‘I Want a Mortgage and Comfort’: Consumption, Totality and Identity in Australian Gay Fiction

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The 2017 Marriage Law Postal Survey marked a historic moment for the gay community in Australia, as it resulted in same-sex unions being recognised under law. For novelists, this historic change served as the impetus to re-evaluate the position of gay men as queer subjectivity became more articulable through the market and was no longer excluded from the social mainstream or, in Marxist terminology, totality. This presents a challenge: how do writers dispense with outdated taxonomies of oppression, while still identifying the unique ways in which those who exist along axes of sexual difference continue to be exploited and oppressed? This article examines The Pillars (2019) by Peter Polites and The Adversary (2020) by Ronnie Scott to identify ways in which this nascent dimension of gay life is being depicted in fiction, arguing that gay fiction in Australia can meaningfully represent, and critique, its relation to capitalism. 

The gay community in Australia has experienced a period of rapid change and integration. Over the last decade, the legal and social conditions for gay men have advanced in several areas, including the establishment of a nationally recognised right to same-sex unions, amendments to federal legislation that created legal recognition of same-sex de facto relationships, and nationwide anti-discrimination laws that protect men from unjustified distinctions. These changes, along with many others, have resulted in a seismic shift in how male same-sex relationships are viewed in Australia and represented in our literature. A common thesis of novels published since 2017 is that gay men now occupy an unprecedented, and unexamined, position within what György Lukács (1974) called ‘totality’, or the abstract conditions of capitalism that result from the real object of human labour and social relations. In novels such as The Pillars (2019) by Peter Polites and The Adversary (2020) by Ronnie Scott, we witness the depreciated powers of deviancy and transgression to disrupt the knowledge regime of capitalism: a system that is intent on subsuming social relations in such a way that all relations become commoditised. These novels represent an evolution in gay male cultural production in Australia, positing that by attaining social legitimation, gay identity has lost its revolutionary potential. We argue that this observation is supported by queer historical materialist theory and that there exists a continuity of ideas between these novels and theorists James Penney, Rosemary Hennessy and Kevin Floyd. By drawing on the concept of queer reification, we find new ways of understanding the interaction between bodies and behaviours, capital and the neoliberal state as depicted in contemporary queer fiction in Australia. 

We take as a starting point for our analysis the Marxist concept of ‘totality’, or the idea that society and its various components are interconnected and interdependent, forming a holistic and integrated system. Marxist theory emphasises that we cannot fully understand any aspect of society – economic, social, political, cultural or ideological – in isolation; instead, each aspect must be analysed in the context of the larger social system. The contradictions and conflicts inherent in the system are seen as essential drivers of social change and by examining the totality of these contradictions, Marxists seek to understand the dynamics of class struggle and historical development. Lukács built on this framework, further emphasising the significance of the historical context and material conditions shaping society. However, he gave particular attention to the role of human consciousness in the historical process and is perhaps best known for his concept of ‘reification’, which he developed in his seminal work History and Class Consciousness (1971). Reification refers to the process by which social relations and human experiences are turned into things or commodities in capitalist society. Lukács argued that capitalism’s emphasis on commodification and objectification led to the alienation of individuals from their own labour and a distorted perception of reality (see Lukács 1971, 1974). According to this argument, reification obscures the true totality of social relations.

Over the last two decades, major theoretical works in the field have provided insight into the position of queer identities under the totalising logic of capitalism. Kevin Floyd’s The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism (2009), James Penney’s After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics (2014) and Rosemary Hennessy’s Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (2000) explore the negotiation of gay male identity within historical materialism, insisting on the primacy of material conditions as the differentiating factor in social relations. As Floyd points out, the ‘very practice of totality thinking provides, at the same time, a way of understanding a certain convergence between Marxian and queer accounts of the social’ (6, emphasis in original). Each of these authors propose versions of totality that are recognised by the gay male subject in an objective moment where their position within an economic system is revealed to them. This process of recognition engenders a class consciousness in the subject.

In The Reification of Desire: Towards a Queer Marxism, Floyd develops the thesis that the mainstreaming of queer identities within capitalist markets demonstrates a form of reification, or the sexual knowledge of queer bodies conditioned and expropriated, allowing sex to be reduced to a commodity. Floyd argues that:

[To] think sexuality in reification’s terms is to begin to see the way in which reification refers to a social dynamic that opens up critical vantages on the totality of capital as much as it closes them down. (20)

What Floyd suggests is a gay male equivalent to the proletarian subject’s objective moment of class consciousness: a potentiality that requires the subject to view themselves in terms of totality and to understand that neoliberal capitalism exists in opposition to interpersonal human relations by relentlessly commoditising those relations. Here, Floyd interprets Lukács to mean that ‘for the proletariat, self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the social totality’ and that, more importantly, the proletarian subject gains the ‘capacity to understand itself as both subject and object of the process that is capital’ (22–23, emphasis in original). Without this moment of knowing, we should consider the subject reified, presupposing a state of ‘total mystification or total negation’ (22). Though the subject has ‘come out’, there is no comprehension of what he has come into: the expression of desire is organised by an individual subject, in a manner akin to consumer choice rather than social totality.

This state of mystification and the eventual self-knowledge that arises from an encounter with relentless commoditisation is central to the depictions of gay men in both The Pillars and The Adversary. A key narrative concern of these novels is the process by which protagonists come to understand that the bodies of gay men are now brought under market forces in a way that has previously been obscured. In The Pillars, Peter Polites offers us the character of Pano, a freelance writer implicated in his landlord (and boyfriend) Kane’s schemes to prevent the construction of a mosque in their Sydney suburb. Given that Pano’s income relies on ghostwriting the memoir of property developer Basil, it seems that Polites is intent on situating his protagonist inside an explicitly capitalist totality. Preoccupied by his mother’s mental illness, his sexual appetite and his precarity as part of the artistic class, Pano articulates an ironic disavowal of capitalism while submitting to its reifying processes. As Pano is drawn into Kane and Basil’s real-estate dealings, his ambivalence in the face of corruption is exposed, with his individual self-interest coming to supersede any political affectations he held. Historicised against a gay, urban temporality newly legitimised through same-sex marriage, The Pillars reimagines gay male representation as the articulation of its absorption into the marketplace.

The aspirations articulated in The Pillars are not, as Polites notes, ‘Greek values’ or ‘human values’ but the ‘values of status and insecurity’: his characters relentlessly pursue individuation, suggesting the collapse of all previous claims to identity (Stamocostas). Polites alludes to identity politics being a reifying ideology of the capitalist class in what he describes as ‘ethnic aspirationalism’ (Stamocostas) and gestures towards the commonly expressed Marxist idea that identity politics can serve to fragment the working class and divert attention away from economic issues. While some reviewers of the The Pillars read it as an identarian polemic or overemphasise Pano’s and Polites’ sexuality and ethnicity (see Stanton; Hillis), other reviewers contextualised these traits inside a materialist critique of the novel (see Ball). As an author, Polites has been profiled in various publications where the politics of his work have been evaluated predominantly in terms of his sexuality and ethnicity (see Dow; Sullivan). We argue that The Pillars represents an evolution in the approach to representation as a project of queer cultural production, positing instead that by attaining social legitimation, queer politics has lost its revolutionary potential, which was instead redirected into capitalism and an aesthetics of transgression mediated by the market – or, in other words, identity expressed as consumer choice.

We see this theme developed in several ways. The cultural legitimation of gay men in The Pillars is contingent on their economic participation, a transactional paradigm Polites represents through Pano’s relationship with his landlord Kane and his employment as ghost biographer for property developer Basil. The consolation for reification is ‘lifestyle’ – consumer choices that Polites depicts as nostalgia for genuine transgression. Sex, designer drugs and plantains are among the consumables en vogue. With their material oppression dismantled, the men in Polites’ novel must come to terms with the way in which neoliberal capitalism reconfigures gay life into yet another facet of market economics. This thesis is evident early in the novel when Pano reminisces:

On the day I moved in with Kane, I noticed the framed rainbow flag hanging in the hallway and my arm shuddered uncontrollably. Perhaps it was the elemental magic the six colours held, more likely it was because I had been lifting heavy boxes all day. Kane had purchased the flag in Rome. On the ugly rock-filled beaches to the Mediterranean he had used it to dry the salt water and Mykonos cum off his body. Its edges were frayed, the colours muted; sunrays and salts had faded on it. On arriving back in Australia he’d had it dry-cleaned and custom framed. Looking closer at the yellow stripe, I saw a faint stain that could have been the industrial-strength jizz of an olive picker. (12)

Recontextualising the protest symbol as a consumer good, anointed with the material of its symbolic function, and hung on the wall as artwork, Polites suggests the queer movement has become little more than a compliant, symbolic ideology. Kane’s veneration of the symbol as museum-like object implies a subject unable to rationalise his absorption by totality and the neutralisation of previous claims to identity. No longer participants in a revolutionary political project, both Pano and Kane exist in a state of what Floyd would call ‘negation’. But as the novel unfolds, Polites develops his critique even further, suggesting that men like Pano and Kane lack the ‘critical, practical knowledge of totality that can negate this negation’ (Floyd 24) as they become trapped in false consciousness, with their human relationships commodified and their protest symbols coopted as consumer goods. 

While the rainbow flag may be Polites’ most symbolic gesture to the commodification of gay male identity, he extends this thesis and demonstrates the logic of reification as also inseparable from the temporality of the city of Sydney – a stratified community consisting of owners of property, like Kane and Basil, and those whose property is their bodies, like Pano. The conflation of bodies with real estate is emblematic of what Alissa G. Karl terms ‘the neoliberal novel’, or a novel about:

[P]olitical reality and a collective social imaginary – a struggle between forms of collectivity … and the individual body. The novels do this via the embodiment of human forms within the texts, and as the figurative ‘bodies’ of the texts themselves – their narrative and temporal structure and spatial imagination – register and resist the formal imperatives of neoliberal capitalism and governance. (67)

In Karl’s formulation, the interaction between individual body, social body and novel as a textual body is the animating force for the neoliberal novel, an analysis consistent with the central preoccupations of The Pillars. The relationships Polites describes in the novel take place against the backdrop of the Sydney housing crisis, whether between Pano and his landlord Kane, or Pano and property developer Basil, as ‘we witness [Pano’s] relentless desire to claim space and identity through ownership or proximity to it’ (Ball 206). The sexually liberated aesthetics of queer politics take on a transactional quality devoid of romance or transgression as Pano and Kane negotiate a relationship that is pragmatic and mediated by the property market. 

The defining feature of sexual life in The Pillars is this transactional quality. Not only is sex likened to consumption, but it is also often accompanied by literal consumption. This motif is crystallised through Polites’ depiction of an amphetamine-fuelled orgy where Kane’s mercantile organisation suggests a new class of men in which everyone becomes either whore or pimp. Gay male culture is now manufactured through products and scenarios designed to create and meet new libidinal needs. Describing the ill-fated orgy planned by Kane, Pano tells us: 

Before the two strangers arrived, Kane opened a green metal box and showed me the contents. Inside were tiny plastic bags filled with translucent blue shards. He told me he got them at a bargain price because the batch tested badly. I didn’t realise there was a factory outlet for meth. We were going to try it out on a guinea pig before we used the product ourselves. (45)

Pano’s narration of the scene obfuscates whether the libidinal focus of the orgy is the sex or the drugs since these acts of consumption are interchangeable. But the interchangeability is, of course, the point: gay bodies are commoditised and social relations are subsumed under the logic of the market. Where once the lifestyle of the queer subject may have been viewed as a form of resistance to reification, since homosexuality could not be incorporated into commodity production and thus into totality, which left it to occupy a position of rebelliousness, theorists like Floyd and Hennessy now believe that postmodernity has paved the way for homosexuality to be incorporated through consumer culture as a release of desire. Consumer culture, Hennessy argues, ‘has depended on the formation and continual retooling of a desiring subject, a subject who honours pleasures and may even see them as forces that drive one’s existence’ (69). Her hypothesis is that this trajectory in the avant-garde and social justice movements would lead to a near-perfect integration of queer lifestyles and capital, in which commodity’s innate gravitation to the spectacular would prove conducive to its acceptance of queer identity. The orgy serves as the novel’s imaginative horizon for the lost possibility of a gay male social collective with revolutionary potential. Instead, all is symbolically sacrificed for Kane’s drive to consume. The contradiction between human desire and human commodification provides moments of irony like this one throughout the novel that Polites uses to satirical effect. 

This contradiction is also at the heart of the concept of totality as an account of social domination, first defined by Lukács and later developed by other theorists such as Jean-François Lyotard, Louis Althusser and Gilles Deleuze. While the term totality encompasses several basic contradictions in capitalist societies, it is the unresolvable tension between the material fact of workers’ labour and the abstract conditions of capitalism that is most relevant to a reading of The Pillars. Capitalism separates a worker’s labour from the products of their labour (commodities), creating an abstract social relation between the two. These relations are often hidden from view, and commodities take on a mystified, fetishistic character. We see in Pano’s reified relationship with Kane how the totalising force of economics mediates human connections and creates a knowledge regime that reflects not material facts but abstract conditions. This is the basic engine of capitalism’s social domination, as the ‘calculus of the process of production invades subjectivity itself, separating the subjects’ quantifiable and exploitable capacities – their labour power – from their subjectivity as a whole’ (Nir 157). 

Importantly, Polites is interested in narrating Pano’s growing consciousness of his own separated subjectivity. Alone with Kane after the disastrous events of the orgy, Pano is required to alleviate his landlord’s sexual frustration:

I could have been in a pump’n’dump car wash or become a blow’n’go Slurpee dispenser. My skin became numb to his touch and as a result my brain became deprogrammed to him as a person. Getting used to his body parts in me, getting used to his ideas being inserted in me. (58)

This humiliation serves as an emblem of the dehumanisation of the reified subject. Pano’s detachment is likened to mechanical goods or services. His ironic distance becomes inverted, no longer the spectator but the meaningless object displayed in the halls of the museum. Subjectively inert, he is reminded of his position as a vessel to be filled with ideology. In Polites’ vulgar conception, Pano is ‘topped’ by capital. 

Nevertheless, by comprehending this inevitability, Pano reaches the moment when he can view himself in terms of a social totality and understand his relationship to it. Witnessing an apartment fire in which two nurses plunge to their deaths (events inspired by the 2017 Glenfell Tower disaster), Pano’s ironic distance is suspended. Pano tells us:

My hands changed a few days after this. I reached for my phone, but when I looked down I didn’t see my thick hairy knuckles; in their place were slim, hairless digits, tiny hands, the same hands that held on to the ledge. I shut my eyes, and under the darkness of my lids two bodies fell to the ground. (130)

He knows that Basil is culpable for the disaster since he manipulated building requirements to avoid installing sprinklers. The objective moment occurs on the level of the subject rather than totality: ‘my’ is repeated three times, ‘I’ four times. Though empathy occurs between Pano and the falling bodies, it is orientated to the narrative self. While witnessing the event may serve as a revelation to Pano, it is politically impotent, by virtue of this orientation to the self. 

This contradiction produces a ripple effect in the totality of the novel, as Pano’s imaginative identification with the falling nurses dramatically reveals the intersection of the novel’s atomised citizens with the neoliberal state. As Oded Nir reminds us, to ‘retrieve its subjectivity, which has been reduced to reified labour power and wrested away from its experience, [the queer subject] has to become conscious of the system of mediations governing its labour power’ (158). Though The Pillars exposes this ably, and Pano does seem to become conscious of this system of mediations, he does not take the crucial step towards social and political transformation. Rather than gaining any sort of heightened class consciousness or desire for collective action, Pano ignores his insights and pushes ahead with property market aspirationalism, eventually finding an opportunity to exploit his own mother through a real estate venture. The point Polites is making is clear: while reification can be transcended through contemplation of the gay male subject’s relationship to totality, the subject’s individuated role in the perpetuation of this relational paradigm remains paramount. In other words, insight must lead to political action or else it has no meaning. In The Pillars, this state of negation is the inevitable outcome of neoliberal domination as ‘pragmatic survival’ becomes the first priority for gay men, or as Mark Fisher says: when ‘capitalist realism is at its most powerful’, it ‘generates this depoliticizing effect’ (Dean and Fisher 27). 

The Adversary by Ronnie Scott (2020) presents an alternative approach to describing the depoliticising effect neoliberalism has had on queer politics, invoking the self-consciously traditional form of the bildungsroman to describe the alienating effects of late capitalism. The major narrative preoccupation of the bildungsroman has always been the process of integration, where the young protagonist must come to some understanding about their place in society, and where the success or failure of integration is contingent on the protagonist’s ability to reconcile himself with totality (see Kuehn; Stevíc). The relationship between the bildungsroman and historical materialism has been frequently discussed by critics. Franco Morretti, in his seminal examination of the genre, links the emergence of capitalism in nineteenth-century Europe to the rise of the bildungsroman, a genre that narrates the individual’s acculturation into a society jolted by the ‘new and destabilizing forces of capitalism’ (4). Elsewhere, we find the genre described as an ‘early bourgeois, humanistic concept of the shaping of the individual’ (Sammons 41) or as the genre that insists on subjects learning to accept their place in society as ‘the consequence of capitalist socialisation’ (Lima 295). For these theorists, the tension at the heart of the bildungsroman emerges from the lively question of whether the proletariat citizen can accept their place in a society that only values their labour and the alienation this question induces in the protagonist. 

Given this background, it is easy to see why some theorists now explicitly link the bildungsroman in the twenty-first century to neoliberalism. Swaralipi Nandi argues that ‘the neoliberal Bildungsroman charts the protagonist’s initiation into, fusion with, and active participation in the normative ideology of neoliberalism’ – a process in which the protagonist may conform or rebel but in which the ‘demands of global capitalism and socio-political identity’ can never be escaped (276–77). Likewise, Adam Bristow-Smith believes that ‘aspects of neoliberalism have overlapped with, co-opted, and undermined core elements’ of the bildungsroman, meaning the genre will always necessarily be a depiction of ‘how neoliberalism functions culturally’ (1) – a view that we also find in our reading of Scott’s novel. If the experience of formation is integral to the form, then we might begin to see how in the bildungsroman, totality integrates the subject as the subject psychically orders the narrative of their integration (or reification). This friction between self-determination and the determining force of totality echoes the concept of reification – that is, the ‘transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way’ (Petrović 463). We argue that the bildungsroman depicts a protagonist's journey from a state of relative naivety to a more mature and self-aware state through an encounter with societal norms, institutions and ideologies that can be seen as reifying forces. In this context, we can see how a novel like The Adversary dramatises the dialectic between reification and totality in neoliberal Australia as it depicts the absorption of gay male identity into totality, negating its revolutionary potential.

In The Adversary, the nameless protagonist’s essential narrative progression is his integration with totality or, perhaps more accurately, his desire to avoid that integration. His dreamy, romantic demeanour is antithetical to the stark capitalist realism around him. Unemployed and dependent on the largesse of the state, he lives hermetically, unable to afford the material consolations of the city. His social relations are irreducibly transactional: his housemate Dan serving as a surrogate boyfriend while also underwriting his share of the rent. When Dan encourages him to engage with a new circle of friends, to liberate himself from the protagonist’s emotional and material dependency, the comedic miscommunications that follow expose the material precarity of the protagonist. In this sense, The Adversary is instructive as a novel about capitalist social relations, depicting reification so pervasive it is perceived as merely cultural. The characters in The Adversary are all young, gay men; more significantly, they are members of the downwardly mobile middle class: stymied on the cusp of adulthood by the unattainability of its traditional markers, such as property ownership and reproduction. Stević observes that in the work of ‘Balzac, the bildungsroman protagonist is driven by an urge to embrace the rapaciousness of developing capitalism; in Dickens, he is taught that he can achieve a worthwhile existence only by avoiding it’ (52). Perhaps intuiting the hollow material reality of totality in a way that confounds his contemporaries, the integration of Scott’s protagonist with totality becomes a dance of avoidance in the way that Stević identified for Dickens’ characters. 

To this end, The Adversary provides few details of the protagonist’s life prior to meeting Dan; all of his interests are generic and minimally investigated. Even his diet, primarily consisting of Vegemite on toast, suggests alienation from the processes of consumption, so internalised it governs his eating habits. An obligatory sojourn onto Grindr early in the novel highlights this impulse towards self-erasure, alluding to a paradoxical impulse to resist the compulsive individuation of neoliberalism:

On hook-up apps I’d long since made the horrible commitment of turning myself into one of those negative-zone profiles, black squares that told you nothing interesting about themselves except that they were watching you and everybody else … it was best to conduct my business in secret, and confirmed the disappointing feeling I’d had when I came out: that I’d been swindled into giving up what might turn out to be the most interesting secret I would ever have. By becoming a black square I felt like a fixing agent, jellied and quivering, helping the rest of the squares stick to the grid. (14)

Scott describes a form of anti-existence in which the protagonist perceives himself as a negative space. Only through this abstract awareness is he able to comprehend his position in relation to a collective and, therefore, conversely, as an individual subject. 

The sense of negation ascribed to the protagonist’s life must also be read in the historic situation of the novel as it follows in the wake of marriage equality in Australia. By achieving symbolic integration with totality, gay male identity must be materially integrated, and the specific, cultural oppression of gay men is replaced with the ordinary oppression of reification: ‘an objective but false, “frozen” immediacy that causes human beings to experience historical processes as natural laws that govern human life and elude human control’ (Floyd 41). In The Adversary, there are few relations that defy this definition. Early in the novel, Dan attempts to manipulate the protagonist into befriending Chris L, a shared acquaintance, so that Dan could have ‘a family in two houses, with Chris L and me like children, and Dan and [his boyfriend] Lachlan doubling in the role of dad’ (Scott 10). But the protagonist, feeling ‘proud of his stillness’, resists the idea and the implication it contains – the hint of oppression carried ‘by the doctrine of queer family’ (Scott 10). Many of the social interactions in the novel unfold with a sense of this ‘stillness’ as the protagonist’s provocative behaviour is portrayed as motiveless and compulsive. The sedentary secrecy of the Grindr grid provides a symbolic map for his social relations, not the ‘queer family’ that Dan suggests and the integration that comes with it. Habitually insincere, the protagonist operates in total mystification and total negation, to use Floyd’s term. 

Compounding this portrayal are the more explicit economic factors contributing to the protagonist’s reification and affirming the novel as a bildungsroman of economic processes. In the novel, the welfare state and the various male characters in the protagonist’s orbit assume the role of patron or protector closely associated with the bildungsroman’s Dickensian iteration (Stević 53). Like Dickens’ characters, the protagonist in The Adversary is positioned at an impasse where material reality precludes the possibility of successful integration with totality, the condition of integration being full expression as a liberal subject, which material disenfranchisement renders impossible. Rather than the benevolent interventions that Dickens envisaged as the means by which his young heroes might attempt to scale the totality of industrial capitalism (Stević 52), such as a sudden inheritance or a mysterious benefactor, the interventions of the neoliberal state take the diffuse, banal form of bureaucracy. Youth Allowance keeps the protagonist from falling into abject poverty, but it also enables his economic and social stasis: a calcification of social position that resembles what Floyd describes as reification’s false, ‘frozen’ immediacy.

The protagonist’s economic immobility and social inertia lead to his dependence on romantic or platonic relationships to materially structure his existence. He propositions a character only called ‘Richmond Man’ as a potential flatmate, cavalierly exploiting the man’s romantic interest and middle-class aspirations:

I looked at him in wonder. He turned around and faced me. ‘Courage,’ he said. ‘It is about guts. These Melbourne boys, they’re all so cool. They don’t know what they want. I want someone to take care of me when I’m old and dying. I want a mortgage and comfort. I like being looked after. I also really like the feeling of looking after somebody. I don’t know if I like you, but you can get used to anything.’ (Scott 116)

While the protagonist derides this monologue as performatively vulnerable, he fails to convince; his rejection of Richmond Man reads more like a rejection of sincerity, in favour of the ironic distance that allows him to tolerate his reified position. The musical chairs of living arrangements into which the protagonist is thrust by Dan’s decision to move in with Lachlan is neither presented as a meaningful choice nor ascribed a moral value. He perceives these relationships with the inevitability characteristic of a reified subject. 

The bildungsroman typically builds towards moments of personal, moral and psychological development for the protagonist as they develop a sense of self-identity and an understanding of their place in the world. In The Adversary, this process involves a negotiation with, and sometimes resistance to, the post-plebiscite social and economic totality. In the final scenes of the novel, the protagonist considers a new living arrangement with an American man, Vivian. He wonders: ‘What did I offer Vivian? It wasn’t like I made him food or paid his bills or cleaned. It wasn’t like I was particularly easy to be around, either’ (Scott 209). The social and economic relations of capitalism shape and constrain the nature of their relationship in ways that prioritise commodification and alienation over genuine human connection. But the protagonist, in a moment of insight, comes to understand that he longs for authentic, emotionally fulfilling relationships that can resist these pressures. He realises that Vivian is seeking something specific from him: a marriage proposal. He tells us that ‘[s]ince the plebiscite, since the yes vote, I, too, could be married for my visa-granting capacity, tricked by a stranger who saw that I was lonely. I felt very free, strangely accepted’ (Scott 210). The social legitimation of gay male identity that occurred with the yes vote, while momentarily feeling like an ‘acceptance’ for the protagonist, also leaves him feeling hollow as Vivian seeks to use him merely for his ‘visa-granting capacity’. As Scott makes clear, this acceptance entails not a new, revolutionary imaginative horizon for gay male identity, but a universalisation of reification, the constant denial of authenticity, and an encounter with oppressive economic forces that homogenise all sexual difference as mere consumerism. The novel reaches its narrative climax when the protagonist becomes aware of this dialectical tension between his individual growth and quest for authenticity, on the one hand, and the pressures and demands of the capitalist world that seeks to reify his identity, on the other hand.

Taken together, The Pillars and The Adversary represent inadvertent contrasts. They pathologise gay reification as decadent but also as the unavoidable outcome of the encounter with totality. They are starkly realist while flirting with stylistic romanticism. They present capital as visually ubiquitous while also being invisibly pervasive. What unifies the pair is the tacit acknowledgement that the social integration of gay male identity has fully exposed sexual difference to totality, forcing a confrontation between gay men and capital that has previously been marginal. They signify a shift in the approach to representation within queer cultural production. Our reading of these novels suggests that with the attainment of social acceptance, queer politics has relinquished its revolutionary capacity, and that this redirection has given rise to an aesthetic of transgression mediated by the market. In simpler terms, it can be described as identity being expressed primarily as a consumer choice. Both Polites and Scott are interested in narrating their subject’s growing awareness of the reifying forces around them, with Polites offering a more fatalistic depiction of a consumerist and materialistic Australia where the pursuit of possessions and lifestyle choices becomes a central focus. In contrast, Scott turns to the bildungsroman to portray his protagonist’s transformation from a relatively inexperienced and unworldly state to one marked by maturity and self-awareness of his desire for authentic relationships free of the pressures of commodification and alienation. The novels offer insight into the methods by which this emerging facet of queer existence is being portrayed in literature, demonstrating that Australian gay fiction has the potential to effectively illustrate and scrutinise its connection to capitalism.

Published 18 December 2023 in Volume 38 No. 3. Subjects: Gay & lesbian literature & writers, Homosexuality, Marxism, Sexual life & gender relations - Literary portrayal, Sexuality & sexual identity.

Cite as: Wilson, Rohan and Craig Bolland and Myles McGuire. ‘‘I Want a Mortgage and Comfort’: Consumption, Totality and Identity in Australian Gay Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2023, doi: 10.20314/als.2e5c050333.

  • Rohan Wilson — Rohan Wilson is the author of three novels, *The Roving Party* (2011), *To Name Those Lost* (2014), and *Daughter of Bad Times* (2019).
  • Craig Bolland — Craig Bolland lectures in Creative Writing at QUT.
  • Myles McGuire — Myles McGuire is a writer from Brisbane.