Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Living in the 80s – Andrew McCann’s Subtopia and David Williamson’s Emerald City

Until I read these two books recently (both also recent op-shop, i.e. semi-random scores), I had long since given up on my experience of the 1980s having any cultural reference point. Stock-market booms and busts and extreme shoulder-pads? I was at school/uni (8 years), or working low-wage jobs (2 years) for the entire decade. Downtown Collins Street was a long way from Melbourne University and its adjacent pubs in all senses other than the geographical. Rather more naggingly close for me that decade was the likelihood of nuclear war, and a host of other concerns, most of which flowed from (as I slowly realised, but always just-too-late to sidestep whatever particular carnage) my Xer generation being the disposable pawns of the economic fundamentalist revolution then taking place throughout the West.

For these reasons, my generation did nihilism better in the 80s than it has ever been done before or since. No 70s-punk histrionics – by 1981, punk had evinced Thatcher as its only notable surviving# legacy. We had nothing solid to revolt against, in any case, until uni fees were (re) introduced in the late 1980s. Everything middle-class had always crumbled five minutes before we got there. Our nihilism was simply ordinary, when living in a disintegrating culture is all you know.

I started university in the same year as Andrew McCann (who writes as A.L. McCann), in 1984, and was once casually acquainted through sharing a first-year English tut. I haven’t been in contact with him since. Picking up Subtopia a few weeks ago was nonetheless like taking a strangely familiar ride.

I could, but I won’t go on in detail about how good this book is – I’m sure it’s mainly an Xer thing, anyway. I should caution that the book has the perhaps the worst (i.e. off-putting and more to the point, misleading) back-cover blurb in history:

"1977. The fibro-belt suburbs of Melbourne's south. The names of West German terrorists crackle through the white noise of television news, but barely penetrate the soundtrack of the seventies. Endless summers, mass-market pornography, sport, and a sexual freedom precariously close, yet always just out of reach. Only when Julian meets Martin Bernhard, a ratbag of a kid who smokes, drinks and shoots model soldiers with his air-rifle, does the world start to look a bit larger, and a bit more dangerous. And once you get a passport and a plane ticket, it seems, you can be anything you want to be."

The narrative is mainly set in the 80s, not the 70s, and the “dangerous” world it covers is not at the end of a gun or terrorist bomb, but at the end of a syringe, psych ward, or pub-crawl. Nor however is Subtopia (2005) “grunge” lit, a label that may well have been applied to the book had it been published ten years earlier. Mid-90s Xer grunge lit was, like late-70s punk, if not simply too much, too late, then the accomplice/harbinger of an ill wind which blew into Australia on 2 March 1996. There was no nihilism after Nirvana, you might say – just plain poverty, depression and an unconscious, niche nostalgia for our 80s youth. A possible exception here is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation (1994) – but it is also unmistakably anchored in that lost decade, the 1980s*.

About a third of Subtopia is set in Berlin in 1988-89. Everyone knows what happened in Berlin in late 1989. Appropriately enough, the fall of the Wall, while acknowledged in passing (p 212), is a non-event in Subtopia, as it was for me (albeit in Melbourne) and probably most Xers in the West. Whatever the Eastern Bloc thought they were getting access to post-1989 was bound to be a mirage down the track – something my generation indelibly understood by 1989. Disintegration of the old order was something that happened to us every day, as economic fundamentalism steamrolled ahead without anybody ever pausing to wield crowbars in front of TV cameras. Moreover, the outcome of any given piece of disintegration was always replacement by something worse.

Similarly, when the narrative moves to New York City in 1990, Manhattan is merely a side-trip, an over-priced hole. The suburbs remain the same, not-quite-there (or then) place:

“Sally turned on the tape-deck as we drove . . . the long haul across Queens.
Tears for Fears.
‘Where did this crap come from?’ I asked.
‘I got it.’
‘Why, for God’s sake?’
‘I thought it would remind me of the eighties or something. I was nostalgic. I always used to like it.’
I listened in silence, momentarily defeated. ‘Didn’t they get the name from some new-fangled therapy about releasing pre-natal emotions? What a sell-out.’
A few minutes later we hit a dead stop on the city side of the Kosciusko Bridge. Miles of traffic stretched away in front of us, the red brake-lights like a giant lava flow in the darkness. Huge billboards and a McDonald’s logo loomed out of the chaos of Brooklyn. In the distance, over the water, the skyline twinkled.
‘The eighties?’ I said, finally, unable to contain myself. ‘This isn’t the eighties I remember.’”
(p 230)

In contrast, David Williamson’s Emerald City (1987) closely adheres to the received, or boomer, vision of the 80s. I was initially irritated by its boomer-centricity (albeit Williamson and some of his characters are pre-boomer). Particularly jarring was this exchange:

“KATE: My [Melbourne] friends don’t care about money and fame. Terri works her guts out in the Western suburbs helping kids fight their way out of intellectual and physical poverty. Sonia tries to repair the psyches of wives whose husbands beat the crap out of them, and Steve uses his legal skills to try and stop the powerless being ripped off by the powerful.
. . .
COLIN: You know what I couldn’t stand about them? Their smug self-righteousness. They were all earning salaries five times the size of the poor bastards they were supposed to be helping.
KATE: All right. You didn’t like them. I did.”

Even allowing for some dramatic license/exaggeration, the five-time salary multiple between, say, a legal-aid wage and the minimum wage is absurd to any Xer. If we get one of these sort of idealistic jobs, which are always scarce, then earning average wage, at best, is the norm for us. But obviously not for boomers. How Williamson gets away with this gaping, generational blind-spot is resolved – perhaps even unintentionally on Williamson’s part – by this line near the end of the play:

“COLIN: I thought we should go back to Melbourne . . . Do you know what made me change my mind? . . . I was waiting for a taxi in the city and there were two derelicts asleep on benches. A City Mission van drover up and a young guy went across and talked to them without any hint of judgement, and took them somewhere safe and warm . . . That young guy doesn’t dream of waterfront mansions. He gets a couple of hundred dollars a week, a handful of people know he’s a good human being, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s enough.”

Ah, the 1980s. When Xers were all Mother Theresas (cum deus ex machina), able to conjure up housing for Sydney’s most intractable homeless (and neat play resolutions for Williamson). Obviously, there must then have been plenty of vacant real-estate for such needs, or if not, a near-unlimited flow of money available. In either case, the Xers on the street-beat apparently wouldn’t even dream of affording the new living arrangements of their older clientele.

As McCann’s narrator says with some understatement, “This isn’t the eighties I remember.”

# Unless you count the recorded music of Joy Division.

* Despite its oh-so-90s’ title, which incidentally has to be the worst book title in history – Wurtzel’s timeframe is almost entirely pre-Prozac, the book is much more about a (Western) generation than the US nation, and it has zip to do with the boomer-yuppie generation Prozac was so associated with circa 1990.

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