Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

'A Heart That Could Be Strong and True': Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright as Queer Interior1

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

'A Heart That Could Be Strong and True': Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright as Queer Interior1

Article excerpt

Although it was a publishing success when it first appeared in the early 1960s, Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright (1961) has since attracted scant critical interest.2 Critical commentary on the novel has briefly resurfaced in response to various re-prints of the book (including a Penguin edition) and, more especially, in response to Ted Kotcheff's now more culturally familiar cinematic adaptation. Wake in Fright the film (1971) was a success on the European festival circuit (it ran for five months in Paris and London) and was re-released in 2009 after it was 'found' in a US archive. Its significant influence on Australian New Wave directors is now acknowledged.3 What interests me is not the question of critical neglect so much as the way in which commentary about both the novel and the film has largely centred on its thematic hostility to an Australian town and its male-dominated community. Critics have overwhelmingly emphasised the negativity of Wake in Fright's narrative and insisted that it exemplifies a contemporary demystification of a national type in late twentieth century culture as Cook's portrayal of working class masculinity is focalised through the perspective of a middle-class, educated outsider who watches and judges from a critical distance. Often taken to be a fictional representation of the author himself, Wake in Fright's schoolteacher conjures an arid, empty interior populated by bullying men. In doing so, it draws a 'derogatory' distinction between country and city, periphery and centre (Temple ix). This supposedly hostile or menacing subject matter has, furthermore, itself generated critical hostility, and this negative reception has not been limited to scholarly readers of novel and film. According to director Ted Kotcheff, at one of the first screenings of the film, a man jumped out of his chair and yelled 'That's not us' at the screen.4 What is this recognition of a non-recognition that dominates reception of Wake in Fright? In posing this question in relation to what I see as the novel's ambivalent themes and affect, this essay provides an alternative reading to reception of the narrative that has understood it as an outsider's experience of exile and alienation in the Australian interior.5 It's true that Wake in Fright's main character, John Grant, experiences a destabilising of personal boundaries. However, as I show in what follows, the exact source of this 'menace' or aggression which threatens Grant's subjectivity not only remains undefined, it is the source of pleasure as well as pain.

My purpose in taking up this line of argument is not simply to counter dominant reception of the novel and film. Nor is it about uncovering what are - in the case of both the novel and the subsequent film version - quite obvious homoerotic themes and drives, including the hyperbolic characterisation of masculine men as perversions of national types. My approach differs from the kind of queer reading taken up by David Coad who - in his reading of sexual difference as a hypervisible, gender performance in a range of iconic Australian texts - declares an 'Outback' that is 'finally outed' (126). Indeed, my reading in what follows is focused not so much on Wake in Fright's masculine men as on the way in which the novel's narrative point of view - focalised through a receptive, even effeminate, schoolteacher (John Grant) who hails from a metropolitan centre - operates as a vector for a kind of authorial or professional disillusionment that is, nonetheless, focused on the savage, virility of working class men. In particular, I want to explore how the narrative's melancholic perspective renders itself in opposition to, what is depicted as, a hypersexual masculinity that is also perversely desired as the site of uncanny familiarity. Like the 'That's not us' yelled at the original cinematic screening of Wake in Fright, Grant's narrative writes a simultaneous hatred and desire, repulsion and erotic attraction towards both the novel's physical and menacingly violent men and the arid environment of the interior. …

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