Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2013

The Glass Canoe, by David Ireland


The Glass CanoeDavid Ireland, AM, born 1927 and author of ten novels, has the rare distinction of having won the Miles Franklin Award three times, for 

  • The Unknown Industrial Prisoner in 1971
  • The Glass Canoe,  in 1976, and
  • A Woman of the Future in 1979.

There isn’t very much about him on Wikipedia, which  – as Nicholas Rothwell suggests in the introduction to the recently reissued edition of The Glass Canoe* – might be because Ireland went out of literary fashion, because the literati has abandoned his brand of realism.

The Australia that Ireland wrote about still exists, says Rothwell,, but is

safely cordoned off, far from where books are read, and the books that once portrayed that other Australia are no longer seen as central to our literary life.

Ireland’s world in The Glass Canoe is ‘stuffed … with words of sexism, with prejudice and with brutal, escalating, unending violence’ incompatible with the Establishment’s ‘other, gentler books, with attitudes that did more to polish the moral virtues of the reading class’.  

But now the days when Ireland was admired, and celebrated, not just as the hard voice of the people but as the chronicler of that world’s demise are gone.  He hasn’t published anything new for ages.

When I posted a Sensational Snippet from The Glass Canoe  a couple of days ago, I discovered that there are  David Ireland enthusiasts out there who share my fascination for this author’s writing.   Now that I’ve finished the book, however, I do think it’s a problematic novel.

Implicit in Rothwell’s analysis, it seems to me, is a scornful attitude towards Establishment Values.  I hope I’m not misinterpreting his view to suggest that he’s calling out ‘political correctness’ as the reason for Ireland falling into disfavour.  I don’t know what the ‘moral virtues of the reading class’ are, but I guess they are the antithesis of sexism, prejudice and violence.  I don’t think one needs to be a member of the ‘reading class’ (whatever that is) to be keen to see the back of those three vices.  From what I’ve seen in the media, incidents of behaviour by footballers that’s much like what’s in The Glass Canoe has been roundly condemned.  Defenders parroting ‘boys will be boys’ are rare.  They look like old fossils, whatever their age.

So I don’t think Ireland fell into disfavour because he wrote about a sub-culture with ‘politically incorrect’ mores, or because the sort of people he wrote about are these days corralled behind some kind of metaphorical barrier in our cities.  I don’t think it’s a class issue at all, I think it’s a feminist issue.

Why?   I think it has more to do with the fact that (as Geordie Williamson says in The Burning Library) Australian literature in general has lost the academic and institutional support it once had in our culture.  What support there is for Australian fiction now, it seems to me, comes from outside the universities.  It comes from a largely female readership, who populate the writer’s festivals, buy the books and talk about them in reading groups and on blogs.  Well, by any reading of it, The Glass Canoe depicts through the observations of its narrator Lance,  a view of women that is so offensive, that I imagine few people could read some incidents without profound distaste.

It’s not the brawling in the pub that is off-putting,  it’s the way women are presented.  Objecting to misogyny is not an ‘establishment value’.  It’s a humanist, rationalist value, and in my experience it cuts across all classes and all levels of education in Australia.  To imply otherwise, is to perpetuate a scornful attitude towards working class people as if they are clinging to an outdated view of women.

I am thinking not just of the revolting scene in The Glass Canoe where the narrator himself advises us that ‘if this is not your style of thing, skip this paragraph’ and the advice is then extended to two, and then three paragraphs. (p. 169). Lance has some sense of boundaries even though he transgresses them – but Ireland almost goes out of his way to depict woman as object and as randy provocateur of masculine contempt which masquerades as admiration.

The question is for me is, what was Ireland’s intent?  Is he celebrating the sort of masculinity he depicts in this novel, or exposing it as a cultural relic best consigned to history? Probably only those who’ve read his other works can answer that for me.

What redeems The Glass Canoe is the subtle characterisation of Lance a.k.a. Meat Man.  There is a tenderness to this ocker Aussie bloke swilling his beer in the Southern Cross pub that is his second home.  He is sensitive to the inhumanity of a factory floor where a man can die unattended because no one can hear his cries of distress.  He likes a bit of solitude in the house he shares with his mates, and he empathises with the old blokes who have become too old to do much other than drink.  He doesn’t like it when the local vandals wreck his newly planted trees on the golf course, but he’s sympathetic to lads who are never going to be able to afford to join a good golf club.  He’s more than conscious of Aboriginal dispossession and while almost incapable of expressing it, he’s fond of his mum.

More problematic, however, is his attitude to his ‘Darling’ and his concepts of loyalty.  He doesn’t see his unfaithfulness as wrong, because he doesn’t recognise the other women as having feelings.  They are objects, and with the possible exception of Liz the Large there is more personification about his (a-hem) ‘equipment’ than there is about the women who venture into his masculine domain.

Lance thinks there’s not much wrong with a bit of ‘biffo’ in the ‘bloodhouse’ that he drinks in, but he is beginning to question the culture of the pub.  He feels safe there, but he’s beginning to suspect that it’s that very culture that limits his access to the ‘good life’.  To some extent, that is.  He’s no fool, and he knows that acceptance beyond the boundaries of the pub involves more than one individual changing his ways.

Some of this book is laugh-out-loud funny:  at its best when taking the mickey out of issues respectable people hold dear.  I don’t approve of the way the greyhound-racing industry treats dogs as disposable, but David Ireland made me laugh about it.

Lance’s mate Dog Man sometimes puts down greyhounds that ‘won’t run and don’t bring me in anything‘ and then he has the problem of what to do with the bodies.  ‘Easy’, he says, he takes them to the cemetery:

‘Cemetery?’ You don’t pay to bury ‘em, do you?’

Don’t have to.  Up Castle Hill where I go, they dig fresh graves in the cemetery for tomorrow’s bods.  OK?  Now I’m not about to dig holes just to bury dead dogs.  Far as I’m concerned Manual Labor is a Mexican bandit.  So I just drop ‘em in one of the holes, one to a hole I mean, sprinkle earth over ‘em and that’s it.  Next day they bury some stiff over the top of the dog.  Plenty of bods up there on top of dogs.  You know the place, off Showground Road.’

We knew the place. 

I wondered, as I swallowed a mouthful of Resch’s, what archaeologists of the future might say about twentieth century people buried with their animals. (p. 132)

There is a running gag about Sibley, Lance’s schoolmate who went to university.  (The novel takes place before the Whitlam government’s reform of university tuition fees).  Sibley is doing his PhD on the ‘psychology of the drinker‘.  Sober in habits and sober of mind, Sibley is down at the pub every day, earnestly quizzing the drinkers and making them do intelligence tests because he wants to disprove the prevailing view that drinkers ‘have been taken to be on one of the lowest rungs of the ladder of intellectual development‘ (p. 53)  His voice can be heard every now and again in the hubbub of the pub:

‘Have you read a book this year?’ said Sibley.  Do you buy medicines?  Do you attend church?’  (p. 148).

The drinkers, needless to say, are not taking this as seriously as Sibley is … but they take it very seriously indeed when they find out what his conclusions are.

Ireland mocks the idealism of middle-class reformers.  When a couple of smart young people blunder into the pub and chatter about the cost of haircuts, Lance ponders the difference in their world views:

I leaned on the bar, looking out after them, thinking how many days thirteen dollars would keep me in schooners.  Nearly three, if I only drank in the pub and didn’t take any cans home.

A hair cut could last a few weeks, it wouldn’t be over in three days.

Just the same, it was another world.  I wondered what they did of an afternoon when work was finished.  I mean, what sort of a tribe did they have.  Did they drink?  Did they fight?  A fight now and then might stir them up to live, to have solid enjoyment, bright eyes, quick muscles, and life on every face.

Maybe.  Maybe they had those things, but if so, how?  I only knew the way of our tribe.

The comfortable liberals with fine minds might shake out equality over us like salt now, but the lower middle class up the hill at the bowling club would make sure there was no equality in the suburbs. (p. 135).

I am conscious of the fact that I seem to have read this book from a different perspective to the male reviewers that I’ve read.  I haven’t attended to other aspects of it that you can find in Matt Todd’s review at A Novel Approach, and Steven Romei’s illuminating interview here.

This is a very interesting book and Text Publishing deserves congratulations for making it available again.  But make no mistake, there are parts of it that are not for the squeamish.

* You can read an edited version of Rothwell’s introduction here.  (Apologies if it turns out to be paywalled).

Author: David Ireland
Title: The Glass Canoe
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012 (First published 1976)
ISBN: 9781921922411
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: The Glass Canoe (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. Thanks for your comprehensive review. I don’t think I’d enjoy this author much.

    • I’d really like to read a review by some other woman, to see how they dealt with it…

  2. Concise, yet comprehensive for sure, Lisa. I too would be interested in reading some more assessments by female readers on The Glass Canoe. I really enjoyed the book; I saw it as a compassionate portrait of a rather unsympathetic element in society. Lance is a divisive character full of contradictions (the tenderness shown to his partner versus his propensity to objectify and discard other women, as you point out), but in that case, he is hardly a unique specimen in the realm of literature (modernist/postmodernist lit in particular!)

    As for Ireland’s lack of fame these days, in the Australian article, Geordie Williamson theorises:

    “He has fallen out of fashion and fashion is king in contemporary publishing. His subject matter is not simpatico with today’s currents. Now, if he was gay and took drugs instead of being straight and drinking beer, he’d be Christos Tsiolkas [author of The Slap] and a bestseller. Back in the day, though, Tsiolkas wouldn’t have got a look in, so there you go.”

    Seems reasonable.

    • Hmm, I’m not quite so critical of ‘fashion’ in contemporary publishing … while I enjoy reading from the backlist like this, I also like to see books that explore contemporary issues and contemporary lifestyles as well, and I wish there were more of them that are as perceptive as this novel.
      Mind you, I don’t think Tsiolkas is as good a writer as Ireland. There’s not the same compassion in his pen when it comes to unsympathetic characters.

  3. Excellent and indepth review, Lisa. This is most interesting.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Celestine. Now tell me, are there African writers exploring the underbelly of society like this?

  4. Lisa – I’m so glad you brought this book to my attention. I know what you mean about the mysogyny – but as a bloke’s love-poem to the kind of blokedom that really did exist at the time, I think it is quite extraordinary. I like to feel that for the most part those anti-women attitudes are dead and buried – but it’s good to have a record, and one that is written (rather beautifully it must be said) from the inside.

    I want my daughter to read it. It would be a surprise to her, I think, to see how much things have changed :).

    • I’m glad you think so, I would be sorry if my review puts people off reading it. For a start, The Glass Canoe is both funny and wise, and since the world of the pub by and large excluded women, there’s not actually that much about them that’s off-putting. It’s grin-and-bearable. That exclusion is part of the sexism too, but it’s an authentic portrayal of how it was in the days when at parties all the men went outside to drink beer in the garden and all the women stayed inside. I went to parties like that in the sixties and by the early seventies it was only the oldies who did it, but then and for years afterwards there were still places everywhere where women were excluded by custom if not by law. (One dress in a sea of suits, just the way women still look at gatherings of directors, world leaders, unionists etc).
      What we see in this book is how men viewed women, how they talked about them, how they thought sex was about quantity not quality, and also how they yearned for female companionship but could not have it because the gender divide was too hard to bridge. (There is actually one example of the shift. It’s when the young couple come in to talk about haircuts: they are companionable equals.)
      But we also see how they viewed the world – safe and comprehensible as long as they ‘kept to their place’ in the pub. Beyond that was remote, hostile and out of their reach. Social mobility was not for them. There’s a kind of learned hopelessness, a desperate clinging to what they know because soon they will be adrift in a sea of change.
      I really wish a bunch of women would read it!

      • Yes, I think it’s the loneliness of that enforced separation from any kind of “female”-ness – whether it was separation from friendships with women, or from thoughts or feelings that might have been seen as “feminine” – that is the real sadness in the book. Ireland paints it so clearly and poignantly and so cruelly, too.

        Meat Man (doubly bound by gender and name) can almost see the divide, and almost feels himself caught in the puzzle of isolation – and so sets himself different, mechanical “male” type puzzles to focus on instead. Ireland wants to show us, I think, that 70s male world of fear and bravado and terrible loneliness, enlivened by tiny bits of a very masculine, male-centred tenderness. Thinking about it kept me awake, last night – remembering the guys in a pub I used to work in, in 78..

        He really caught it – with love I think, but I think with a sharp edged sense of the waste and frustration as well.

  5. Hmmm… interesting. I bought this on Kindle a few months back. I remember when Text announced they were going to bring back some Aussie classics, this was the book they particularly singled out.

    • I’d love you to read and review this, Kim!

      • It sounds like I need to steel myself. LOL.

        • Be brave, my friend!


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