Monday, January 26, 2009

Gordon's Boils: 1988 and the body of Australian writing

It being Australia Day, I've posted below an excerpt of my still being exmained PhD thesis that touches on some of the resonant themes arising out of Andrew McGahan's often 'misunderestimated' second novel 1988. The excerpt is from the second chapter and follows sections on McGahan's Praise, Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded, which both come after an analysis of former prime minister Paul Keating's language and story-telling.

The link between these political and literary readings is the argument that a close-reading of Keating's language divulges a narrativisation of Neoliberalism via the tropes and narrative structure of the coming-of-age genre: the Bildungsroman. This embedding of Neoliberal rationalities of government into Australian political culture is resisted through the Grunge novels of McGahan and Tsiolkas, among others -- resisted through refusing a successful coming-of-age. And in such refusal Grunge novels refocus the expectation of narrative closure around a successful maturation towards forms of 'development' that are diseased, drug-fucked, perverse. No development at all, but rather forms of time and space that are abject, atopic and arrhythmic.

1988, McGahan's wry 'prequel' to Praise, gets funnier with each subsequent reading. Yet its humour is presented in an Australian voice: taking the piss, laconic, not up itself, bordering on farce. Lacking sentimentality it offers a self-parody of the limits of the white body of Australian writing circa 1995 which is still relevant today.

There are a number of pasts that crises, like the current financial crisis, call back to in order to make sense of the present. The 1930s and the Great Depression and New Deal response in the USA is one. The moment in 1995 when Grunge literature emerged in the wake of the 1990-91 Recession is another. Its dismissal as marketing hype and immature writing, submerged beneath the Demindenko hoax and First Stone culture wars also of 1995, buried the consideration of aspects of Grunge fiction as employing youth-to-adulthood narrative form as a politics of literary form. The politics of such negation and refusal of literary coming-of-age is not mere rebellion but resides in the understanding of what neoliberalism abjects: a making of waste as is now more than apparent.

Australia day 2009 marks a point at which storms are gathering around tenets of Australian exceptionalism: that Australian trade was directly coupled to the decoupled Chinese economic growth miracle; that the contagion of financial collapse was contained over there . Unemployed, underemployed, and employed, it seems to me, are the identities that will increasingly come to define the next few years. When unemployment last reached 10%, in the wake of the 1990-91 Recession, Neoliberal techniques of governing conduct were intensified. Grunge fiction presents this intensification as forming the self: as Bildung. As unemployement grows, we could do worse than turn back to Grunge fiction for some cues as to the insiduous embedding of some Neoliberal techniques of governing. And how to understand and resist them.


I had nothing else to do. I sat there thinking about time. It was 1988. Australia’s Bicentennial year. The country was two hundred years old. I was twenty-one. (McGahan, 1995b: 42)

I was a writer, not an economist (144).

If the long Labor decade was in Paul Keating and Paul Kelly’s narratives of nation the time when Australia came of age, the two-hundred-year anniversary of the physical settlement of British Australia in Sydney in 1988 was an event and year potent with similar meaning. 1988 is a significant year in Australian history. There was a mass media and government-directed set of celebrations, focussed on 26 January (Australia Day) commemorating the Bicentennial of British settlement (Bolton 1990: 282-86, Turner 1994: 66-92). These celebrations were met with protests against the legacies of what has become known, since 1988, as Invasion Day (“Invasion”). In cultural studies and critical analyses the Bicentennial year has been framed in terms of its representations and elisions of the violent legacies of colonial settlement and changes to the technology of national broadcast media and political economy that are present in the Australia Live: Celebration of a Nation television spectacular (Turner: 83-8, Morris, 1993).

These events and the investments made in them by Government prompted the selection of the year as a periodisation end-marker in a variety of histories. The fifth volume of the Oxford History of Australia, The Middle Way: 1942-1988, first published in 1990, terminates with the Bicentennial year, which Geoffrey Bolton presents as both a moment for reflection on the ambivalences of Australian modernity, and affirmation of a wary optimism: “there might in time arise a decent self-confidence in national identity” (291). The Penguin New Literary History of Australia (1988) was “assisted by The Australian Bicentennial Authority to celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary”, its ‘New-ness’ having to do with methods of literary history based on a “consciousness that it is written out of the present, and that the needs of the present must cause us to reassess ways of looking at the past (Hergenhan: ii, xii). Thus in the theory of history to be practised in this collection we can see a need and desire to revise Australian literary history on the basis of challenges that recent, new cultural forces pose. These new forces are also present in Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman’s The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970-88 (1989). The Bicentennial year is inscribed into the title alongside a description of the period that is reflected in its heterogeneous eleven chapters. Here a diverse assemblage of themes and forms results in some novels reappearing through different guises when placed under another interpretive rubric. The effect of this technique of literary history is to multiply interpretations; to pluralize any monologic narrative of literary progress. Instead the progress of Australian fiction is itself toward pluralism.

These three ‘Bicentennial year’ histories share an optimism concerning the prospects for an Australian future that is pluralised: ethnically, culturally and textually. This optimism was tied into the sense that the nation was modernising in ways intensified by the reconsideration of White beginnings and Aboriginal endings two hundred years prior. Ken Gelder writes, “200 years on, every white Australian must confront this [Aboriginal] other, recognize it, listen to it and [as represented in Aboriginal writing] read it” (1989: 205).

This optimism in a pluralising Australia, however, sat atop an ambivalence over the social and cultural implications of the changes in economic government of the federal state under the Australian Labor Party from 1983:

Australians [. . .] had a strongly developed tradition of equity which tempered many of the harsher manifestations of modern capitalism in difficult times.
This tradition of equity seemed in danger of eroding during the 1980s. As the gap grew between poorer Australians and the very rich no major political party seemed able or willing to curb the process. This was in part a reaction to the uncertainties of the world economy since the early 1970s, which had impelled corporations into multinational growth and nations into more strongly organized trading blocs. Australia’s traditional economic strengths and skills no longer seemed sufficient to ensure relative security. Unable to deliver prosperity, many public figures contended that Australia could no longer afford the redistributive policies which created greater equity: the less well-off must practice restraint in order that the powerful might succeed better in their attempts to create wealth. (Bolton, 1988: 290)

This was a pluralizing then also of structures of feeling. Specifically there was an optimism signalled by 1988 as the period marker of an ending for Australian colonialism, and thereby beginning of post-coloniality, that was articulated to a manic manifestation of that ‘ecstasy’ released by the enacting of Neoliberal political rationalities that Morris explicates. A more pessimistic structure of feeling centred around losses ranging from that of the political and cultural centrality of white working class men, to the hopes invested in Labor by a bloc of social formations which carried a nostalgia for the previous Labor Government and especially its leader, Gough Whitlam (Morris, 1998).

1988 is also the year when the 1987 radical reforms that Michael Pusey speaks of became embedded in bureaucratic cultures. In 1987 “a minor revolution” occurred with “Prime Minister Hawke’s Bastille Day announcement of sweeping structural changes to the administration of government” which reformed the structure of the federal Treasury and Finance departments (1991: 146-53). These changes centralised decision-making power within these departments and thereby enforced leaner and more efficient budgetary controls on what were seen as plump ministerial portfolio areas, such as the Higher Education sector, and increasingly inflicted codes of managerial practice on the administration of government (146-53). In late 1987 the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit, set up to report to Prime Minster Hawke on the status of the Public Service Board (that body that had for generations functioned to select and train all public service appointments), began its report with a preamble that rehearses the now familiar terms of the Neoliberal critique of government:

[t]he unit advised that reducing and removing unnecessary controls and interventions would generally enhance the competitiveness of the economy. It recommended that this problem needed to be addressed in a fundamental way after the election [11 July, 1987] and that the public sector, as one of the major areas of the economy which was generally sheltered from external pressures, must play its part in the adjustment process.
[T]he concepts and principles employed by successful private sector companies in becoming more competitive by becoming leaner, reducing excessive layers of management and decentralising decision making should be applied to the public sector. (cited in Pusey, 1991: 152)

For Pusey what his survey and questionnaire respondents considered to be emergent and “’mainly cosmetic’” shifts in the style of administration in aspects of the Federal Bureaucracy around 1985, had, by 1988 and 1989, become “fundamental shifts in the normative and structural foundations of public administration” (153). 1988 was thereby the year in which Neoliberalism continued its march through the state as well as through the citizen-subjects that comprised the population it Governed and secured.


Andrew McGahan somewhat oddly authored not the next instalment in the life of his Praise hero, Gordon Buchanan, but the story of the episodes prior to Praise by taking this ‘epic’ year as a focus for his second novel. On the surface this decision to present a prequel leads to an expectation that some explanation for Gordon’s lethargy and fatalism would be revealed. 1988, however, is, like Praise, a novel wherein generic expectations are refused not simply as acts of literary rebellion but so that other elements of the narrative can come to the foreground. If Praise is like a sequence of episodes in a larger failed Bildungsroman then 1988 holds the promise of placing this failed fragmentary unbecoming-of-age novel into a longer chronological sequence by way of which a pattern of development emerges. Indeed, hints in Praise about Gordon’s literary past are given fuller exposition in 1988 as Gordon’s attempts at writing are a central part of this prequel’s plot. 1988 is generically a künstlerroman: an artist formation novel. It is also a negation of the genre, as we read 1988 through its historical future when Gordon’s writerly ambitions have been left behind. 1988 is thus formally a double refusal: of the artist and the man. These refusals direct our attention toward those discourses surrounding the Bicentennial year that themselves lean on temporalizations of completed formation and organic development. The politics of form in 1988, taken together with those of Praise, focus our attention toward what lies at the edges and limits of the dominant narratives of the Bicentennial year: what times, spaces, bodies, elements and stories lie in the liminal zones of this year of national coming-of-age. If Praise is a de-formation novel, a highly compressed failed Bildung then McGahan’s prequel, 1988, is a failed künstlerroman: a failed artist formation novel. Like Praise, 1988 takes a narrative form, and uses an un-becoming temporal structure through which to bring forth a series of liminal and problematic cultural themes and concerns. Illness again is a central trope of the narrative, but here mobility is thematised alongside the freedom that Gordon and his weather station co-worker Wayne attempt to attain. This is an inversion of settlement, and the encounters with the Asian invasion at the novel’s opening and with the Aboriginal settlement near Cape Don are both emblems of 1788 and 1988 and two key narrative themes of Australian European settlement. McGahan uses conventional narrative structures, which set up expectations – of a successful formation, or becoming an artist – only to negate them. But his purpose isn’t nihilist. Into the negation, rather, is placed Gordon’s techniques of self – Gordon’s attempts at avoiding normalised ways of becoming an adult white Australian male – the industrial citizen, or the Bush type – which require that he upset and unsettle these modes of formation.


In the earlier section of this chapter I read Gordon and Cynthia as symbolic of the national economy. 1988 parodies and probes at the limits of the territorial nation, its White history and textual archetypes. It is a novel concerned with the textuality of White Australian modernity: invasion and settlement; Aboriginal communities; fears of Asian invasion; the bush myth; industrial citizenship; and the land itself, subject to weather that has complex temporalities. Again, the limits of the bodily self are placed alongside those of the territorial nation. Importantly there is a failed artist formation, or künstlerroman narrative in this novel, inviting us to read Gordon’s six months at Cape Don, including the trip there, as an allegory of a failed novel of nation: as a failure to write the novel of nation as a story by a formed artist. And yet metafictionally the fact of the novel itself is an argument for reading 1988 as a narrative of the Australian nation produced by an artist-writer in the form of McGahan.

As a Grunge novel 1988 rehearses the familiar representations of a failed formation of youth, here presented in the form of a failed artist-formation, as well as graphically depicted sex scenes, and sick bodies, with Gordon smote with boils alongside his asthma condition. The grunge tropes and chronotopes have a similarly unsettling effect on the narrative to those in Praise and, in part, in Loaded. As I argued in regard to Praise, a particularly productive way of reading the bodies in McGahan’s fiction is to read them as allegories of the national economy. Here I will argue that McGahan’s primary concern is metatextual: he is interested in the body of writing that constitutes the narrative of nation. If James Ley is right when he suggests that McGahan’s “novels can be seen as attempt to break down Australia’s recent history into its basic structuring narratives” and that he consistently “symbolizes [. . .] guilt [. . .] as a kind of disease” then we can see that Gordon’s duplicating boils are a type of emotional displacement and sometimes release for his failure to write at the same time as they symbolize blots on the body of the National text: “something huge inside me. Something dark and tight and swollen. A giant boil. Pus-ridden with denial. Pain was the only way to burst it, get rid of it forever” (Ley, 36, McGahan, 1995b: 298).

1988 is clearly a novel concerned with the legacies of colonialism and Aboriginal modernities. In order to make a case for this point I first need to draw the connection between Gordon’s failure to write and his development of boils. This connection is arguably established in chapter twenty eight when Gordon says,
[w]e were in our own limbo, stagnating under the dry season’s sun. Wayne wasn’t painting very much, I wasn’t writing at all. I slept and read and smoked. The smoking was my only form of progress. I’d mastered over ten cigarettes a day, and I was only enjoying them a little now. I’d acquired some style. My only worry was the asthma. I kept waiting for the attack, the deathgrip, but it never came.
Instead I developed a boil. It was on the back of my knee. (193)

Here the recent decision to begin smoking, brought about by frustration over his lack of writing and shame at having masturbated and fantasised about Eve, the partner of the Aboriginal ranger couple also living in the compound, is itself a displaced symptom of the failure to write and shame over his sexually violent and debasing fantasies. Thus the development of the boil on his body is a symbol and symptom of a diseased body of writing. The boil is a trope representing part of the political unconscious.

Late in the novel after Gordon’s attempts to write have failed, he ends a long day of intoxication, drinking beer and smoking joints, by entering the ranger Vince’s house, one of the three houses within the Cape Don Lighthouse and weather station compound, and with some self-loathing and envy begins to direct his hatred at the books on the shelf: “I suddenly felt an utter hatred for every writer who had held on long enough to finish something. I never would. The hatred was physical, it was a sickness” (238). Due to the “five active boils” that made “[t]he sheets of my bed [. . .] spotted with blood” Gordon has stripped for comfort, and after unsuccessfully attempting to masturbate himself to climax, catches sight of his body in the bathroom mirror:
I was hideous. Huge and round and white. Streaked with grime. My erection poked out from under my belly. It was tiny. Ludicrous. There was a bandaid tangled in the pubic hair. And there were boils everywhere. Red pus oozed from their heads. My eyes were pink, my face covered with a dirty, ginger fuzz. It was disgusting. I was a monster. (239-40)

Terrified of the monster he’s become, and full of self-disgust, Gordon returns to the run-down house he shares with Wayne and tries to sleep. In the morning he awakes to some noise and goes to the verandah: “I stood there, naked, boil-ridden lost. I realised who it was. Allan Price. Chairman of the Board of the Gurig National Park. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. Then I went back inside to get some clothes”(241). In this scene familiar tropes from Grunge fiction are present: the sick body in an abject state, porous and open, and excreting pus, intoxication mixed with sex, albeit of the solo kind. Also located on the territorial edge of Northern Australia Gordon is both on the border and in the abject zone. And it is here that Gordon at his most abject is naked and diseased before the effective ruler of the Gurig National Park: Allan Price. The novel’s textual encounter between the white, young male narrator and Aboriginal statesman is presented through Gordon’s boil-ridden body: the body that gets written rather than the novel. If Gordon’s body is symbolic of the body of Australian writing then its boils are that illness caused by his failure to textualise the Gurig Aboriginals and caused by the violence of his sexual fantasies.

To some extent this reading of Gordon’s boils complements the sentiment and main ideas behind Keating’s “Redfern Park” speech. A key section of the speech, which was given on 10 December 1992 to launch the Year of the World’s Indigenous People, is this passage:
It begins, I think with an act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us. (cited in Watson, 2002: 288-89)

Although not an apology and delivered four years after 1988, Keating’s speech was, in the words of its primary author, based on the principle “that the problem could only be solved by an act of imagination” (289). For Watson, “[t]he speech did not say that our history was a story of unutterable shame” as some took it to mean (290). Nor did it imply “that the modern generation does or should feel guilt about what had happened” (291). Like Gordon’s boils, Keating’s Redfern Park speech put the problem of the invasion and its long aftermath into the body of Australian writing in an indirect and ambivalent fashion.

McGahan also parodies events in the national story. The novel begins with a domestic Asian Invasion where two Chinese students moving into a small apartment Gordon shares in Brisbane grow such that “[i]n the end we had nine Chinese students living there” (10). On arrival at their Cape Don house Gordon and Wayne survey their new vista, and Gordon invokes the failed Bush free-settler myth: “[t]here was no sea breeze, no taste of sea air, no sound of surf or seagulls. It didn’t feel like we were anywhere near the ocean. It felt like we were on some back lot scrub block. One that was going broke” (99).

By subverting the künstlerroman through Gordon’s failure to complete, or even substantially write, his planned novel, this structuring plot-line is cut loose and other temporalities emerge. One temporality usually given minor status in narratives of the Australian nation is that of the weather surrounding Cape Don, which Gordon and Wayne are employed to textualise: to encode cloud and other weather patterns. Writing the weather during an approaching cyclone presents a narrative of nation that is opened to more than flows of trade:
The first thing I did was check the wind meter. Maximum gust, 91kph. What would 180 be like? 220? Then it was to the barometer. I peered at it, blinking drops of water out of my eyes. 976. Four points in three hours. That was about as fast as a barometer could drop. That was plummeting. (139)

Arriving back in Brisbane after his six-month stay at Cape Don, Gordon is unsettled by the development in Brisbane, especially on the Expo site, and around New Farm which is beginning to be gentrified. The novel ends with Gordon working at the Capitol Hotel as he meets Cynthia working at the bar. The prequel has formed a continuum with Praise. But we know how that ends.


To hear Keating’s voice is to hear one tonally certain, commanding, and seductive. The voices of Gordon Buchannan and Ari Voulis are honest and holding to a structure of feeling expressed in their tone but never presented as a positive programme for their futures. In the case of Praise Gordon’s voice presents a structure of feeling that seeks to hold steady while the waves of Neoliberal practices of self-formation roll into his life. In Loaded Ari’s voice is held together by his refusals and angers, and by the passions of his sexual desires. Drug intake in Loaded is thematized, being the means by which rhythm and tempo are manipulated towards the end of an interlocked layering of mind-body, or psychic-somatic, speeds and beats. The voice remains constant, not as in the Bildungsroman where the narrator, in the past tense, tells the story of the successful formation and development of their self from the temporal perspective of the completed formation (Slaughter, 2006: 1415). Rather, in these Grunge novels, there is no certainty of voice that comes by way of being issued from a historical present in which the past that the narrative is recounting has already been settled in the favour of the present narrator (Bakhtin, 1986: 23). This is the advantage and disadvantage of the fusion of the organic passage between youth and maturity, and the twin tasks of achieving autonomy and socialisation, in the Bildungsroman form. It is an advantage in so much as the fact of presentation of the backward-looking narrator who has achieved autonomy and socialisation by virtue of telling a story of development, stamps the nature of the development, the nature of the coming-of-age as successful. As Joseph Slaughter argues, this is a teleological tautology: a technique for narrativising forms of governmentalities, forms of the conduct of conduct, through the organic symbolism of human maturation fused to those governmentalities prescribed as, tautologically, mature (1415). We will come to a more extensive analysis and set of explanations for the use of the Bildungsroman form in embedding and contesting Neoliberalism below in chapter 3.

Grunge fiction is too temporally compressed to be considered as Bildungsromane. Ari’s story in Loaded occurs over the period of twenty-four hours, while Gordon’s stories occur within the period of a year in each novel. Compared to the durations in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and even in David Malouf’s Johnno, Grunge fiction is closer in form to a three-minute pop song than the epic and symphonic duration of the coming-of-age novel. And yet it is precisely this temporal compression that makes Grunge fiction a potent contestation of the symbolic forms that are being narratively embedded into Australian political culture.

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