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David Ireland

Penguin’s publication of Helen Daniel’s critical book on the fiction of David Ireland is their first venture into Australian criticism, and one which I hope will be the beginning of a series on Australian writers.

David Ireland is an obvious choice for the launching of such a venture. As Daniel points out, he does not have the international reputation or readership of White or Keneally; she seems to suggest that this is because he is a far more ‘adventurous’ and ‘elusive’ writer. He has always been a controversial author in Australia, winner of many major awards, placed on some school/university reading lists, while barred as ‘obscene’ by other institutions.

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Like much else about this novel, its title The Chosen is not the relatively straightforward affair it may, at first, appear to be. One assumes for the first hundred pages or so that the ‘chosen’ are those citizens of the small NSW Southern Tablelands town of Lost River who have been chosen by a randomising computer program to have their lives represented in the commemorative tapestry being woven as a civic project along with two other pet Town Council proposals, a new jail and a high-temperature incinerator. It’s a mode that critic Ken Gelder has called ‘dark pastoral’.

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Archimedes and the Seagle by David Ireland & Jane Austen in Australia by Barbara Ker Wilson

October 1984, no. 65

‘I wrote this book to show what dogs can do’, writes Archimedes the red setter in the preface to his book, and what follows are the experiences, observations, and reflections of a dog both ordinary and extraordinary. Archimedes’ physical life is constrained by his ‘employment’ with the Guests, an average Sydney suburban family – father, mother, and three children. He is taken for walks – the dog laws make unaccompanied walks too dangerous, he leaves his ‘messages’ in appropriate places, he knows the electricity poles intimately, and the dogs in his territory, Lazy Bill, Princess, Old Sorrowful Eyes, and Victor the bulldog.

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A Woman of the Future, David Ireland’s sixth novel, is narrated in the first person by a woman, Alethea Hunt. This kind of ‘literary transvestism’ is not new, and in any case is not essentially different from writers who, in third-person narration, inject themselves into the consciousness of a character of the opposite sex. Ireland’s book, however, is remarkable for the way in which a male writer deals obsessively with the sexual thoughts and experiences of a woman. Indeed, it may well incur the ire of feminists that a man should presume, on principle, to understand such experiences. But he handles the role with sensitivity and insight, as he traces a young girl’s awakening sexual consciousness (if it was ever asleep) through to her later contacts with boys and men, most of which are, if not brutalising, at least unsatisfying. Though she claims, even as a small child and much to the satisfaction of her liberated ‘feminist’ parents, that she is without penis envy, she exhibits an extraordinary fascination with the male sexual organ, which is usually described in terms that would make most women want to give up heterosexual intercourse permanently. If these descriptions were meant to be representative of women’s feelings, perhaps one might object, but Alethea Hunt is clearly mad, albeit in the context of a world which is far crazier.

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