The Pursuit of Oblivion: In Flight from Suburbia

This essay is an exploration of the suburban imaginary in David Ireland's The Glass Canoe (1976), Bruce Dawe's Condolences of the Season (1971) and Christos Tsiolkas' Loaded (1995). While the foregrounded concern of these works has as much to do with the alienation of labour under modern industrial capitalism, suburbia - as one of the hideous progeny spawned by modern industrialisation (the factory is another) - is represented as a site of repulsion and disgust, a zone of abomination, which precipitates the masculine subject into ever more violent and brutal acts of self-maintenance. While each of these works contains powerful insights into the brutalisation of humanity by the modern industrial system, they also exhibit a slippage in which an attack on suburbia displaces an attack on industrialisation. Corresponding to this demonisation of suburbia and the everyday, is a displacement of class antagonism by gender antagonism (Cross 116).

With these works it is impossible to think about the suburbs without thinking about the economic conditions that created and maintain them. Industrialisation brought about a massive re-organisation of time and social space. Society was re-organised around an 'artificial cycle' of 'routinized work' and 'compensatory rest' (Cross l 08), contrasting markedly with premodern labour, which tended to be organised around the period of daylight, the seasons, breaks between major tasks, etc .. The tyranny of the clock had material effects on the lives of ordinary people who became 'subject to the surveillance, discipline and regulation of industrial capitalism' (Bilton 28). The characters in Ireland, Dawe and Tsiolkas are oppressed by the artificial cycle of modem life. Ireland's narrator is acutely aware of the 'jail corridor of time' and of his own accelerated decay: 'Pieces of face slipped, chunks of flesh slid from his bones and rotted as they fell ... exploding in puffs of brown powder' (Ireland 216). In Dawe's 'Enter Without So Much As Knocking' the protagonist scarcely has time to blink twice and get acquainted with the set-up ('like every other / well-equipped smoothly-run household, his included / one economy-size Mum, one Anthony Squires- / Coolstream-Summerweight Dad, along with two other kids / straight off the Junior Department rack'). In 'Any Shorter and I'd Have Missed It altogether', the speaker 'Couldn't have hardly walked down the street [he] lived in / more than twice' or 'got to know anyone really well / in all that one long noisy street I cluttered with kids' before he 'found / everything over, almost as if it had never / happened at all' (Dawe 6, 32). Tsiolkas' Ari knows that ' there are two things in this world guaranteed to make you old and flabbyí: marriage and work - the strain of 'some shit job ... in some shit store in some shit street in some shit suburb' (Tsiolkas 10, 148).

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Published 1 November 1998 in Writing the Everyday: Australian Literature and the Limits of Suburbia. Subjects: Alienation, Gender roles, Manufacturing, Modern life, Social change, Suburbs.

Cite as: Kirkby, Joan. ‘The Pursuit of Oblivion: In Flight from Suburbia.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 4, 1998.