The Australian literary firmament recently lost a giant when David Ireland passed away at the age of 94. Ireland’s literary career, spanning the best part of fifty years, can essentially be broken into two halves. From his literary breakout in 1968 to the early 1980s, Ireland was very much the darling of the Australian literary scene (even if he sometimes earned the ire of its more conservative, traditionalist elements). Works like The Chantic Bird, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe traced in gritty, vivid detail the lives of the subalterns, the workers and social outsiders, as they unfolded in the tangled spaces and places of urban, industrial Australia. From the late 1970s onwards, however, a very palpable shift occurred in Ireland’s writings, both in terms of its form and its subjects. The mundane industrial vistas of the earlier texts were subjected to a full-blown magical realist rendering (which had indeed appeared in cell form in those earlier texts). A focus on urban environments was increasingly displaced by country settings, and with that change of emphasis came a shift of perspective. The collectivism of the earlier texts was supplanted by an almost obsessive individualism, with the troubled but deeply creative protagonists of texts like Bloodfather, The Chosen and Time Capsule musing on the evils of government and the ideology of egalitarianism. With this shift, for reasons that are not entirely clear, came relative obscurity. From the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, Ireland passed into near oblivion. His last two works, The World Repair Video Game and Time Capsule, were published by a literary magazine and a small press respectively. His death was noted in two short articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Conversation, modest reward in my opinion for an unparalleled body of work.
Readers of Progress in Political Economy (PPE) will perhaps be aware that David Ireland’s passing holds a special significance for me. Several years ago, a colleague and I had a vague plan to write a book about the representations of Australian industrialisation in fiction. Someone suggested we read The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (David Ireland’s first Miles Franklin prize winner), which we duly did. The experience was a personally profound one that has fundamentally altered the course of my academic career. As I remarked in an earlier post on this forum, I was neither a literary theorist nor a geographer, but I realised immediately that Ireland tussled with the spatiality of Australia in a way I had never experienced before. This realisation provided the kernel of a new direction in my research, which led to the 2021 publication of Space, Place and Capitalism: The Literary Geographies of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner.
The occasion of David Ireland’s passing, however, has given a greater urgency to a more ambitious project. The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is not a flash in the pan; rather, it is my contention that David Ireland’s corpus represents a veritable Australian atlas, a treasure trove of spatial representations and knowledge. An approach rooted in literary geography, a discipline that holds that literature “knows things” about the world into which it is born, could potentially mine this knowledge and give us a novel insight into the spaces and places of Australia, from the post-World War II period to the current day.
To embark on that analysis here is obviously out of the question. What I would do, however, is to identify some of the key spatial themes that undergird Ireland’s work, both as a sketch of what I would like to address in my own research and as signposts for other interested scholars.
- The class constitution of space and place: Perhaps better than any other Australian author, Ireland is able to textually handle the formative role of social class in the construction, maintenance and reproduction of the spaces and places of capitalism. Works such as The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, The Glass Canoe and The Flesheaters explore how the working-class and lumpenproletariat actively try to create meaningful social places within and against the fragmentation, homogenisation and hierarchisation of capitalist “abstract space” (to use Henri Lefebvre’s term). If we understand space as simultaneously material and ideological, as Lefebvre does, we can extend this relationship several steps further – through working ideology into the literary form, Ireland actually works with the same ideologies that informed the spatiality of the Australia about which he wrote. His literature thus goes beyond simple fictional representation of a material reality; he is handling the same ideologies that partially constituted the spaces and places of his day, spaces and places that either no longer exist or exist in a radically altered form. Literature, on this score, is more akin to a spatial artefact than a spatial mirror.
- The gendered constitution of space and place: Gender is a preeminent concern of Ireland’s work. In particular, he represents gender at the point of its crucial articulation with the construction and constitution of space. The earlier realist texts, such as The Unknown Industrial Prisoner and The Glass Canoe, more-or-less accurately depict the highly restricted nature of the spaces women were expected to occupy according to the conception of the dominant ideology. The core locations of the capitalist labour process and the socialisation of the male working class are insulated from female presence except on very specific terms e.g. as secretarial workers, prostitutes etc. However, the evolving treatment of gender in Australian political economy coincides with the development of Ireland’s literary style towards the aforementioned magical realism of the late 1970s and 1980s. These new literary forms and techniques allowed Ireland to radically interrogate the gender/space relationship in two key novels: A Woman of the Future and City of Women. Both texts are written from the narrative perspective of female protagonists. In the former, the sexually precocious Alethea Hunt navigates the spaces and places of a future Australia in which an essentially caste-based class system exists alongside wild genetic mutations. The latter sees Ireland push the magical realist envelope even further, as Billie Shockley carves out a life in Sydney reimagined as a female-only city. In both cases, Ireland models the relationship between gender and space along utopian/dystopian lines, in so doing demonstrating both the limits and possibilities of the ideologies of gender he had to hand.
- The crucial role of the state in Australia’s spatial fabric: Ireland’s work seemingly internalises a key insight of Lefebvre’s: that the state is inextricably intertwined in the spatial structures of capitalism and that, in a very important respect, abstract space is also the space of the state. Throughout Ireland’s corpus, he consistently tackles the particular spatial function of the state. In his earlier works, Ireland provides an incisive account of the role of the Australian state in the construction of abstract space during the era of antipodean Fordism. His depiction of forces such as land use planning, industrial regulation, the links between business and state personnel and, most importantly, indigenous dispossession reveal that the state simultaneously provides the conditions for the creation of abstract space at the same time that it responds to the issues that it generates. This vision of the Australian state walks hand-in-hand with its representation as a small cog in the mechanisms of international capitalism, simultaneously acting as a willing colonial comprador and powerless agent before the interests of transnational capital. However, the development and intensification of neoliberalism from the 1980s onwards is linked to a shift in Ireland’s treatment of the state in later works such as The Chosen and Time Capsule. Ireland’s critique of the state as ineffective or co-opted to capitalist interests is supplanted by a much more thoroughgoing assault upon the ideologies of egalitarianism, bureaucracy and identity politics that he sees at the core of the modern state. These works can indeed be characterised as anti-statist and anti-egalitarian, and the fact that Ireland ideologically handles these issues at the time when the state was/is fostering greater inequality in fact highlights the central ideological contradiction at the heart of the modern right-wing critique of neoliberalism.
- An exploration of urban and rural spatiality: Ireland’s corpus canvases urban and rural environments, and the articulations binding them together. Ireland frequently uses unusual narrators (such as a psychopathic outcast in The Chantic Bird and a sentient, literate dog in Archimedes and the Seagle) who act as part-guide, part-explorer of their urban environments, placing the nerve centre of industrial working-class life squarely in the city. As against an early, generally pessimistic view of the interior of Australia as dead and empty, however, Ireland frequently locates his later texts in rural/regional areas well outside the metropolis, accompanied by a view that this is now live, energised with the essence of Australia. It is my contention that in this shift can be detected the drift of the later Ireland to a more right-wing view that sees Australia more in the terms of an essence as opposed to a class-stratified society.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list – indeed, Ireland’s work is so invested with themes of space and place that a simple typology could never capture it richness and diversity. What it does do is give an indication of how deeply spatiality is integrated into the content and form of Ireland’s literature.
Literature always goes beyond a simple representation of the world, even in its most prosaic, non-fictional forms. However, the best authors are able not only to represent, but actively explore and disentangle the spaces and places of their societies. I have previously described Ireland as ‘perhaps the pre-eminent Australian novelist of space’, and, whilst some may regard this as a strong claim, it is at least beyond doubt that he captures the spatiality of Australia is a qualitatively unique way. Nor is this process of capture a purely retrospective, historical process; rather, I would argue that Ireland’s corpus allows us crucial insights into spatial forces and ideologies that are still active in the fabric of modern-day Australia. To read Ireland is thus to read a still-unfolding spatial story. On the occasion of his passing, in an era of profound economic, political and ideological crises and struggles unfolding in and through space, it has never been more important to study the work of David Ireland.