Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Shit Creek: Suburbia, Abjection and Subjectivity in Australian `Grunge' Fiction

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

Shit Creek: Suburbia, Abjection and Subjectivity in Australian `Grunge' Fiction

Article excerpt

`Where's Shit creek?' asked Danny.

Seemed like it was in every suburb of Melbourne we laid our fingertips on. The muddy brown waters would start swirling almost the same minute we opened the front door. `Don't worry, you'll never go there,' I told him. (Mendes 37)

The popular reception of Andrew McGahan's Praise in 1992 and the subsequent publication of a bunch of novels that seemed to share a number of its concerns' (Syson 21) have prompted an ongoing debate on the validity of `grunge' fiction and its place in Australian literary culture.(1) Despite the antithetical views these books aroused, they have still received little critical attention. Indeed, while some critics have been eager to summarise the texts as mere `performance[s] of semi-exotic subcultural styles' (Henderson and Rowlands 4), few have attempted to examine the modes of these `performances', the spaces in which they occur or the corporeality of the bodies who perform them. Almost all the narratives marketed as `grunge' locate their subjects within an exclusively sub/urban environment. In these novels the relationship between the body and sub/urban space reflects, at one level, a concern with what David Sibley terms `boundary consciousness' (Sibley 38) evident in the need to prevent the in-mixing of self and other. It is this interest in the relationship between the spatial and the corporeal as a paradigm of in-mixing that most analyses of Australian `grange' fiction have so far neglected. Andrew McGahan's Praise, Edward Berridge's Lives of the Saints and Clare Mendes' Drift Street explore the psychosocial and psychosexual limitations and excesses of young sub/urban characters in relation to the imaginary and socially constructed boundaries defining notions of self and other. Instead of upholding the moral, geographical and social boundaries reflected, in part, through the designations urban and suburban, the characters in these texts challenge imaginary borders by opening up liminal spaces that disturb established cognitive maps. The construction of an abject body is coextensive with the production of this liminal space and, in the narratives I discuss, the abject body is given a legitimate geo-cerebral identity and a series of shifting sites from which to speak. This essay explores the means through which `grunge' writing establishes identities for those on the social and cultural margins, identities that contest and ultimately renegotiate the borders of city space.

The suburbs are often read as the feminine counterpoint to the masculine (and phallic) city (Silverstone 3-7). Sibley argues that the material reality of the urban `constitutes a landscape of domination' (Sibley 76), implying that the built environment of the city is where power is symbolically lodged. The gendering of the spatial relations between the city and the suburbs has also had the effect of disenfranchising the suburban constituents (Devlin Glass 167) because they are located at the lower end of the power binary -- as feminised subjects bound into domestic space. The term `suburban' itself implies a lesser status, one that is dependent upon the original `urban' centre for its meaning and existence. Despite a recent tendency to see the city centre and the suburbs in terms of an opposition between cosmopolitan pluralism and suburban homogeneity, the hybrid nature of suburbia renders this dichotomisation unsustainable. Chris Healy raises the ambiguous nature of the suburbs when he describes them as `a middle landscape, as a "place" that is forever in between' (Healy xvii). The suburbs are thus signified as liminal zones: as spaces where the antithetical geographical and imaginative sites of country and city are both separated and blurred. Many of the characters in the narratives under discussion, like Gordon Buchanan in Praise, dwell in the borderlands between the city and the suburbs -- the inner-city -- and have their identity formed within and by this state of `betweeness'. …

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