Academic journal article Hecate

'There's No Guarantee That the Future Will Be Worth It'-Government and Class in Amanda Lohrey's the Reading Group

Academic journal article Hecate

'There's No Guarantee That the Future Will Be Worth It'-Government and Class in Amanda Lohrey's the Reading Group

Article excerpt


Amanda Lohrey's 1988 novel, The Reading Group, a polyphonic dystopian fiction, is arguably a deeply pessimistic account of the failures of reformism and a lament for the resistance and imaginative possibilities brought about by the political struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. (1) Set in the near future, the 'almost now', the novel reverberates with allusions to elements of the Australian political landscape of the 1980s under the Australian Labor Party. Like the tune whistled by the minor character of Roy, the city of Lohrey's book is both 'familiar and unnameable.' (2) The novel depicts a ghettoised lumpen underclass of plague bearers, repressive New Emergency Powers, bushfires that rage and cinder just out of sight, and an ominously titled Committee for Public Safety. This extrapolation from elements of the contemporary political period, with its tensions within social democracy at a time of ruling-class confidence and savage cutbacks, is expressed in the form of an 'incomplete dystopia', which may also be open to a reading as a satire.

In the future of The Reading Group the banal (a goodbye ceremony for a Labor politician replete with pale applause and bad jokes), the recognisable (debates about logging), and the hysterical (volunteers from the army train civilians in vigilante tactics), mesh to create a political context that is undoubtedly familiar yet nightmarishly discordant. The political climate depicted sees a social democratic party presiding over a hyper-nationalistie and increasingly totalitarian state and attempting to contain a hostile lumpen proletariat.

The novel explores the apparent impotence and failure of residual personal left liberalism to respond to a moment of political crisis of some importance: the accommodations and concessions made by the 'moderate' party to the paraphernalia of Neo-Fascism. The unorganised and fleeting political commitment of the main characters, erstwhile proponents of left liberalism, has already faded into pessimism and surrender by the time the novel opens and this is contrasted with the confidence, public posturing, and private manoeuvring of an ascendant new right.

Despite the blurb's pronouncement that the novel is set in an 'indeterminate future', a reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald observed: 'Lohrey's world is very much the present. The world she creates displays the familiar ordinariness of Australia in the 80s.' (3) While some of the elements in Lohrey's novel--the symbolic ring of fire around the city, the homeless plague bearers who rustle through rubbish bins, and the hierarchical measures urged by a conservative poet--are alien and new, and though the use of tableaux and montage is estranging, the novel is also scattered with cultural references that were undeniably commonplace in the time of the book's production. The future is still a world of Pizza Hut, Datsun, Myer, 'save the whales' stickers, an apparently free press, even if one steeped in ideology and under the pressure of PR spin, Picasso paintings and retiring senators who hail from the Western suburbs.

In 'The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited', Lyman Tower Sargent has defined a dystopia (distinct from the literary utopia: a pun on 'good place' and 'no place') as a 'non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in a time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as considerably worse than the society in which that reader lived.' (4) As a dystopia, The Reading Group can be conceived of as a sharp and impassioned portrait of the trajectory of the Australian Labor Party, an organisation formed in the wake of working-class movements and trade union struggle, but by the 1980s entrenched in government, determined to manage capitalism and squeezed between the demands of industry and the sharply held expectations of its traditional supporters and proletarian and union following. …

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