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. 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 'grunge' 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.
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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Australian literature and writers, Grunge literature, Place & identity, Self perception, Suburbs, Urban life, Youth culture.