Saturday, April 12, 2008

youthful convulsions: epilepsy in Three Dollars

There are a number of rites of passage that can mark the transition from adolescence into adulthood. When I turned 18 in 1983, just too late to vote in the Federal Election that Bob Hawke won, I could’ve confidently flashed my provisional driver’s licence at Bryant’s Band room in Sydney’s Northern Beaches Manly Vale Hotel, while watching and half-dancing to Echo and the Bunnymen, in order to prove I was legally entitled to buy and sink 8 plastic cups of scotch and coke. But just like the time at Bryant’s the previous year when me and some mates had gone to see New Order play no one asked me for ID. I didn’t really start to get asked for ID at pub rock venues until I had my Black Drivers’ Licence and was paying taxes. By that stage post-punk bands like New Order no longer played at suburban pubs like the Manly Vale, and they no longer played guitar-based post punk, having moved into electronic pop and dance music. When I was finally being asked to show ID, Bob Hawke’s popularity had been tarnished by an opportunistically called early election and Paul Keating’s media star was on the ascendant even when he did issue that strange warning on the John Laws show that Australia was in danger of becoming a Banana Republic with the national economy on the tipping point of reaching the sort of maturity that the direction of the Current Account, and the value of the Australian dollar, could confirm.

I spent much of the 1980s working in the family business – a building and party equipment hire business – accumulating and playing musical equipment, reading John Irving and Elmore Leonard novels and smoking bongs. Hardly the rites to maturity. By the beginning of the 1990s an investment in piano lessons during the 80s opened a few doors into reggae and funk bands, and I left the family business to get a further education at TAFE with a view to going to University.

I left home for good.

1991 is also the year Paul Keating finally won the leadership of the federal ALP, amidst a recession that cut deeply. Just as the band that New Order formed out of – Joy Division – had been a cult touchstone for my generation, a Seattle band called Nirvana were gathering a mass culture storm around their songs and performances. Grunge arrived not only in the musical world but strangely became the name foisted on a style of dirty realist urban fiction in Australia. Andrew McGahan’s Praise published in 1992 and set mainly around Kangaroo Point and the old New Farm, Brisbane, is generally considered the germinal grunge novel, followed by a number of similarly styled novels in the period up to 1995. 1995 was a year of literary scandals. The year when the appellation grunge was retrospectively bestowed and the generationalism that Mark Davis describes and attacks in his book Gangland become a key weapon in the culture wars. Critics and reviewers with parental personas wondered if Grunge lit was as lazy as Praise’s Gordon? Good writing took hard work, and didn’t rely on the easy shock value of graphic sex, graphic drug use and graphic language. Good writing required a level of maturity that had to be earned and experienced. Grunge was typing not writing. At least Tsiolkas’ Ari in Loaded could be slotted into the fictional politics of identity, but all that reckless drug taking, clubbing and beat sex. And no job.

My own story is entwined with Praise. After the apostasy of playing funk and rap covers in a couple of bands in the early 1990s for money, an old mate from high school coaxed me into what had become of a part of postpunk scene in Sydney's inner west. Chris Lobb was a singer-songwriter who worshipped Gene Pitney, Leonard Cohen, and Captain Beeefheart and he soon made friends with other players in the inner-west alternative music scene. By the mid 1990s I was playing in a more alternative revue-style band with Peter Fenton who was attempting to reinvent himself, and earn a bit of extra cash on the side, outside of the postpunk persona he performed in his main band Crow. I was never that close to Peter, but was very impressed by him: a dynamic performer, with the onstage charisma of Robert Forster(without the camp poses) and the song-writing gifts of Don Walker. Impressive too was that he’d been chosen to play the asthmatic, premature ejaculating, unemployed Gordon in the film adaptation of Praise. When I read the novel I was caught by its realism and Gordon’s voice. It was depressing and somehow uplifting and it flowed – like Nirvana’s Lithium. Gordon’s failure to mature, his failed formation or Bildungs, resonated with me like the best of Peter Fenton’s songs, like New Order’s debut song Ceremony which was their transition song performed first as Joy Division with Ian Curtis before his suicide.

Curtis plays a minor, but significant role in Eliot Perlman’s 1998 novel Three Dollars. Perlman’s celebrated and popular novel, which was made into a film released in 2005, has as its narrator and hero Eddie Harnovey, whose late teens are filled with following the career of Joy Division and who is reunited with his future wife Tanya, after she sends him a letter commiserating over the suicide of Curtis. The narrator Eddie tells the reader that Eddie and Tanya ‘pay lip-service to humility and give their seal of approval to anyone who listened to Joy Division, because no one we met in those early days at university read Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot, Robert Frost or A.D.Hope’ (41). At this point in the story, when Eddie and Tanya are experimenting with personas – he wears mascara to affect a pose of bisexuality, she demands the right to audition for the role of Hamlet – these characters in Perlman’s novel are momentarily recognisable as being in transition, as emerging along with history, in a process of becoming. In Bakhtin’s unfinished manuscript on the Bildungsroman - unfinished because Bakhtin used much of it to roll -up his smokes during a paper shortage – the Russian formalist writes:

In such novels as . . . Wilhelm Meister human emergence . . . is no longer man’s own private affair. He emerges along with the world and he reflects the historical emergence of the world itself. He is no longer within an epoch, but on the border between two epochs, at the transition point from one to the other. This transition is accomplished in him and through him. He is forced to become a new, unprecedented type of human being. What is happening here is precisely the emergence of a new man. The organizing force held by the future is therefore extremely great here – and this is not, of course, the private biographical future but the historical future. It is as though the very foundations of the world are changing, and man must change along with them. Understandably, in such a novel of emergence, problems of reality and man’s potential, problems of freedom and necessity, and the problem of creative initiative rise to their full height. The image of the emerging man begins to surmount its private nature (within certain limits, of course) and enters into a completely new, spatial sphere of historical existence. Such is the last, realistic type of novel of emergence. (Bakhtin, Speech Acts: 23-4)

Eddie’s dalliance with Joy Division and Tanya’s with playing Hamlet mark the moment in which their earlier, passionate romance evaporates and they separate. If Tanya and Eddie are momentarily emerging along with the world, then the sudden end to this period of experimentation which finishes with their reuniting and their committing to careers is both a missed opportunity in the novel and is symptomatic of the contradiction that Three dollars attempts, but fails, to resolve. This contradiction is between the novel’s address to, and metafictional longing for, an imagined classical public sphere and the new form of governmentality that Michel Foucault has described as neo-liberalism. In other words Three Dollars aims to hail a reader who having read Eddie’s story of middle-class un-protection – of what Paul Kelly in his story of the 1980s has narrated as the necessary dismantling of the institutions of Fortress Australia – is armed with the subjective but realist life-narrative that builds a moral-aesthetic force into arguments in the political public sphere: arguments ultimately aimed at civilising capitalism through an ethical-state which regulates the private market sphere in line with ultimate ethical values. These ethical values, Three dollars argues, I think, arise naturally from the intimate human-ness of the private domestic sphere when an ordinary, middle-class, patriarchal and heterosexual family is supported by the state. At the novel’s metafictional level, which features a Hamlet plot, the literary intervention into the political public sphere sought is based in the tautologies of Arnoldian and Leavisite Criticism – themselves social and cultural formations nostalgic for the classical public sphere of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Near the end of the novel and the plot Eddie, who has been downsized, and whose family is about to lose their home, tells us: ‘I understood that secular humanism, liberalism and social justice had not abandoned me . . . it was just that everybody had abandoned them.’ (345)

So, on the one hand of this contradiction, which I’m arguing is not resolved in Three Dollars, is the novel’s metafictional intervention aimed at circulating rational-critical debate around the devastating effects of economic rationalism, including the ascendant practices of managerial psychology. On the other hand is the symbolic representation of economic rationalism.

And here we come back to Ian Curtis and his epilepsy as a symbolic form if timespace, or in Bakhtin's terms, epilepsy as chronotope.

In the novel, there are three chronotopes of economic time represented. The major symbol of timespace is Eddie’s childhood friend Amanda Claremont. Every nine and a half years they cross paths and every meeting finds him with only three dollars. Amanda’s mother removes the lower middle class 10 year old Eddie from Amanda’s life because, Eddie thinks, he will stain her with his lower social standing. I read this as symbolising the boom-bust business cycle – cyclic and inevitable, requiring the Keynesian macroeconomic regulation regime to even out the highs and lows.
The second chronotope attached to political economy in the novel is Depression. Tanya suffers an endemic depression that is exacerbated by her struggle to write a political science doctorate on the death of political economics which she plans to bolster with a defence of Keynesian economics, and accelerated by her tutoring contract finishing at her campus. Tanya’s depression runs on a deeper cycle than Amanda’s nine and a half year appearance. Along with Tanya, Tanya’s father and Eddie’s uncle George both suffer from depressions that result in suicide – it’s also interesting that both these bouts of depression and suicide are structured, within the novel’s moral economy, as being caused by abnormal sexual acts or desires that conflate sex and money. Uncle George’s suicide due to a depression is coterminous with the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system, the oil shocks and stagflation of the early 1970s – stagflation being the death knell for Keynesian macroeconomic demand-side regulation. Tanya’s father’s depression runs back to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The third chronotope is never as explicitly figured as being economic as the first two are, and this brings us back to Bakhtin’s notion that the Bildungsroman presents human emergence alongside historical emergence. What sort of historical emergence, then, might be represented in the disease of epilepsy? Rather than the deep temporal return of the dystopic seventh wave of depression, and unlike the more regular, troughs and peaks that the middle class are largely insulated from, epilepsy is a convulsive, shuddering and highly compressed oscillation that makes its victims unconscious. Ian Curtis is one of the novel’s epileptics and so is Tanya and Eddie’s daughter Abby.
What I’m suggesting here is that Three dollars while structured like a Bildungsroman disavows the primary category of this key narrative form of modernity: a transition between youth and adulthood. Youth in Three dollars can’t emerge because in the universe of the novel history is disappearing – it is contracting rather than expanding. However the figure of epilepsy, which awaits Abbey’s teenage years, and which inflicts itself on the postindustrial poet of punk Ian Curtis, is an ideologeme of the novel, operating in its political unconscious. Rather than history contracting and returning to 1930s Germany - as is the cyclic temporal logic of depression - the temporal logic of the epileptic fit is that its regulation requires a flexible, microtimed support and release regulation/ deregulation regime.

To paint this reading in bolder strokes what I’m suggesting here is that at its ostensive level Three Dollars presents an Arnoldian-Leavisite Cultural formation as being the civilising bulwark against the philistine culture and psychology of economic rationalism. Economic rationalism can’t be presented as historical emergence because its culture is regressive, and as the novel makes clear, so are those characters that inhabit its discursive regimes. However, Three Dollars cannot overcome or rather resolve the contradiction that the civilising foundations of the Arnoldian/ Leavisite Literary paradigm are based on a nostalgia for a classical public sphere that despite its self-advertised universal address, was always restricted and was structurally transformed as the domestic private sphere itself became more and more of a space of commodification and cultural industry colonisation. The contradiction here is that digital finance capital and its cultural logics – one form of which is neoliberalism - does convulse like epilepsy and that this epileptic temporality of light capitalism is historically emergent and produces new structures of feeling. History emerges as epilepsy in the novel - but this cannot be thematized as it would damage the attempt at a social-liberal Bildungs. Epilepsy, neoliberalism's dirty secret about the convulsive, unconscious, electric oscillations operative in digital finance capitalism, goes underground in the novel, attaching itself to youth.

By employing the narrating position of the Bildungsroman in a first person narrative, Perlman’s novel attempts to overcome the historical emergence of neoliberalism by annihilating his narrator’s moment of transition. Eddie doesn’t need to grow up – to experiment, to go through a formation or apprenticeship, to complete the two tasks of Bildungs: self-determination, and normalisation. Eddie’s almost innate maturity is a judgement performed from the future anterior of the story’s end, so that Eddie’s human-ness, his ethical sensibility, his acts of kindness to strangers, are obviously and always already the right act at the right time. And this sense of Eddie’s kairos gets us closer to the challenge of an emerging arrhythmia that would normally be presented through the transitional sequence in a novel, but here must be abjected.

Such is the shock of an apparently regressive political rationality that announces itself as liberal and as being concerned with removing state interference (deregulating- privatising) from the private spheres (market and intimate-domestic), that raises the social liberal fear of a return to the laissez-faire rule-of-the-jungle markets of the late c19.
Such is the shock that this political rationality might not be de-regulative but rather is regulates through its formation of subjects and institutions.
Such is this shock that Left-Liberals cannot entertain the thought that the emergence of this structure of feeling is actually an emergence. For neoliberalism is not necessarily a regression or return and the spaces of cultural autonomy from which this rationality is mis-recognised as being a capitalism that can be civilised in the same ways as Keynesian social liberalism attempted to civilise capitalism, are themselves becoming marketized, made productive, efficient, flexible.

Effectively the novel’s failure to resolve this contradiction of forms and thereby of forces is both utterly unsurprising –for who can – and also what is most interesting about it. Every time I go back and read the novel, I oscillate between applauding its skilful presentation of the emergence of neoliberal governmentality into subjectivity with Tanya and Eddie’s private/ very public joke about Tanya’s emotional indices being analogous to the all-ordinaries, and hating the transparent technique of Eddie’s adversaries being both captured by neoliberal managerialism, but having the novel manipulate the reader into attributing moral, intellectual and cultural weakness and failure to these characters as well. Perlman would do well to take a few lessons from a writer like Amanda Lohrey whose debut novel tips constantly into Brechtian alienation of her characters. But what irks most is that in being so close to producing an effective popular critical realism – as Ken Gelder in Overland puts it – critical of economic rationalism, Three Dollars can only effect its limited critique by a deeply nostalgic metafictional invocation of its own Cultural and thereby ethical value, and by abjecting the dangers and processes of becoming from the narrator and his narrating.

By the novel’s end Eddie has achieved a series of reconciliations – he and Amanda have broken out of their cycle, Tanya is recovering from her depression, and Eddie has been beaten unconscious by neo-nazis: the scapegoat sacrificed in order that the violence can end. Eddie has sacrificed his material prospects but gained in integrity. We know Eddie has achieved manhood, not because he has been on a journey like Wilhelm Meister, but because the mistakes Eddie is atoning for are world-historical ones, and more likely ones that haunt the Jewish diaspora – Eddie is not so much in the transitional phase of becoming a man, but of performing out of his acts that will continue and constitute civilisation. Eddie’s manhood is also his father–, husband-hood and the novel ends with his return to Tanya and Abby, and the ironic prospect of a job with the finance capitalist worker Paul in Human Resources. Whether or not this irony is intended is impossible to decide, however the weight of the novel’s politics suggest that Three Dollars regards economic rationalism as just another philistine challenge to be civilised: a top job in human resources is a prime post for such social liberal work.

Am I being too hard on Perlman? That is precisely not the point or what is not at stake in this critical reading of the political unconscious of what is a consecrecated post-grunge novel. Perlman as author is working with the forms and discourses which have formed and affected his writing. It's the particular marrying, and indeed attempted compromise, of these heterogeneous forms that makes the novel a rich text: the attempt to mount a literary fictional critique of neoliberalism is what makes Three Dollars worth a sustained close reading. But the novel's project is distorted, or rather thwarted, by the literary forms chosen to realise it. Eliot Perlman, as person, is not who I have a beef with - its the text itself, that I am performing a critique on and with. In a sense it is by reading Perlman's affective and funny novel against the grain that I am attempting to come of age, and gain my literary critical license. Funny that such a test would bring a reconsideration of Ian Curtis back into my horizon.

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