Reading The Electrical Experience in Cold Light: Labour Politics and Narrative Form in Frank Moorhouse, Then and Now.

Abstract

This essay seeks to boost Frank Moorhouse’s credentials as a commentator on class consciousness and labour politics, focusing on the oblique representation of labor tension in The Electrical Experience (1974) and addressing thematic and intertextual connections with Cold Light (2011), the third in the so-called 'Edith Trilogy'. Close reading reveals the lurking presence of labour tension in The Electrical Experience, but rather than it being manifested through a direct collision of social classes, it emerges primarily from the inner tensions and contradictions of its protagonist, the soft drink manufacturer George McDowell. Primarily set in the 1920s-30s, when workers’ rights had more prominence on the political Left than in Moorhouse’s immediate cultural scene in the early 1970s, the stories repeatedly show McDowell in revolt against himself, even as he remains oblivious to his workers. The indirect political insight Moorhouse offers on a more local – even parochial – scale in this fragmented work of historical fiction is in some respects deeper and more nuanced than that in the full-scale historical novel Cold Light, which engages directly with communist agitation in 1950s Australia.

As the major trilogy of historical novels Grand Days (1993), Dark Palace (2000) and Cold Light (2011) has brought Frank Moorhouse increased global recognition in recent years, the time is ripe for a renewed inspection of politico-historical concerns in Moorhouse’s earlier writings. While critics have tended to follow the author’s own lead in focusing on questions of sexuality, bohemianism, and freedom of expression in his work, this essay seeks to boost Moorhouse’s credentials as a commentator on class consciousness and labour politics. It stresses the need to return to his 1970s fiction in this light, focusing on the oblique representation of class tension in The Electrical Experience: A Discontinuous Narrative (1974) with reference to later work on related themes. In particular, I point to connections with Moorhouse’s most recent novel Cold Light (2011) which can help us to appreciate the subtleties of The Electrical Experience as the author’s first major…

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Published 10 August 2016 in Volume 31 No. 4. Subjects: Capitalism, Marxism, Political fiction, Frank Moorhouse.

Cite as: Morrell, Sascha. ‘Reading The Electrical Experience in Cold Light: Labour Politics and Narrative Form in Frank Moorhouse, Then and Now..’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 31, no. 4, 2016. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.ecf5d6cdf3.