The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner

A few years ago, when I was just starting out in this business, I listed ten works I thought were contenders for the Great Australian Novel (here). The list holds up pretty well, Voss is still clearly no. 1. I need to make room for Benang and The Swan Book. And The Pea Pickers, I’m not sure what induced me to leave it out back then, I wouldn’t now. The big problem is just how long it is since I have read most of them, more than forty years in some cases, including The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) which I see from the inscription “Happy Birthday, 1973, with lots of love from the Young Bride”, I got almost hot off the press.

It, as it happens, stands up very well to re-reading, though I’m sure I see things I didn’t see first time round, particularly Ireland’s problem with women. As I wrote earlier (here) David Ireland (1927- ) is a generation older than us boomers, he was in his forties before his first work was published and I think had been for most of the preceding years a blue collar worker, notably in the Silverwater (Sydney) oil refinery complex, the setting for this, his second, where he calls the complex ‘Clearwater’, on the ‘Eel’ River (Paramatta Eels football team. Get it?)

With hindsight I can see now that his politics are ‘Hansonite’: nationalistic, pro-worker and anti-union, the cry for help of a worker deep in the bowels of the system, hating the foreign owners who take all the benefit of his labour (all Ireland’s workers are he’s), hating the white collar parasites who have no knowledge of what his work entails, but on whose decisions he depends, hating that his ability to progress or even to remain employed is completely out of his own hands.

All the workers at Clearwater, at the refinery operated by the 100% foreign owned ‘Puroil’, are prisoners, prisoners of the system, bearing deep blue ankle scars genetically inherited from their shackled convict forbears.

… prisoners were allowed to drift jobless to the few large coastal cities from all over Australia as soon as they left school, to choose their place of detention… They weren’t compelled by others to apply to any one place of labour, but they understood that once accepted for detention their boss or commandant had power over them just as great and far more immediate than the government of the country.

‘The Unknown Industrial Prisoner’ is a slogan graffitied overnight on oil storage tanks, is the name of a work fashioned from twisted paper clips, is an artwork of roughly cut and welded metal displayed in a gallery to the loud acclaim of people who have never seen a scrap-metal yard.

The work is divided conventionally into chapters: 1. One Day in a Penal Colony, 2. Termitary [a termite mound housing the shiny bums, overlooking the refinery], 3. The Home Beautiful … But is broken up again into short, named sections of half, one or two pages. I think Ireland prefers (or maybe, is only able) to write this way, in short bursts, so his novels are collages of ideas and stories.

If the novel has a narrative arc at all, it is the actions and reactions of the workers (operators) as Puroil makes a series of blundering upgrades to the refinery to get it to the stage where it will run without operator involvement. The protagonists are the Samurai, a skilled operator and mostly willing worker; and the White Father, who maintains ‘the Home Beautiful’, a few shacks in the mangroves on an island within the refinery boundary, where a beer fridge and six prostitutes on rotation provide the workers with more comforts than they enjoy at home.

They are opposites in that the Samurai believes in the power of a job well-done, where the White Father believes life should be enjoyed right now. Another worker, the Glass Canoe (a name used as the title of a later Ireland novel), represents a third extreme. He is incompetent, but believes that if he works, studies and puts himself forward Puroil will recognise his devotion to the job and raise him to foreman. His decline into madness illustrates the futility of expecting bureaucracies to make rational or even informed decisions. Every decision made by every person within Puroil, except the better operators, and they are never recognised, is driven entirely by self interest.

Is this a post-modern novel? I don’t have enough theory to say. But it is beyond Social Realism. Philosophically it is Absurdist, a demonstration that meaning cannot be found in work, that the bureaucratic workplace is inherently irrational. (Prime Minister) Malcolm famously said at about this time, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. What he meant, and this is Ireland’s thesis, is “Life isn’t meant to be fair.”

There are dozens of supporting characters – the plant manager, the Wandering Jew, who is kidnapped late in the novel and taken to the Home Beautiful to meet his workers, gets drunk and joins in the dancing; Blue Hills whose wife the Samurai uses, because he can, but she does manage to take a small revenge; Two Pot Screamer, one of two operators writing a book (this book?); the Python, the Black Snake, the Brown Snake, shiny bums with power over the plant operators; and so on.

The operators sleep on the job, are led into dud agreements by the company union, drink, steal, lie or run with the prostitutes (the Sandpiper prefers doing it outside), make informed, ignorant and random adjustments to the plant causing chaos and constant pollution – in addition to the ongoing pollution of river and air that Puroil  pays to keep ‘hidden’.

This is a brilliant book; innovatively written; an insider’s account of the madness of large organizations; an account of modern slavery giving the lie to the myth of the independent, larrikin Australian worker.

 

David Ireland, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, Angus & Robertson, 1971. My edition, A&R Classics, 1973.

Other reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here), Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

City of Women, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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Ireland’s The Glass Canoe (1976),  A Woman of the Future (1979) and City of Women (1981) are his fifth, sixth and seventh novels. Before came Burn (1974) a fictionalised life of an Aboriginal VC winner which I found unbearably racist, and after came Archimedes and the Seagle (1984) which I found twee first time around but which I suppose I must one day attempt to re-read.

I mention the three together not because they make up a trilogy but because thematically they form a triangle of intersecting issues. So, The Glass Canoe is a series of linked stories about the drinkers in a working man’s hotel, basically an exploration of the culture of (white, Australian) blokes. A Woman of the Future is a surreal story from the point of view of one young woman –

… sketches of her moral upbringing and of a dystopian suburbia in which her neighbours suffer an inexplicable wave of biological mutations.

She is compelled to explore and observe the limits of her organism, including sexual free will in which masturbation, incest and masochism each have their place.

Bonny Cassidy, Sydney Review of Books, May 2018 (here)

In City of Women Ireland again attempts a woman’s point of view, this time an older woman, Billie, who lives in a flat in central Sydney, a Sydney from which men are barred from entering by (female) armed guards. The story is very similar to The Glass Canoe, both in structure – a series of linked stories about drinkers at The Lover’s Arms, and in the celebration of a love who is effectively off-stage.

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Sydney CBD 2019 (not much changed since 1981) (c) Google Maps

The Lover’s Arms is in Cathedral St, on the right of the map, at the bottom of the yellow freeway section. Billie’s flat is a little further south, near William St (the thick white street running east-west) and must be quite high up. Strictly, this area is Woolloomooloo, once an old working class area around the wharves, and the CBD proper is on the other side of the parks (I think. I’m not a Sydney person).

Out of my window … I look across to the brown cathedral [St Mary’s], the deep green foliage of the Sydney Domain, below me to the school, across again to the steel-blue harbour, the pastel colours of the Woolloomooloo terraces.

Billie mourns her missing love, Bobbie, in a series of asides in which we see Bobbie both as daughter and as lover. She has been adopted by a leopard whom she also names Bobbie so she may continue to use the name. She walks Bobbie around Sydney on a leash and takes her to the Lover’s Arms, and talks to her almost constantly.

I think it is very unlikely that Ireland is attempting to use this format as a way of better understanding women. Rather, by putting women in the position of men, he is again shining a light on Australian working men’s culture, as he did in The Glass Canoe and more famously in The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (which I must re-reread and write up next).

Billie was an engineer with the Water Board, made redundant, and is now at 62, a therapist. Bobbie studied engineering to work with her but has gone away.

My engineer is at the back of beyond. I thought I held her like a bird in my hand, happy to be there.

The women drinkers are tough old birds, or sometimes young, with a wide range of strange illnesses..

Donna McDevitt is a miser, a woman of great debility… she’s eighty-seven… Doctors had treated her at various times for head bounce, foot fester, labial pus, tongue crumble, lung quake, hand bunching, nipple destruction: she was a walking catalogue of decay.

Billie tells their stories – do they build? It’s hard to say. We gradually form a picture of an inner Sydney where all the manual labour is done by women, where women have walked away from husbands and children, where renegades will sometimes go ‘outside’ for sex with men and are shunned, where marriages are between women, and children somehow come about, where women get men “into trouble”.

The unifying story in the background is that there is a rapist, Old Man Death, who abducts women and cuts them, depositing his semen in the cavity and then sewing it up. What is the point of this? Who knows. Perhaps it is Ireland releasing his inner misogynist. It certainly involves a fair amount of gratuitous violence.

The Glass Canoe ends with the redevelopment, gentrification of the men’s pub, the Southern Cross and likewise the City of Women seems to come to an end too. Not with the closure of the pub but with the ageing and dying out of the women. Ireland has been describing a period in time now past, when drinkers were tribal, barely troubled by outsiders. By 1981 Gough Whitlam had been and gone but Ireland’s drinkers still seem to be of the generation that voted futilely for Arthur Calwell.*

 

David Ireland, City of Women, Allen Lane, Melbourne, 1981. Cover illustration and design Helen Semmler (the cover illustration goes on round the back, ie. to the left, but I couldn’t find an image of it).


* The election of the Gough Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 marked Australia’s coming of age as an interesting, multi-cultural nation. Whitlam’s predecessor as Labor leader, Arthur Calwell had enforced the white-Australia policy as Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labor government, before heading into 23 years on the opposition benches.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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The Glass Canoe (1976) was David Ireland’s fifth novel and his second (of three) Miles Franklin Award winners. It’s a blokey book, everything I’ve read of Ireland’s including, as I’ve already argued A Woman of the Future (1979), is blokey, reflecting his age, his generation. The Glass Canoe is set, although it’s nowhere stated, in the 1950s, in the years after the War when Ireland was in his young manhood, but before the white Australian working class was swamped by waves of southern European immigration.

The writing however is of its time, post-60s and the sexual revolution, one of the reasons that Ireland’s age – he was born in 1927 (here) – sometimes comes as a surprise. If he were younger this would almost be ‘grunge’.

This is the story of a young man, Lance, the Meat Man, ‘Meat’, in Sydney’s west, out Parramatta way, he calls it ‘the Mead’ – Westmead? (map) – working as a groundsman at the local golf club, a serious drinker at his local, the Southern Cross, and secretly recording the stories of his ‘tribe’, the men who gather daily to drink in this dilapidated, yellow-tiled, suburban blood house.

On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.

The Mead was our territory, the Southern Cross our waterhole. The next tribe west drank at the Bull, and on the other side the nearest tribe holed up at the Exchange. While your tribe’s waterhole flowed, you never went walkabout to another tribe’s waterhole.

Unless there was trouble, some little matter to be settled.

The novel consists of short chapters of half, one or two pages each, sketches from his life, his past, his work, his darling, sketches of his mates and their lives as members of the tribe. A style reminiscent in both the writing and the layout (as I remember them) of Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971).

In many ways this is what the Australian Legend had come to – from bushmen cutting out their cheques at the nearest pub in the 1890s after months shearing or droving, to working men in the endless suburbs gathering daily to drink and fight. There are women, as there always are, to serve the beer, to wait at home and cook the dinner and shout at the kids, to have down the creek or up against a wall or in the back of the car, there are even some, as big and tough as the men, drinking at the bar, and then there is his darling, petite, beautiful, endlessly pleased to see him.

To the extent there is a plot it concerns Sibley, the boy who chose to escape from the Mead but who returns to study drinkers, whom he sees as outside of and beneath society, for his PhD; Meat’s ongoing and probably failing relationship with his darling; and the decline and eventual redevelopment of the Southern Cross, foreshadowing the decline of the Tribe.

Ireland uses Meat, who was good at school but chose not to do anything with it and instead muses whimsically about how things work, from record players to the universe, without ever wishing to know, to tell the story, but uses another character, Alky Jack whom Meat admires, to present Ireland’s own libertarian views.

‘The population must be kept passive,’ I heard him say. ‘This is done by myth. These myths are put in your cornflakes every morning …’

‘… that it’s a free society … human rights are respected … we’re all equal, the elite is generous and just and the best people to be in charge … that our bosses work like buggery and the mob is lazy, they’re honest and we’re dishonest, they’re superior and we’re inferior. That’s the myth.’

The Glass Canoe is a contradiction, and I think this is true of much of Ireland’s work, brilliantly written and politically, hopelessly old-fashioned, though he’s pretty modern, gross even, about fucking and fighting. The following year, 1977, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip came out, another novel of inner suburban substance abuse in which the characters are clearly a generation younger than Meat’s ‘tribe’ (though the MF judges went with another old fashioned work, Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings). Ireland is old fashioned to the point of being reactionary about male bonding, about the subservience of women, and about the irrelevance of Aborigines and the appropriation of their stories

Being forced to drink at another pub was cruel. Like black men forced to leave their sacred places and water holes and become strangers in another tribe.

In the 1970s and 80s I devoured Ireland. I still think he is one of our great writers. But it is obvious too that I had absorbed the myths of Australian manhood and hadn’t – despite a decade’s immersion in socialist, anarchist and anti-war philosophy – begun to even remotely understand the problems race and gender identity.

Do I think you should read The Glass Canoe, yes I do. It’s an accurate portrait of working men, of working men who drank, of our fathers’ generation. If you’re a baby boomer who spent endless afternoons and evenings in the backseat, in the car park of the local hotel, then you will know Meat, you will know King and Mick and Serge and Alky Jack and Darkfella. David Ireland is worth reading, but read him (read everyone!) critically.

Above all, read David Ireland and post a review so I can share it and link it to my page (it’s coming!).

 

David Ireland, The Glass Canoe, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976

see also:
Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers (here)
Kim’s review at ReadingMatters (here)
David Ireland (here)

David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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Sydney, the emerald city towards which all politicians, businessmen and other spivs naturally gravitate is little more than a fringe of high rises and multi million dollar mansions with Harbour or Ocean views. The rest, from inner suburban Glebe to the Blue Mountains, 4 million plus of Sydney’s official 5 million population, is the West, its heart Parramatta, these days a CBD in its own right, 20 km up river (map). And it is the West which is David Ireland’s home.

Reportedly born on a table in Lakemba (south-west Sydney) in 1927, Ireland grew up around Parramatta and was employed for a number of years at the Siverwater oil refinery, on the river downstream of Parramatta, and the setting for his most famous novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. In another novel, The Glass Canoe, the protagonist discusses being good at school work but chucking it in to be with his mates. Interestingly, although it occupied most of his teen years, he does not seem to write about the War (WWII).

Over the last couple of years looking at early Australian women writers we have been building up an idea of the characteristics of each “generation” (see Gen 1, Gen 2). We’ll see later in the year that my Gen 3, which encompasses the 1920s through 1950s, is marked both by social realism and the last decades of white monoculturalism, although plenty of guys in particular stuck with the tropes of Gen 2 – nationalism, the Bush, mateship (and that is still true today), extending them into writing about the two World Wars.

It is often said that ‘the sixties’ didn’t arrive in Australia until the 1970s, but realistically they arrived and Gen 4 dates from, around 1966 or 67, with anti-Vietnam War protests, second wave feminism and the advent of multiculturalism following post war migration from southern Europe, dates in fact from the late teenage years of us Baby Boomers.

The relevance of this to Ireland is that he, like Thomas Keneally for instance, is too old to be a baby boomer but his writing mostly fits within Gen 4, though he does look back in his early work to a male, Anglo working class that by the time he began writing was coming to an end. Still it is very easy, reading his novels to think of Ireland as 20 years younger than he actually is. His novels are –

The Chantic Bird (1968)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) – Miles Franklin winner
The Flesheaters (1972)
Burn (1974)
The Glass Canoe (1976) – Miles Franklin winner
A Woman of the Future (1979) – Miles Franklin winner
City of Women (1981)
Archimedes and the Seagle (1984)
Bloodfather (1987)
The Chosen (1997)
The World Repair Video Game (2015)

Over the course of 2019 I hope to write and/or collect reviews (from you!) for all Ireland’s novels, and of course to set up a page so that they are all accessible. Ireland is undoubtedly an important Australian writer and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner especially is one of our great books. For various reasons Ireland has become unpopular with readers and with publishers and his reputed right-wing politics may be part of this though I could find nothing through google. His most recent work The World Repair Video Game was eventually serialized and then published in hardback by Tasmania’s Island literary mag (who may still have copies on hand).

Ireland will be 92 this year. Is he still writing? You’d think not. But I suspect that 18 year gap after The Chosen contains more than one unpublished novel.

Reviews:

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

Other material:

D. Musgrave, Post-Carnivalism in David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, 2013 (pdf here)
The Conversation: The Case for David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe, Apr 2014 (here)
ABC podcast: The Renaissance of David Ireland, May 2015 (here)
SMH: The Return of David Ireland, Genius, May 2016 (here)
Aust Explained: The Glass Canoe, Sept 2016 (here)
J.Rank.org: David Ireland critical study (here)
Helen Daniel, Double Agent: David Ireland and His Work, Penguin, 1982
Ken Gelder, Atomic Fiction: The Novels of David Ireland UQP, 1993.

Journal: 005, Across the Continent

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Mallee!

“Up the Coast”, “Across the Continent” – I’m using up all my best journal headings. Soon I’ll be down to “Tuna for Lunch” (true, as it happens. I’m a vegetarian who eats fish. When I was swimming I wanted 100 grams of protein a day, which took tuna, eggs and protein shakes. But of course the truth is I like fish and love prawns and squid. And hate fishing. Killing things is not sport).

“Across the Continent”: After a few days of no work, and hence those last two book reviews, I was given a b-double load from Wagin in southern WA to Sydney. After the heat of two trips north, the wind and rain of the south coast, Kim Scott country, was a shock. Another old guy, Tom, and I both well rugged up, took all day to load, well the client did, the pace of loading with inexperienced forklift drivers was glacial.

Travelling with another driver is not my favourite thing. Too often they want to talk to you on the CB, set a different timetable, sleep when you want to make a mile, and all those things are true of Tom, a short, white-bearded, cranky and opinionated old man. But, this was my first trip out of WA in fifteen years, and to Sydney, the city I know least and hate most. Tom has been a lifesaver, leading me to all the best fuel stops and eating (and showering!) places and above all making sure my load was secure in the first place and constantly checked along the way. (It’s also been fifteen years since I wasn’t a tanker driver).

And the twists and turns. The first half of the trip is ok, except for the cameras at the WA/SA border (and from there on throughout SA and NSW) and the checking station at Ceduna. But to get across country from the Perth-Adelaide highway to the Adelaide-Sydney highway – from Port Augusta to Renmark – is a nightmare of hills, constant little towns and frequent left and right turns (map). Thank heavens for Tom!

And did I say my phone failed. So if I broke down or lost contact with Tom there was no way of getting help. I bought a prepaid outside Port Augusta. Couldn’t make it work – you need another phone to activate the sim card. And then I lost it anyway, somewhere in the truck. For a while it made beeping noises, but has since lapsed into silence. Past Renmark, near the Victorian border, a nice lady lent me a phone and I spoke to Telstra for 30 minutes without progress. “The system has deactivated your sim card”. Not our fault was only implied. Finally, yes, Tom’s suggestion, I pulled up outside a shopping centre in Mildura, which has become a substantial city since I was last there (in the 1970s probably) and in five minutes the Telstra shop had replaced my sim card for free, and I was on my way again, with 35 posts and comments from you guys to deal with.

Today, Sunday, I’m sitting in the sun in the southern highlands of NSW (WG says) having a 24 hour break now so if I get a load back I can go straight home. It’s been a lovely trip. Nerve wracking to think how much money you could lose breaking down on the Nullarbor – up to $5,000 just for a call-out – but the country is wonderful: western woodlands shading to mallee and saltbush, then the real Mallee yesterday morning across the top corner of Victoria making me a little homesick, into the forests of river red gums along the Murray and Murrimbidgee Rivers before night fell (for the fourth time) and we joined that old familiar Hume Highway near Gundagai, anonymous in the unstopping procession of brightly lit trucks flying through the dark, up and down, up and down, across the Great Divide, to here.

Monday: Tom was impatient. He say’s I’m impatient. The minute our 24 hours were up, middle of Sunday night Sydney time, we were off for the last two hours to a factory in the far western suburbs. Up the M7, sleep outside. Woke Tom up at 6am (4am Perth time), boy was he cranky, a couple of hours to unload, a few km back down the freeway to drop our trailers at Tolls and then into the Eastern Creek BP truckstop next door with a hundred other trucks waiting to be loaded, breakfast, a shower, a nap. Tonight, late, I’ll be on my way home, and Tom’s off to Brisbane.

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Trucks at Eastern Creek lined up with their backs to the sun while drivers wait for trailers to be loaded and the mad rush home to do it all again.

The books below, I enjoyed. Let the Dead Speak was a murder mystery with a twist – the wrong person dies – involving a good looking young woman who is a bit ‘slow’. Breaking Point was an adventure story featuring a thoughtful, non-violent forest ranger, wicked federal government agencies and a million miles of Wyoming mountain wilderness. Made me feel at home, despite the pine trees and summer snowdrifts. Us is still going – an English scientist, born the same year as me, with the tastes in music and clothing of my father, marries a beautiful, arty woman and their marriage is breaking up over his arguments with their 17 year old son. I think the nerdishness of the protagonist is intended ironically, but the author doesn’t pull it off. Good in parts.

Finally, I’ve been roped into a ‘serious’ literary argument. Bonny Cassidy in The Sydney Review of Books (here) has written a 3,000 word (I’m guessing) essay on David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future which commences by taking issue with my judgement that “the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin or even Kylie Tennant would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams.”

And now Holloway’s blog post winds me up. I can’t pretend to critical indifference; I believe the novel’s significance remains undiminished. I’ve got to get out of the bunker and argue for it.

It’s an excellent essay, by a passionate Ireland fan, and of course I endorse her references to The Swan Book, The Natural Way of Things

As in Wood’s narrative, for Ireland nothing is too high, low, absurd or gravid for the purposes of interrogating the limits of nationhood and gender.

and The Pea Pickers. Great books all.

 

Recent audiobooks

Jane Casey (F, Eng), Let the Dead Speak (2017)
CJ Box(M, USA), Breaking Point (1958)
David Nicholls (M, Eng), Us (2014)

Currently reading

Anne Brooksbank, All My Love (review)
Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest, 2008 (translated Joel Martinsen, 2015) – still going, although not today (Sunday), we’ve been checking the loads, talking  (I’m getting some writing done now while Tom has a nana-nap), fruit & veg shopping, and I have to catch up on those 35 posts and comments, which keep on coming! And have a nap myself of course.


PS. Took advantage of this break to write to Dr Cassidy, and I see in her RMIT profile that she has written a chapter in Katherine Mansfield and Literary Influence, Edinburgh University Press (2015) titled The Meeting of Katherine Mansfield and Eve Langley. I’ll have to see if Geology daughter can get me a copy via UWA library.

The World Repair Video Game, David Ireland

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David Ireland (1927- ) had his first novel published in 1968. He put out five more, three of them Miles Franklin award winners, over the next dozen years –and one of those, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), is in my view a serious contender for Great Australian Novel – and kept going into the 80s, but his popularity was waning, and he has since had trouble getting published. Geordie Williamson writes that “the violence and misogyny that characterised Ireland’s earlier novels – such as The Glass Canoe (1976) and A Woman of the Future (1979)[My review], on which rested his reputation as a defiantly proletarian novelist who employed a feral version of literary modernism – began to erode his standing as intellectual fashions changed…”

Spoilers: The violence which is the ostensible subject of this novel is gradually revealed throughout and is intrinsic to any understanding of it.

So The World Repair Video Game (2015), published in Hobart by Island Magazine Inc, is an old man’s (ie. Ireland’s) cry of rage against fashionable opinions. His psychopath protagonist, 42 yo Kennard Stirling, whose first murder was as a schoolboy, has set himself the project of murdering slackers and incorporating their remains into the pathway he is building to the lookout on Big Hill on his 50 hectare, NSW south coast hobby farm.

A hammer blow in a night train. How I hate the sight of bodily organs, the insides that ought not be seen, the greasiness of blood and how good it feels to wash hands and arms and feel clean once more.

The novel takes the form of Stirling’s journal, interspersed with random thoughts generated by his subconscious (which he calls Pym after the Edgar Allan Poe novel). Ireland at one stage has Stirling reading Richard Brautigan, and his daily entries – from Sept 8 to Dec 21 – could be said to mimic Brautigan’s often very short chapters. The entries themselves are discursive, rather than formal, and inclined to head off at tangents, so the whole is very much stream of consciousness.

That said, not much happens. Stirling, who lives on a remittance from his wealthy Sydney-based family, is a volunteer four mornings a week in the nearby town of ‘Pacific Heights’ delivering meals and gardening for the elderly and so on, and otherwise spends his time regenerating bushland on his 50 hectares, that is, when he is not rendering down bodies and incorporating them into wet cement and compost.

My family Protestantism, alive when I was a child, suggested we are all free and equal, that power rests in the people, but now we know the sovereignty of the people is an unproductive joke, that democracy has few virtues and can’t take difficult steps in hard times and doesn’t reward courage.

Stirling is a loner, private-school educated and a once talented (rugby) footballer. As a refugee from the regimentation of the family business his “family” is now his kelpie-cross Jim, his ute Brian, a cat, and a majestic manna gum, Big Manna. He has had a girlfriend, or at least a love interest, at some stage, Leonora, “daughter of a judge, executive on a management team, retired footballer, weekend painter”, but she has left him, without word or backward glance.

His victims are recognisable by their slack and impoverished appearance, their dismissal of ‘reasonable’ proposals for work, and by the birds which sit on their heads and shit down their backs. They are clearly of the underclass. “The layer above is the working poor, the middle class is miles above”.

They are caricatures, never worked, never wanted to work, refusing to be tied down and experts at ‘claiming’. “This is a non-worker, healthy, uninjured. A non-cooperator, he consumes without producing, as Orwell says… He stinks of failure, stale and sour. He is less a prole and menial toiler and more a chiseller than a drudge, and lives on that edge where the crypto-criminal lives.”

… not far ahead I see a kookaburra riding on something. I get closer and see the bird is perched on the head of an angular man in Jesus sandals and unwashed Judas feet, a silver nostril ring, hairless chest, mauve shirt open to the navel, red tattoos and lemon shorts. He’s my man

I lost track of how many men are killed, six I think, five stabbed with his homemade stiletto and one upended and dropped on his head, all loaded onto Brian for the trip to the farm, then boned and rendered down.

The novel peters out with the completion of the path. The farm is sold. Stirling gets a terse note from Leonora. A new project beckons, eliminate those parasites at the other end of the pecking order, “not the many honest CEOs rewarded for performance, but the few among the top money people whose greedy domination in dysfunctional capital markets weakens the spirit of social fairness.”

Leonora, my light, how I treasured the twins Iphigenia and Chloe, and the potential of dear Clytie, and imagined Andromeda’s warmth. And didn’t tell you. Simply thinking your name creates music in me.

Forget what you have read, The World Repair Video Game is only incidentally a novel about serial killing. Ireland’s concern is politics, the gaming of the welfare system, the shortcomings of socialism, the restrictions political correctness imposes on a right-wing misogynist loner. I can’t agree with him, but at 88 he remains a brilliant writer.

 

David Ireland, The World Repair Video Game, Island Magazine Inc, Hobart, 2015. Afterword by Geordie Williamson

Kindly loaned to me by Lisa at ANZLL, her review here.

A Woman of the Future, David Ireland

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In the 1970s I was sure that David Ireland (b.1927) would be the writer of his generation, a mantle now surely held by Peter Carey despite how much I have disliked his writing since he moved to New York to be a ‘world writer’. I have said before that I regard Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) as one of our great novels, and I also very much admired The Flesheaters (1972) and The Glass Canoe (1976).

 A Woman of the Future (1979), when I first read it many years ago, seemed modern and exciting, and not just to me, it won the 1979 Miles Franklin Award. But it now appears, to be frank, horrible, with elements of exploitation, paedophilia and incest. Nevertheless, it is probably the first attempt by any Australian writer to imagine an explicitly post-sexual revolution future.

Ireland portrays an independent (adolescent) woman in a near future following both the sexual revolution and an unexplained catastrophe which has left the bulk of the population, the ‘frees’, subject to weird mutations, so that access to the privileged classes is governed both by year 12 examinations and by freedom from ‘growths’. The novel takes the form of notes “left behind” by Althea Hunt during her school years in suburban Sydney.

Ireland takes great care to make Althea the strongest, fastest and cleverest of her class, of the boys as well as the girls, but, as she enters adolescence, what the author attempts to pass off as her independence and sexual insouciance is often the most degrading subjugation to the dominant males. At various times when her father is drunk and/or asleep she experimentally handles his penis, plays with it, sucks it, invaginates him and brings him to ejaculation; in year 8 she goes down to the quarry and a boy takes her because “you know it’s got to be some time, well, this is it”; at the beginning of year 9 this boy sells her to an older boy for $40. “… I took the view it was their private transaction. For me it was a passport to experience.” The quarry is the scene for group sex and multiple partners, where the older children feel it their duty (or privilege) to initiate the younger. At school, Althea is f***d by a sports master simply because she is the last girl left in the changing room after gymnastics; and she is soon taken regularly at the quarry by an older man, a local shopkeeper who takes the time to bring her to orgasm; she, and all women, routinely tolerate being ‘felt up’ in crowds, an echo perhaps of a time not so long gone when girls regularly submitted to over-affectionate ‘uncles’; as Althea says, “There was a great demand for our bodies. We girls didn’t put much value on what our bodies represented: they [boys] did that.” Finally, at a year 12 party she is raped/gangbanged while drunk or in a daze, “the eager young animals that had been at me”, she says. In the last few paragraphs she mutates into an animal, a panther, and escapes into the Blue Mountains.

I re-read this novel to see how it intersected with my idea of the Independent Woman, but from the perspective of the 2000s, the woman of David Ireland’s future turns out to be not so independent after all, or at least not in any way Miles Franklin or even Kylie Tennant would have understood, but just a compilation of all the author’s wet dreams.

 

David Ireland, A Woman of the Future, Penguin, Melbourne, 1979 (reissued in Text Classics)

See Bonny Cassidy’s critique of this review in the Sydney Review of Books! (here)

Lisa at ANZLL struggles to like Ireland but her reviews of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe are well worth reading.