Sunday, February 8, 2009

Three Dollars and Economic Times, Subtopia as Grunge Bildungsroman

Versions of the sub-chapter cut from my PhD thesis -- below -- have appeared in various guises on this blog previously. This is the 'final' version, subject to examiners' assessments, prior to setting the work in stone. Anyway, below is a reading of two novels that are concerned with Australian and even global political economy of the 1970s through to the 2000s. Each novel is also connected to the Bildingsroman form. Pairing them still seems a good way of contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of each, although the novel I'm most critical of -- Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars -- is also the one given most consideration. This is because it is more insiduous, and an attractive work of semi-social realist critical fiction that reads less well on subsequent readings.
NB: it's a long read for a blog post - about 6,700 words.


Franco Moretti argues that in the classical Bildungsroman the formation of Goethe’s character Wilhelm Meister, among other heroes of the genre, is to be conducted outside of the realm of work. Moretti notes that “[t]here is one point on which Lukács and [Georg] Simmel seem particularly to agree: that it is fairly difficult for modern ‘personality’ to reach its goal in a professional occupation alone, that is to say, in work” (2000a: 41). Part of the problem with seeking the formation of personality in work is, Moretti argues, because
[c]apitalist rationality cannot generate Bildung. Capital, due to its purely quantitative nature, and the competition it is subject to, can be a fortune only in so far as it keeps growing. It must grow, and change form, and never stop: as Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations, the merchant is a citizen of no country in particular. (26)

The problem with this quantitative and endless growth for the classical Bildungsroman is that it is essential to build a ‘homeland’ for the individual, [as] it is also indispensable for time to stop at a privileged moment. A Bildung is truly such only if, at a certain point, it can be seen as concluded: only if youth passes into maturity, and comes there to a stop there. (26)
As we saw in Kelly’s The End of Certainty the perpetual movement of the international markets, especially those financial markets trading in currency, are placed into this Bildungsroman of nation through the evaluative authorial position. This narrativization of finance capital has a homology in Goethe’s germinal Bildungsroman. Near the end of Wilhelm’s long romantic and theatrical journey he discovers that his life has been the narrative property of the aristocratic Society of the Tower, who had written his life script in advance and determined his course toward settling and marrying into their community (Moretti, 2000a: 29, Slaughter, 2006: 1411-12).

Unlike the world into which Wilhelm can settle, in which time can stop and space enclose him thus enabling the completion of his Bildung, the time-space of the long Labor decade is traversed by the logics of finance capital and Neoliberal forms which ecstatically fuse spaces previously considered contained and protected from markets and capitalism. In one sense Neoliberalism is, to borrow a well-known phrase, the cultural logic of finance capitalism. Indeed, based on Mitchell Dean’s theory of Neoliberal governmentality as being, in part, practised as “’culture-governance’ or governance through the ethical culture or cultivation of the individual” a central strand of this thesis’ argument is that a Neoliberal Bildung, a Neoliberal cultural formation of the self, is what can be seen in parts of the textuality of the long Labor decade (2007: 61).

The ramifications of such a Neoliberalisation of culture is evident in Frow and Morris’ opening paragraphs to Australian Cultural Studies: a Reader:

[d]uring the past few years the word ‘culture’ has come to be used by Australians in a sense that seems far removed from anything to do with artistic and literary texts. When Australian Labor Party Senator Stephen Loosley declares that ‘resetting industrial policy is really a matter of reshaping cultural attitudes’, he is not defining culture as a domain of aesthetic pleasure, as a set of masterpieces, or even as an expression of national identity. Nor is he speaking in economic terms of culture as a major industry which (the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror assure us) ‘fills Aussie tills’. He is referring to a complex of social customs, values and expectations which affect our ways of working.
So, too, was Rupert Murdoch in an interview screened on ABC-TV in 1990. Just as the worst company crash in Australian history ended an era of financial mismanagement and entrepreneurial crime, the Melbourne host of the ABC current affairs program 7.30 Report asked Mr Murdoch what ‘we’ should do to save our economy. Mr Murdoch replied perfunctorily, ‘Oh, you know: change the culture’. Unlike Senator Loosley, Murdoch expected us to ‘know’ that he was quoting a formula of the neo-liberal rhetoric now broadly shared in Australia (as elsewhere) by bureaucrats, politicians, economists, journalists and financiers as well as union and corporate leaders, namely: economic problems have cultural solutions. Culture in this sense is not just a topic for specialized debate by an esoteric caste of interpreters (‘critics’). On the contrary: ’changing the culture’ is a shorthand but expansive way of challenging the conduct of others people’s everyday working lives – whether within the framework of a single company (’changing the culture is not a quick process in something as old and as large as ARC’, says a chief executive of Australia’s main producer of concrete reinforcing steel); of an industry (a marketing expert offers a paper on ‘changing culture for service: how to effect a change to the service culture ion shopping centres’); or an entire national economy (‘Professor Hughes said Australians had relied on the “lucky country” attitude for too long [. . .] ”We have got to cultivate an export culture”’). (vii-viii)

Yet this understanding of culture, as practices and meanings, that is to say, as techniques and rationalities, contradicts Moretti’s assertions above about the non-work and non-capitalist sphere through which Bildung is to proceed in the novels of the nineteenth century. Clearly we are far from then. But the substantive point is that under conditions of Neoliberal governmentality the formation of the civilised self cannot proceed in a sphere which might have been, or was at least imagined to have been, decontaminated from work and capital in earlier times.

The sorts of self-formations that can be made in the long Labor decade are ones which are not only perpetual, rather than final and complete, as they are in the classical Bildungsromane of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Pride and Prejudice, but ones also faced with the dominance of capitalism and the commodity form (Moretti, 2000a: 67-73). This thesis has argued that Neoliberalism is best considered as political rationalities: as techniques and practices of self and state, households and small businesses, that are saturated with forms of knowing and calculation, languages and vocabularies of rule, and regimes of truth (Dean, 1995: 560). These forms of conducting conduct, of governmentality, are practised through the twinned processes of a technique and a form of thought by way of which the technique has a method, an aim, and an object (564). In the Neoliberal form of governmentality these political rationalities work to conduct a range of selves, groups, institutions, corporations, states and inter-state bodies in ways that form the self, for example, as an enterprise or entrepreneur, or the self as risk-management agent. Yet in considering both Kelly’s Bildungsroman of the long Labor decade, and in anticipation of analysing the three fictional texts below, the spectre of capitalism demands a more sustained explication as a fundamental force shaping those aspects of the textuality of the long Labor decade that this thesis has so far analysed.

The mourned for tears and disjunctions in the Labourist-Social-Liberal continuum of governmentality that were explored and interpreted in chapter 1 and the atopic, arrhythmic, and abject irruptions of bodies presented in chapter 2 point to a fundamental discontinuity in the forms of governmentality that reside in the texts of the long Labor decade. In the first section of this chapter the discussion shifted to Kelly’s influential political history of the long Labor decade, where the analysis moved into a consideration of this text as a use of the narrative form of the Bildungsroman to explain, and seek consent for, the necessity of discarding the institutions and practices of government which were part of the Labourist-Social-Liberal consensus. I argued that Kelly’s tome narrativises, in a homologous manner authority positioned in the pre-destined life-script that Wilhelm receives from the Society of the Tower, the evaluative judgements of the international financial markets into the minute-by-minute writers of the life-script of Australian political culture. Indeed, the defining political act of the long Labor decade was the decision to ‘clean’ float the currency (Kelly, 1994: 76, Bell, 2004: 25-30, Capling et al, 1998: 47). If Australia was to become more youthful, experience healthy growth, pick up the pace and open itself up, then the floating of the currency released forces into the continent that forms of governmentality had both prepared the way for, and could only respond and react to, rather than act on.

When the forces of global finance capitalism, articulated to Keynesian forms of governing national economies, broke the Labourist-Social-Liberal consensus in 1973-4 as the price of oil quadrupled and simultaneously high unemployment and inflation put paid to the Keynesian macroeconomic techniques of government, new forms of government, such as Friedman’s monetary targeting, were adopted (Bell, 2004: 32-37). The emergence then of new forms of finance capital and the new forms of Neoliberal governmentality through the 1970s and into the 1980s presented problems for textual representation, and posed acute problems for fictions that attempted to represent this sweep of historical time. As we saw above in the previous section, Kelly’s story of the long Labor decade depicts it as the time in which the crises of the 1970s were understood as the response of a redundant political-cultural-economic settlement to changed international economic and geopolitical conditions. But for writers working on the Left in the literary field, such a triumphal narrative of Neoliberal modernisation could not be accepted. How then to present a resistant or counter-narrative to Kelly’s? Of course, no Australian novelist read The End of Certainty and consequently set about ‘writing back’ to Kelly’s text. That is not the level of argument being pursued here. Instead, what I’m arguing for is a historical sociology of Australian political culture in which symbolic cultural, and indeed literary, forms, like the Bildungsroman narrative form, can be understood as being drawn upon and put to work in a culture in order to use the form’s resources for a specific project of modernisation. It was the unstated, albeit implied, argument of chapter 2 of this thesis that Keating’s marshalling of tropes of youth, health and mobility were organised by a Bildungsroman structure. Explicit, though, were the readings of the Grunge fiction in chapter 2 as contestations of the organically developmental, modernising logic of Keating’s story of the long Labor decade. Kelly’s story of the period, about which Keating said “I am inclined to almost entirely agree with”, also has its fictional contestations, though unlike the Grunge fiction considered above, these contestations rally on terrain closer to the duration of the classical Bildungsroman (Keating, 1996: 3).


Certainly the most popular explicit fictional critique of ‘economic rationalism’ in the period I am analysing is Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars. Unlike the Grunge novels considered in chapter 2, any proximity to the atopic or abject is nearly completely absent from the body of the novel’s narrator-hero, Eddie Harnovey. Three Dollars has a temporal span of over twenty years and traverses the 1970s, 80s and 90s as Harnovey tells the story from the time in his adult life in which he and his nuclear family are almost destitute: having only three dollars. Perlman’s novel is a celebrated one having won the The Age book of the year award, being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, and was, in 2006, voted best novel about Victoria in a poll conducted by the Victorian State Library (Steeger). A film adaptation was released in 2005 and it was at this point that Three Dollars began to act out its metafictional aspiration of becoming a literary narrative through which a critical-rational discussion of economic rationalism would be staged. Neoconservative cultural critic Keith Windschuttle used the novel to argue for the privatisation of the ABC as one way to close down the sort of cultural elitism that he argued Perlman’s novel represented, while another neoconservative journalist and occasional cultural critic, Greg Sheridan, in The Australian, pointed out how unrealistic this realism was when its hero could go from a reasonably comfortable middle-class existence to one of almost homelessness in the space of days (Windschuttle, Gelder, 2006: 54-56). On the other hand Gelder has argued that while the novel is “one of only a few that might [. . .] be claimed by the Left” as the closest recent example of a critical political realism, its resolution is conservative, with Eddie returned to his wife and child, safe and with the prospect of a job, high up in the human resources department in an un-named bank, after being sacked from his Federal government job for leaking to the media his rejected critical report on proposed Smelter development (54).

Unlike the highly compressed temporal spans of Praise, 1988 and, especially, the twenty-four hours of Loaded, Three Dollars spans over 20 years, and its critique of Neoliberalism is both explicit and profoundly disabled by its formal politics: the politics of its poetics. The central problem with the novel is that it adopts the Bildungsroman convention of a future-anterior narrating position from which to tell a story not of the hero’s formation, but of the hero’s integrity, while the Australian public sphere is de-formed by Neoliberalism (Slaughter: 1415). Eddie is not presented as emerging along with history, as Bakhtin argues is central to the Bildungsroman, but as already formed through the civilising culture of what appears to be an Arnoldian-Leavisite project enabling Eddie to retain a clean ethical grasp on his sense of civilisation and integrity: “no one we met in those early days at university read Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot, Robert Frost or A.D. Hope” (41). The novel presents a self-conscious display of ‘literariness’ where the story of the early years of Eddie’s life can be interrupted by lines from a Gerard Manley Hopkins or Wordsworth poem (16, 33). In many ways Eddie represents the values that Davis argues are embedded in the ‘pre revolutionary’ forms of literary theory” which
continue to play as guiding forms of public knowledge. Such ideas inform the “popular critical consciousness” in so far as popular discourse about the humanities remains dominated by modernist critical paradigms such as Leavisim and New Criticism, even underpinned by a throwback to a residual Arnoldianism. (2007: 8)

Indeed, Eddie explicitly eschews such “post-revolutionary” theory when he tells us,
I was always suspicious of the bush balladeering sentimentality of, say, the Jindyworobaks and its more recent socio-political manifestation, that type of often unyielding, unscientific, dogmatic, and bombastic environmentalism that does for society’s habitat what the followers of Foucault and Derrida did for the promotion of literature as a source of sustainable enjoyment. It takes the people out of the equation and leaves it so much the poorer. (260)

The metafictional depiction of Eddie as a figure steeped in the civilising values of this paradigm of Australian literary-Liberalism is present in the novel’s allusion to the Hamlet revenge-plot, including a visit from the Ghost of the record store owner, Old man Williamson, proffering advice, while Eddie’s decision to leak his report on the environmental hazards of a development enacts a revenge on the rapacious, developer-father figure whose daughter he had been prevented from associating with as a young boy (Davis, 2007: 9, Perlman, 1998: 226-31, 286-87).

In Three Dollars Perlman’s narrator effectively takes on the narrative temporality of the future-anterior using it to narrate from the fantasy of a universal and transcendent humanistic culture that is capable of providing the means for civilising capitalism. As Terry Eagleton argues in The Function of Criticism “[w]hat Scrutiny [Leavis’ journal] represented [. . .] was nothing less than an attempt to reinvent the classical public sphere, at a time when its material conditions had definitively passed” (2005: 75). Three Dollars doubles a melancholic longing for the classical literary public sphere that Leavis also struggled to revive, propelling it into zones of reactionary politics such as Eddie’s blunt refusal to entertain his, at the time, girlfriend Tanya’s plan to play the role of Hamlet: “’Listen Tanya, Shakespeare wrote him as a man, a young man, with all the attendant oedipal hang-ups that young men keep somewhere between the head and the heart’” (50).

While the classical public sphere relied on a belief in a naturalised and strictly policed distinction between economy and culture, Neoliberalism functions through an enculturation, or formation, of the subject as entrepreneurial, flexible, productive, self-managing, and accountable (Eagleton, 2005: 26-27). Culture, like the state, becomes an object of market political rationality in the 1980s and 90s and in Three Dollars nearly all the main characters, except Eddie, become subject to this emergent structure of feeling, which manifests itself, most strongly, in Eddie’s wife Tanya’s depression (145-47). The link between Tanya’s illness and her doctoral work is made through the juxtaposition of, on the one hand, the defence of her thesis and her advocacy for “’a return to the Keynesian economics of the forties, fifties and sixties’”, and on the other, a bout of Tanya’s “’not uncommon’” depression which follows chronologically from that scene in the novel where she most vehemently mounts her defence of Keynesian governmentality (143, 146). Tanya struggles with the onset of Neoliberalism both as managerial practice at University and as the subject of her unfinished doctoral thesis “’[t]he death of political economics’” (125). While Tanya’s experience of Neoliberalism is felt as depression, it is their child Abby’s epileptic-like fit that signals an analogy with what Kelly calls the “convulsions of the 1980s” (1994: 1). Indeed, Abby first has an epileptic seizure after Eddie dallies with a female friend, Kate: even Eddie’s small indiscretions are punished. Helpless, as Abby moves into a fit, Eddie watched as “[s]he bounced. She appeared to be bouncing. Her back was arched unnaturally and her arms and legs stiffened and then relaxed arrhythmically. It was no rhythm at all but a violent madness in her, no rhythm I could recognise” (236).

In terms of the sufferers of illness in the novel there are two others whose depression is so severe that they commit suicide and who are positioned in terms of economic and geopolitical events that, like Tanya’s doctorate thesis, make an explicit link between mental and economic illness. In the case of Eddie’s Uncle George, who “had stories from the depression”, a desire to endow his younger wife with goods leads to financial speculations that bankrupt him, and his ensuing depression moves him to suicide (7, 12-13, 29). The connection between George’s decline and that of the Keynesian period, in which the Australian Labourist-Social-Liberal consensus held sway, is evident here. Similarly, Tanya’s father, like Abby an epileptic, was a theatre troupe leader who had fled Czechoslovakia for Australia after World War II, and who “thought that Shakespeare was the font of all wisdom” (149). On tour in a rural Australian town he causes a sexual scandal by sleeping with the town mayor’s daughter and two days later kills himself, a long battle with depression exacerbating the guilt over the scandal (150-51). Tanya’s father is proximal to World War II, which emerged, in part, from the Great Depression. What is also of interest here is the allusion to Wilhelm Meister who, like Tanya’s father, “had long wanted to start his own theatre company, one which would travel the country offering a mixed repertoire of light comedies, drawing-room farce and, of course, Shakespeare” (Perlman, 1998: 149). Moretti has drawn attention to the central role that Hamlet plays in Goethe’s germinal Bildungsroman:
According to the text, Hamlet is thirty years old: far from young by Renaissance standards. But our [western modern] culture, in choosing Hamlet as its first symbolic hero, has ‘forgotten’ his age, or rather has had to alter it, and picture the Prince of Denmark as a young man.
The decisive thrust in this sense was made by Goethe; and it takes shape, symptomatically, precisely in the work that codifies the new paradigm and sees youth as the most meaningful part of life: Wilhelm Meister. (2000a: 3)

These allusions to Goethe’s novel are accumulative and odd. The Hamlet plot mentioned above is doubled by the performance of the play in which Tanya seeks to play the Prince during that time in her and Eddie’s lives when they are both experimenting with personas and considering their options: this is a time of youth so it makes allusive sense for Hamlet to appear at this point in the story. What also appears at this point in the novel’s historical time is “an apocalyptic epileptic Mancunian Sinatra” – Ian Curtis lead singer of postpunk band “Joy Division” (42). In an effort to maintain Tanya’s wavering attention Eddie affects the manner and look of Curtis, becoming “a post-industrial parody of myself” (42). At this point in the novel Eddie and Tanya are momentarily recognisable as being in transition, as emerging along with history, in a process of becoming. They are at this moment engaged in Bildung.

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 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: Neoliberalism. In other words Three Dollars aims to hail a reader who having read Eddie’s story of middle-class un-protection 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 a Social-Liberal civilising of capitalism through an ethical-state that regulates the private market sphere in line with universal humanist ethical values. These ethical values, Three Dollars argues, 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. 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).

And here we come back to Ian Curtis. In the novel there are three chronotopes of economic time represented. The major symbol of time-space 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 (1). I read this economic time or rhythm as symbolising the boom-bust business cycle – cyclic and inevitable, requiring the Keynesian macroeconomic regulation regime to even out the highs and lows (Capling et al: 8-10). The second chronotope attached to political economy in the novel is Depression. Tanya’s endemic depression 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, an illness which is 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 appearances. Along with Tanya, Tanya’s father and Eddie’s Uncle George both suffer from depressions that result in suicide. It is also significant 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 of the business cycle 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. The figure of epilepsy, however, that awaits Abby’s teenage years, as we imagine, since her grandfather also suffered from the illness, and which inflicts itself on the postindustrial poet of punk, Ian Curtis, functions as an ideologeme of the novel operating in its political unconscious. Rather than history contracting and returning to 1930s Germany as the novel’s tropes suggest, the temporal logic of the epileptic seizure is such that its regulation, to extend the reading here of how to govern an economic condition like this illness, requires a flexible, micro-timed support and release regulation-deregulation regime. To paint this reading in bolder strokes: at its ostensive level Three Dollars presents an Arnoldian-Leavisite cultural formation as a civilising bulwark against the philistine culture and psychology of economic rationalism. Economic rationalism cannot 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. But Three Dollars cannot, however, resolve its own 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. James Ley is half-right when he argues that Three Dollars is an anti-Bildungsroman (2006: 36). The novel’s Bildung is in the barely repressed epileptic figure of illness. A figure for the cultural logic of finance capital:

Tanya predicted that the day would come when people would have difficulty remembering a time that movements in the stock market were not reported more frequently than the road toll or air pollution indices. She was right. The interminable repetition of sharemarket indices thereafter did not leave us unchanged. I would call Tanya at work and get a quotation of her ‘all ordinaries index’. Was she up or down today? ‘Slightly up but coming off a low base’, she might say. (87-89)

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 Bildung: a precarious becoming of autonomy and socialisation. 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. Neoliberalism is not necessarily a regression or return, to Germany between the world wars for example, 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.


The ending of Three Dollars, where Eddie is huddled in the bosom of his nuclear family in his own home, is a neat act of narrative closure that echoes the ending of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: at home, with loved ones (Goethe: 373). While Three Dollars largely eschews the period of youth-to-adulthood, and uses this ‘period’ in which to set out the novel’s gender conservatism and moralistic physiogomies, Andrew McCann’s Subtopia (2005) directs the reader immediately toward the novel’s self-conscious metafictional disavowal of Bildungsroman conventions:

It’s not much of a way to conclude. I should have grown up, come to my senses, come of age (as you do), or fucked off for good. Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga. I was pushing thirty, for Christ’s sake. But in the end, so the cliché goes, there is no end. At least not anything we can own up to. A bit of self-indulgent bullshit about perpetual becoming or mutual understanding, a nice rhetorical flourish and no one seems to notice just how inconclusive our experiences really are, which is not to say that they aren’t also full of danger.
I guess I could have done with some of that bullshit. Sick, angry, unattractive. Liver out of order. Even as a ten-year old I was a pain in the neck. And out there, in the wide flat suburbs of Melbourne’s south, you had to concentrate hard to effect even the most minimal kind of transformation. I think that is what we longed for most, Martin and I: transformation, metamorphosis, negation. That’s why I was drawn to him in my timid, half-arsed way. He was ready to demolish things if they didn’t measure up, and finally he was ready to demolish himself. (9-10)

Subtopia is a metafictional Grunge Bildungsroman. Much like Dante in David Malouf’s 1975 Bildungsroman Johnno (1975), Subtopia’s narrator-hero Julian Farrell grows up in the shadow of a more transgressive and engaged childhood friend, Martin Bernhard. Julian’s teenage years are lived in proximity to both Martin and his father’s brother’s family headed by the gauche “Silver Fox” who “worked in real estate and development, and was something of a local celebrity at the yacht club, where he raced a boat called Moby Dick” and whom Julian introduces us to by witnessing him sexually molesting Julian’s younger sister Connie (13-14). This graphic sexual honesty, reminiscent of Grunge’s pornographic writing is a structural feature of the novel. Like McGahan’s Gordon, Julian’s sexuality is problematic and proximate to diseases, violent fantasy and pornography (17).

Like Eddie in Three Dollars Julian emerges from the Melbourne suburbs, or subtopia, and his story begins in the 1970s. He lives on the periphery of an authentic encounter with a self he finds reflected in the returned gaze of the more dangerous, proto-punk, Martin Bernhard. Julian’s lust for a violent transformation, for that moment in which to make the revolutionary leap into authenticity, is hampered by the clean-ness of his suburban desires and frightened by the abject proximity of the rodent-like Martin:

even when he didn’t turn up, he was still close by, the smell of him, a sort of physicality against which sexual fantasies of the glossy porno-magazine variety would dissipate or collapse into something that seemed much more bestial. I was almost neurotic about it, driven into little rituals of cleanliness and mental discipline by the superstitious presentiment that if I didn’t wash him out of my thoughts, I might turn into him, the Mongrel, an abandoned creature precariously perched on the border between the human and the animal. (55)

Julian’s 1980s are spent at university, studying English and hanging around on the periphery of a post-Nick Cave/ Birthday Party scene near St Kilda. The spectre of revolutionary Berlin haunts this milieu; Berlin being a ‘spiritual home’ for Lou Reed, and for a time housing Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Nick Cave also spent time there. For Julian, however, it is the ghost of Ulrike Meinhoff, from the terrorist Red Army faction, that draws his political and libidinal desires to Berlin. In 1977, The Red Army Faction took hostages, and hijacked a plane. Meinhoff was captured the year prior, and died suspiciously. Julian, after finishing his study, follows Martin and Martin’s partner Anja to Berlin, and he arrives just before the fall of the wall, where Julian’s fear of carcinogens is put on hold while he falls into revolutionary lust with the mentally-ill, possibly terrorist, Ingrid Guttman. He leaves Berlin, knowing that Martin has a taste for heroin, and reunites with his ex-girlfriend Sally in New York who is succeeding in establishing herself as an academic there. Julian again becomes obsessed with friable asbestos and the carcinogenic properties of late capitalism, before heading back to suburban Melbourne then onto Berlin where he discovers Martin has died from a brain tumor.

As is signalled in the novel’s opening metafictional negation of the Bildungsroman, Julian’s emergence is not one completed by a single transforming moment, nor a series of accumulative epiphanies, but rather is a sequence of episodes all polluted or diseased by some doubt, shame or proximity to a dangerous border. The intention of the novel, like McGahan’s Grunge novels, is to use an orthodox generic form, refuse and negate it, so as to populate the narrative with disturbing and abject bodily techniques and actions. Where Eddie in Three Dollars is at a remove from transgressive sex, drug use, disease, Julian is proximate to these tropes of the abject body and abject bodies. Reflecting, enviously, on the circle of his more dangerous friends, Julian feels that

[t]here was something real about them. They were the types I’d imagined tearing away at the social fabric. They had the capacity for dissidence that wasn’t laboured. They seemed to have no interest in finding out who they were and how they fitted in. They’d already given up on that. And they seemed to know how to seek each other out. They were what I had imagined in my vision of exploding bus stops and suburban terror. They were mutants. Free radicals breeding in cells. At the back of my mind I had worked out a system that explained these differences: because they were mentally outside the corpseworld, exceptions to it, the mutants would survive its banality, while those within it, like Sally and me – examples of good, law-abiding citizens, our own psyches crushed flat against a two-dimensional surface – we were always going to be prey to the malignancies of society, and of our own frustrated fantasies: hungry cells and dammed-up energy turning against their host. (102)

This sense of lacking self-authenticity is connected in the novel to the sense of belatedness; of coming, for example, to Berlin in the aftermath of its ‘revolutionary’ heyday:

It was a nondescript, desolate corner. Everything was too big, too wide for the trickle of traffic and the sparse pedestrian population. It could have been Nepean Highway in Moorabbin. The Ice Age version. Life running down in the dead of winter, a few people surviving to ghost through the frozen streets. (131-2)

Belated, morbid, melancholic. Subtopia has a similar mix of affects to Praise and 1988, and presents similarly sick and beaten bodies. Yet like Loaded it “manipulates abjection as social protest. Primarily the novel engages with abjection to demonstrate the obscenity of capitalism” (Kirkby, 1998: 239). Thus when on the streets of inner Melbourne Julian depicts the city and his body as diseased:

[d]irty plastic, neon, capitalism gone derelict. I imagined cells in my throat turning cancerous. Pink, then brown, then black. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the sound of bagpipes. And when the tangled fugue faded, I knew I’d be back in the void of the suburbs, miles of brick veneer, asbestos and scalloped roof-tiles spreading to the bay on one side, and to swampy, semi-rural wastelands and landfills on the other. (65)

The effect of using the Bildungsroman form, as McCann does here, without completing the hero’s formation and by drawing attention to some of the conventions of this genre, is to enable a reading that can raise questions about a National coming-of-age which appears to have already been written by the investment projections of the international financial markets: Neoliberalism’s version of Wilhelm Meister’s Society of the Tower writing his life-script. By derailing the teleology of a naturalised formation of self pulled into the future, other more unsettling chronotopes are given the time to work into the narrative. Set against a metafictional negation of a Bildungsroman the foregrounding of these Grunge tropes raises the question of whether or not the emergence of Neoliberalism, as techniques of self, is able to be represented in conventional Bildungsroman form. Indeed, as I argued above, Three Dollars, for all its insights into the quotidian experiences of the emergence of Neoliberalism is disfigured by its abjection of those diseases, which resides outside of Eddie’s body inhabiting instead his wife’s and child’s. The attempt also to repress the period of coming-of-age I argue forces historical emergence into the novel’s most intriguing ideologeme: the epileptic fit. As I write this the global financial system is caught in a series of rolling crises. The international markets that Kelly placed at the organising centre of his Bildungsroman of nation, and which he endowed with the evaluating power to judge Australian political culture from the historical future, are having, what might be called, an epileptic seizure. Whether or not this is our historical future the times will tell.


Works Cited

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Brooks, Karen. “Shit Creek: Suburbia, Abjection and Subjectivity in Australian ‘Grunge’ Fiction.” Australian Literary Studies 18.4 (October 1998): 87-100.

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Keating, Paul. “For the New Australia.” Edited transcript of speech to University of NSW, 11 November 1996. Accessed: 24.10.2007.

Kelly, Paul. The End of Certainty: Power, Politics and Business in Australia. Rev. ed. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1994.

Kirkby, Joan. “Literature.” Americanization and Australia. Eds. Philip Bell and Roger Bell. Kensington: U NSW P, 1998: 228-45.

Ley, James. “How Small the Light of Home’: Andrew McGahan and the Politics of Guilt.” Australian Book Review 280 (April 2006): 35-39.

McCann, Andrew. Subtopia. Carlton: Vulgar, 2005.

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture. New ed. Trans. Albert Sbragia. London: Verso, 2000a.

Perlman, Elliot. “The Human Cost of Economic Rationalism.” Robert Connolly and Elliot Perlman. Three Dollars: Screenplay. Strawberry Hills: Currency, 2005: xi-xxvi.

___, Three Dollars. Sydney: Picador, 1998.

Slaughter, Joseph R. “Enabling Fictions and Novel Subjects: The Bildungsroman and International Human Rights Law.” PMLA 121.5 (October 2006): 1405-23.

Steeger, Jason. “Tale of Tough Times in Melbourne Resonates with Readers.” Age (23 February, 2007): Accessed: 25.06.2008.

Windschuttle, Keith. “Vilifying Australia: the Perverse Ideology of our Adversary Culture.” Earle Page Memorial Oration 22 June 2005. Accessed: 16.06.2006.

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