Terry Eagleton has argued that the burgeoning genre of the |campus' or |academic' novel usually features certain culturally significant family resemblances, the shifts and variations that those relations imply notwithstanding. These generic resemblances include the presentation of a university world characterised by political infighting and sexual intrigue, a world which can also be recognised by readers of such novels as a distillation of middle-class etiquette, habits and assumptions concerning such matters as greed, lust, hatred and even murder. Eagleton also notes the genre's usual construction of women characters as aggressive and often sexually voracious or as studious ingenues and concludes that, ironically, such reactionary, humanist texts actually provide ammunition for those who would subject universities to the cold, destructive winds of "market forces."(1)
The novel co-written by Peter Goldsworthy and Brian Matthews, Magpie,(2) is part of that genre profitably exploited by, among others, Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Innes, Tom Sharpe, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury and, with feminist variations, Amanda Cross and Valerie Miner (the latter also adding a socialist inflection). An infinitely playful text, something of a verbal mosaic, it "magpies," or borrows and collects, rewritings and references from some of these other writings so that informed readers can be persuaded to cooperate in the clever game of recognising intertextual echoes.(3) Its cover editorially classifies this local Adelaide cultural product as "Fiction/Humour/ Literary theory" and it has been greeted with generally very enthusiastic reviews. For instance, these publicly available and perhaps authoritatively persuasive readings have terined Magpie "a playful tilt at post-modernism";(4) "possibly an authentic picture of that joyous phantasmagoria that is Adelaide";(5) "an offhand attempt at a comic novel that won't do anyone any harm";(6) "a genial jeu de fete" and, because launched at the Adelaide Festival of Arts Writers' Week, "a seasonally apt reminder of the pleasures of the text";(7) as a novel that causes "a fair bit of Rack for Peter and me to dodge";(8) on a rare but salutary cautionary note, "the written equivalent of that strange ritual of sparring and backslapping indulged in by male intellectuals during the footy season";(9) and as a "skilfully contrived story-within-a-story."(10)
The novel having been widely reviewed, we are not concerned here with summarising structure and plot(11) or with aesthetic evaluations of literary style. Nor are we interested in casting aspersions, allocating praise or blame to the widely esteemed authors or to the vigorous, often innovative local publisher. Without wishing to overestimate the social and political effects of a genre such as the campus/academic novel or a single text such as Magpie and for all the latter's clever interweaving of different narrative voices and the accompanying characterology, there is a worrying cousensus (or lack of difference) effected by the techniques of construction and presentation of women characters and the gender relations into which they are inserted and by which they are (here fictively) subjected. That is, we are registering concerns with the compositional presentations and possible plausible readings of gendered relations of power, and with the readerly use of conventions for the production and attachment of meanings, uses which are historically formed, socially organised, culturally communicated and, last but not least, politically charged.
So, we ask, what might readers make of Magpie's compositional statements concerning women? Jokes? parody/metafiction? irony? realistic presentation? the hoary old excuse of masculinist literary and sexual imaginative fantasy? or, recognisable notations ripe (to use the novel's preferred organicist imagery) for use and repetition elsewhere in situations beyond the control and, perhaps, imagination of even the most genial and fair-minded writers? …