mastery of a form of representation (e.g., knowing what "That is a pumpkin" says) and on the general knowledge of the thing represented (e.g., knowing what a pumpkin is). That language can be represented in language is a discovery about language, one which shows the kind of stability language has (viz., the kind of stability an art has, the kind of stability a continuing culture has) and the kind of general knowledge we have about the expressions we use.

What Grimmish stages, over and over again, are scenes of pain. It stages them in a variety of formats. Like a child learning a word for the first time, we are shown a variety of examples. We cannot be shown every possible example, but only a few suffice. For after that we can imagine otherwise, we get the picture. When Winkler writes the following, he is asking us to picture something we haven’t experienced:

Try picturing a baseball bat swung with great force into your exposed ribs, under the armpit. Try to conceive of a well-aimed mallet landing erratically just above your left ear, and you with no means to stop it. Imagine these things are happening to you in front of a crowd baying like starved dogs. Imagine a single vicious punch to your face, and then multiply it by many hundred, and then think of the cheering that each punch drags from thousands of jeering onlookers. Then we have some gesture towards understanding Grim.

And if you wince reading those examples above, then you’re getting the picture.

Second, History. History proceeds via gaps. From the very first, one must select what counts as historical. Then one must reconstruct from what one does know. R.G. Collingwood sees imagination as essential to the discipline of history: “The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in it’s a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.” This ‘a priori’ form of imagination is, for Collingwood, the same imagination that makes literature possible. The philosopher of history Dmitri Nikulin will take this insight further. To have memory and recollection, to have the raw materials for history in the first place, one must have a faculty of imagination. This includes what he terms “the productive imagination”, which precedes experience—i.e. allows us to imagine things beyond our experience, is unbounded—and “in its functioning it is very similar to the act of memory that allows us to experience the past as brought back to the reconstructed present.”

The link between the historian and the imagination leads naturally to an analogy with literature, an analogy made most famously by Hayden White, who, in his Metahistory, talks of the emplotment of history. A historian must choose which events to focus on, and which to emphasize, he must choose how to emplot his history. As White writes in his essay ‘ The Historical Text as Literary Artifact’, an essay Winkler cites in a footnote:

How a given historical situation is to be configured depends on the historian’s subtlety in matching up a specific plot structure with the set of historical events that he wishes to endow with a meaning of a particular kind. This is essentially a literary, that is to say fiction-making, operation.

White takes this analogy further. What both history and fiction seek to do is to make sensible to us some aspect of the world, they seek to endow “what originally appears to be problematical and mysterious with the aspect of a recognizable, because it is familiar, form.” One can say that history asks us to imagine otherwise, to picture another form of life.

Third, torture. There is a possibility that writing simply the most horrible things possible will be unaffecting. It will cause people to switch off, to turn away, to accuse one of being unbelievable. Perhaps we can displace pain, but what of something truly horrible. If what I have said above is true, why is Winkler’s novel not more straightforward? I have not said that pain is easy to communicate or represent, simply that it is possible to do so. It may require an oblique approach, a variety of storytelling techniques. It is important to note that representation means many things, and an oblique representation is nonetheless a representation. In W.G. Sebald’s On The Natural History of Destruction he offers a remarkable reading of Jean Amery’s At The Mind’s Limits. Amery, talking about his torture at the hands of Gestapo agents brings us to the edge of a moment of great pain and trauma, in this case the dislocating of both his shoulders, described as follows: “there was a cracking and splintering in my shoulders that my body has not forgotten to this hour.” For Sebald, Amery succeeds in being clinical and applying irony at the right moment—Amery ends his passages with “Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology!”—to diffuse the horror of his account, but this does not mean he is failing in his representation or to speak of such things, it merely means he is handling the representation with care. Amery’s passage, I assure you, leaves one in no doubt about the horror of torture. It is not a saying that the unsayable is unsayable, it is choice of the correct form and style of representation which remains, undoubtedly, a representation.

All the pyrotechnics in Grimmish—all its moments of playfulness, strangeness, absurdity—are necessary and part of the argument and not just the scenery. Yet the novel is worthwhile not just because it is violent and strange but because it contains a real human core. In one of the chapters the narrator—who is quite possibly Winkler himself (I suppose he’ll never tell)—talks of his writing career. A lifetime of writing, all gone to waste. Unpublished and neglected our narrator bemoans his fate—one here must suppose here the narrator can’t be Winkler, winner of the 2016 Caliber Prize worth 15,000AUD, and whose own website boasts a plethora of articles in all of Australia’s major literary rags—how stupid he has been, pissing away his time like this. His wife steps in with a comforting chime: “not stupid, just absurd.”

The phrase is important enough to appear again when Dora—the one women who is begrudgingly written into the script—strikes up conversation with Joe Grim (who is punching a tree in the small Western Australian town of Billinup)—who describes Joe Grim as ‘not stupid, just absurd.’ It’s a fine way to describe a man who gets beaten up for a living, but it is also an attempt to see the sense in something as insane as Grim’s way of earning a wage. In a novel as self-consciously postmodern and playful as Grimmish it is still attention and perception—ways of seeing—that matter most.

Mol, in his review of Grimmish, elevates this principal to the height of the book. After all, at a crucial moment towards the end, we are told that it is unclear what to make of all the pain Grim suffered, and of what good it has done for Grim and for the reader who has born witness to it. Mol reflects on the problems of pain’s subjectivity. He concludes with the suggestion that Grimmish, its author, Grim himself can all be put under that noble refrain “not stupid, just absurd.” Yet the power of this refrain depends itself on a belief that we could come to see Grim in such a way, that we can in fact imagine the life of such a pain eater.

I do not share Mol’s belief in the incommunicability of pain. Grim’s suffering may not have materialized into a joyful end of life. But we do not live our lives for their ends, a moment we all wish to skip. We live them for ourselves, in the present, and for those who will remember us, somewhere down the line. Friedrich Nietzsche—who also appears in Grimmish’s footnotes—once proposed that one must live one’s life as a work of art. This unfortunate phrase falls into the hands of dogmatists, who imagine a Mishima-style final chapter in their own narcissistic arc. But Nietzsche has always been more complex than presumed, and this phrase can encompass many forms of life and many kinds of art. Joe Grim is often described in Grimmish as a pain artist, and the final homage is paid in turning him into a literary figure, even with all the self-conscious mythologizing Winkler does. The penultimate chapter of Grimmish is a variation of the first—“red of split eye. Red of fist-tattooed ribs.”—with the reds of the story’s narrative thrown in, “red of the sunset of Claremont.” This unity is no coincidence, it marks the distance travelled. The red that has appeared first as incomprehensible, has reemerged as something we can place in our world, with all the other reds therein. Winkler, to use the words of White quoted earlier that he has no doubt read, refamiliarizes us with Grim, make his pain imaginable, fits him into a broader story about the deleterious inroads of the male psyche, and turns all that pain into something, emplotting Grim’s life and wringing value from all those blood-soaked fights and all that suffering.


Duncan Stuart