peteg's blog

David Ireland: The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.

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Kindle. It's the late 1960s, beautiful Kurnell, Botany Bay, the Puroil refinery, ugly up close. When they're not at the Home Beautiful, being schooled by the Great White Father in living for today and not tomorrow, the men are taking notes for the Great Australian Novel that each will write after their release from industrial prison. This is David Ireland's, and was the first of his to win the Miles Franklin in 1971. (text publishing has reissued his early works, but not his later ones.)

The style is similar to the subsequent The Glass Canoe and so forth: mostly disjointed vignettes that riff on why and how the working man is bound to, and chafes, his corporate master. I would say that little has changed, but the baubles on offer to the natives (here industrial prisoners, captive to a European transnational oil enterprise) are shinier than ever. This somewhat attempts to do what George Orwell did for the mid-century in 1984 for Australia at a time by which everyone knew the joke: they unquestionably love their company.

The characters come thick and fast, and it's hard to track them all with only their nicknames to hang onto, some having a touch of Australiana disposability. The slang tends to the obsolete, and while Two Pot Screamer might be an ocker original, some cursory Googling suggests Humdinger is pure Americana. Beyond the blue gate of Puroil, the Yank welders are held in awe as they work effectively and efficiently due to being paid by the job and not the hour. Ireland looks almost wistfully to the U.S.A. and wonders what could have been. The inefficiencies at the plants are immediately familiar to anyone with experience of modern corporate Australia, despite their probable lack of Ireland-esque industrial chops. The prisoners engage in small-minded vindictive retribution that is provoked by small-minded short-term cost-control by management, such as not paying sick leave until and unless the injured party fronts the right office worker (here "white shirt"). The machinations around company-funded pensions — that the rate is tied to salary at retirement, and the period of employment is calculated to the day — make me think that superannuation might be fairer despite it being wide open to the financial markets. The results, as you would certainly expect, are chaotically catastrophic.

The Home Beautiful is the countervailing life force, tawdry, once powerful, now debilitated by easy access to credit; in other words, a bordello set amongst the mangroves, segregated by the Eel River from Puroil. Ireland uses it to explore prostitution (of the self-knowing but not golden-hearted kind), homosexuality, alcoholism, mental health, and to observe close-up that the prisoners would not know what to do with freedom if they had it. He charts the distintegration of the Unions (fully realised under Hawke et al in the 1980s) and shows that organized labour was never going to be a match for financial innovation, or men with military training ("they had no tradition of operators never doing tradesmen's work, they were used to working with tools and used to obeying orders without thought or question."). Religion is no help either, even if it causes some of the the men some pause, from time to time. Thievery is rampant.

The text is highly referential. There is much to enjoy, though I'm sure many would find it bleak; the dedication of a new plant to "The Unknown Industrial Prisoner" is completely apt. It tipped the balance towards his latest novel, which I ordered from Island Mag (out of Tasmania of all places) for the ridiculous price of $45.

Lisa Hill enjoyed it less than I did. She claims that times have changed, but goes on to observe the same deterioration in industrial relations as Ireland, and the fact that Australians (really, everyone) prefer to buy cheaper stuff and not bother too much with the politics. I think Ireland was right to think that the undereducated / less intelligent were headed for the industrial scrapheap; the new knowledge work employs fewer people to do more stuff and make more profit than ever before, as the lawyers will be learning in the next decade or so. (These issues were ambient; see, for instance, Barry Jones's classic cure for insomnia, Sleepers Wake! from the early 1980s.) What she calls cynicism I took to be Ireland's empathy for his fellow prisoner, expressed in the great Australian (OK, British) tradition of "characters" adopted by, for example, Henry Lawson. She's right that there is a lot of humour here. I would say that it has similar aims to Herbert's Capricornia, and if I ever get to it, Poor Fellow My Country.

Peter Pierce in his introduction pulls out the right quote: "the Sumpsucker knew that though they were tall, bronzed, rugged Australian individualists, more or less, they would end up doing exactly as they were told." — and oh yes, the hereditary scar on the ankle, itching madly.

Teddy Wayne: Kapitoil.

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Kindle. Computer geek from Qatar goes to New York City just before Y2K and makes his struggling finance company a lot of money by algorithmically analyzing the news, before pulling out because he wants to apply the same technology to epidemiology while the big boss just wants more money. Of course he gets entangled with the only other semi-fleshed-out character, co-worker Rebecca, but goes home at the end. The secondary characters are richly sketched but in outline only. This is apparently a satire, but Mr Wayne is clearly standing on the outside of geekdom looking in. The prose is masterfully executed but there wasn't a lot there for me.

David Ireland: A Woman of the Future.

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Kindle. Ireland got a third, and final, Miles Franklin for what now seems a complete misfire, and I am about as lost for words as Kate Jennings was in her introduction to the Text Classics edition. I spent the first half getting misanthropic Never Let Me Go vibes and the last half wondering if Ireland wasn't trying a bit too hard to marry Nabokov's tropes with Burroughs's. The odd minor observation about the great continent of Australia, typically stashed away in some mediocre poetry or overly adolescent letter, cannot redeem what is mostly just eye-glazingly repetitious trash.

Bill Holloway put more effort in than I'm prepared to.

David Ireland: The Glass Canoe.

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Kindle. Apparently David Ireland was deemed a success by the Australian literati in the 1970s but soon fell out of favour; his recent revival points to the poverty of the current scene. He writes well, here recording the carryings-on of the regulars of the Southern Cross pub in Northmead. In some ways this is a Western Suburbs Trainspotting, and shares a bed with Wake in Fright. Ireland leavens the sex and violence with some pop philosophizing and a deep appreciation for the role of mystery and wonder in life. This culture is probably almost defunct with the lockout laws and so forth, and unlikely to be mourned by many. I wonder what else he has to say.

Matthew Cobb: Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code.

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Kindle. On the strength of H. Allen Orr's review at the New York Review of Books. I had hoped to learn more about genetics than is on offer here, and the import of various things like Watson and Crick's discovery of the (geometrical) structure of DNA; suffice it to say that even once that is somewhat settled, it sounds like it's not much help in figuring out the genetic code itself. I didn't find any of the experiments particularly beautiful (far too much manual labour, radioactivity and inconclusivity), and the text gets quite repetitious in its put downs of cybernetics and information theory. Cobb is too narrow about the latter; the field includes things like error-correcting codes, which DNA presumably addresses somehow. Shannon's model is but a starting point.

Brief Encounter

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An early and short David Lean, written by Noël Coward. The story of two people married to other people falling in love is somewhat tired, but as usual Lean's direction makes up for all deficits. There's a stuffiness and humourlessness to the whole thing that would have had Oscar Wilde reaching for his satirical pen.