Going Feral

Review by Phillip Edmonds


Academia Nuts
Michael Wilding
Sydney: Wild & Woolley, 2002
ISBN 0 909331 94 4
RRP $26.95 Pb

This latest contribution by Michael Wilding firmly establishes him as the leader of a new genre - the feral. Of course it has been building for some time, in the stories of The Phallic Forest and Political Fictions (all those years ago) and more recently in the loosely autobiographical, Wildest Dreams, where he further developed an unruly stance. This time, he has cast manners aside and gone for the jugular over obsessions such as economic rationalism in the universities, the potential superficiality of some creative writing courses, gender wars over promotional possibilities in the academy, and cultural studies as a possible Trojan horse for the 'end of ideology' theory, among others. Similar concerns to many of the novels of David Lodge in Britain and of Hannie Rayson in her play Life after George where the academy is the subject and object of its own history.

It needs to be said though, that with the publication of this book, Wilding could be trying to reclaim satire back from the grunge postmoderns who thought that sex and drugs were trangressive twenty years after Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson. Even so, he may stand accused of being a grumpy old man in that the choice of narrative implies a notion of 'old' politics. If so, this may be an unfortunate confusion between author and narrator, and given international events, a naïve view of 'politics'. These are 'stories', after all, you could say.

He has always been a satirist, but this time the voice is intemperate and deliberately over the top - a kind of feral kamikaze attack on the stylized, and at times vicious, manners of an academy under attack from all directions and often unable to articulate its strengths. The training for most academics privileges a complexity that sometimes resists plain speaking and is unable to organise collectively because it is always predicated on individual passions and positions. Strong on dialogue, Academia Nuts, races across the unconscious and employs a controlled violence against the pain of the decline of the humanities. The characters are literally hysterical and paranoid, which is an appropriate stance given our times: a period in which universities are often confusing fashion for scholarship in their course-offerings and where business faculties always get the best new buildings. Literally and metaphorically, Public Relations is an academic discipline!

The dust jacket describes the book as a 'novel', something I am unsure about even when, these days, there are increasingly fluid notions for the form. I rather think that the numbered 'chapters' are stories in themselves and that the book is a discontinuous narrative, not unlike Moorhouse's early work, in that there are ever-present characters (Dr Bee, for example) and some who pop in and out. You can read the pieces in any order you wish without losing your place, as it were. I don't think you can do that even with the most 'postmodern' of novels. That said, it doesn't really matter what it is. It is good writing, taut, racy, and a work that employs the notion that often the writer's vocation is to parody our social formations without merely being content to present another pastiche of experience. There is no authorial lack of nerve here and no debate about whether there might be something to say.

It is a seamless effort, rarely clunky, given that Wilding hasn't bothered to create rounded characters. They are, rather, like devices or staging points for the polemics, which in less-skilled hands would seem preachy and clumsy. In 'Think of a Book', for example, 'some things were too painful to write about', according to the narrator. Lancaster finds that he is some kind of relic who believes in books and his role in producing some of them. He had tried to be 'relevant' but the final straw is when the library remaindered his work to clear some space for itself. In 'Cultural Studies', Pawley believes that literary theory is part of the roll-back of radicalism. 'They introduce this gobbledygook, promote it through the American publishers. And disempower entire generations,' he says. 'If you looked around the other campuses you could see all the new appointments had been people who claimed a competence in theory.' Pawley specialises in such generalisations, which are partly a reactionary response to change, but as in all good feral fiction, Wilding wants to get things out there.

'Quality Control' was a chilling reminder to me of a time in my career when I taught in TAFE. We had to spend most of our week filling in quality control forms instead of doing our jobs, in an environment where the mention of the word 'solidarity' was like farting in polite company. The academics at Wilding's mythical university can't get it together because they have been for so long erudite loners. In 'In the Lists', Wilding returns, if you like, to one of his consistent speculations - the problem of documentation in an age of ASIO, MI6, the CIA and MOSSAD. The context here is, of course, the kinds of things that went on in and around the Vietnam War when no one really knew whose side some people were on. Michael is imagining where some of the bodies are buried. Is that an 'old' politics?

'Sacrificing the Scapegoat' continues the theme, this time; Robert just can't cope with the impression that he is about to be consigned to the dustbin of history, so he goes quietly into retirement. 'A Famous Edited Book' is a wicked parody of the cynical uses of cyber publishing at a time of extreme publication anxiety and something I hope readers of TEXT don't take too seriously. The 'absence' joke is a corker, worth reading the story for that alone. 'Absence is as good as presence. Look at what their careers are based on. Utter invisibility.' 'Writing Class' is also wicked. Lancaster, for example, is interested in a life of teaching without texts. Creative writing teachers should rise to that bait.

'Research Assistants' is surreal like all satire, where Rowley's assistant is shamelessly exploited. Luckily, most of us don't behave like that. There is a link made between downsizing, multiskilling and feminisation of the department in another story, in case anyone thought that the conspiracy was one-dimensional. In 'Literary Lunch' hardly anyone turns up to a talk by the visiting Writer in Residence in a kind of grotesque parody of the 'death of the author'. Thankfully none of it is true. All 'post-structuralists' (excuse the pun) should make 'Imagining the Gym' required reading as an exercise in deconstruction, or in 'the endless refusal of closure'. In 'Administrative Matters', we have the 'hamburger' university, and an American software package of some description. It is just too awful for words, and in this way, like Brecht, Wilding never gives the reader any room for rest and recuperation. It is no wonder then that 'Better Dead than Red' comes towards the end where old Bannerman is found dead in his room after years of bashing his head up against a brick wall, as it were. It reminded me of battles in the Economics Faculty at Sydney over twenty-five years ago over the teaching of 'political economy', which might suggest that this book is a circular narrative rather than a linear one. There is also an insinuation that the previously marginal has become central to the representations of late capitalism.

There is a slight sense of rising action, as it were, towards the latter half of the book, and in 'The Raising of the Curtains' even a little note of narrative optimism amid the gloom: '...there was another reality. Somewhere. He had to believe that. Otherwise it was all-unstoppable.' The author just can't let go. I enjoyed it. It is a good thing that these pieces are stories.

Phillip Edmonds is currently teaching in the School of Arts at Griffith University on the Gold Coast. He is the author of two short-story collections.


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Vol 7 No 1 April 2003
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady