When published in 1995, Justine Ettler’s debut novel The River Ophelia received a lively critical reception. For some, the book exemplified a genre of gritty, in-ya-face writing then known as ‘grunge lit’, named after the contemporaneous music movement from Seattle (think Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam).
In October 2017, after some years out of print, The River Ophelia was republished, and it’s a novel worth re-examining during this moment of #MeToo, because it has significance beyond the ‘grunge lit’ classification. Set in inner-city Sydney, the novel focuses on a sexually violent relationship between literary studies student Justine and misogynist Playboy reporter Sade.
Justine stalks Sade, obsesses over him, and subjects herself to his mental and physical cruelty. At one point, she asks rhetorically:
Why don’t I leave him? How can I still love him? What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I see this for what it is? … I cry even harder. Nothing can help me. Not feminism, not psychoanalysis. I’m never going to be happy. I’m never going to believe I can be happy. I’m never going to be in control of my life.
In fact, Justine does see her relationship with Sade ‘for what is is’: degrading. Dehumanising. She’s aware of how feminists have critiqued male violence. Nonetheless, Justine seems unwilling or unable to abandon her pernicious paramour.
Writing in Australian Book Review after Ophelia was first published, Don Anderson described Ettler as ‘Sydney’s Empress of Grunge’. Anderson was one of several writers to align Ophelia with the ‘grunge lit’ genre – a genre comprised of novels that were published during the mid-1990s by ‘young’ (late twenties to early thirties) Australian authors such as Ettler and Christos Tsiolkas, and that featured protagonists within that age group. The protagonists led lives characterised by drug use, rough sex and perpetual ennui.
At the time, Ophelia’s publishers evidently saw the commercial viability in the grunge tag: the ‘Empress of Grunge’ quote appears on the back cover of my 1995 edition. The front cover features a grainy black-and-white shot of a naked woman with her head between her legs. This shot is accompanied by the tagline ‘an uncompromising love story’.
Ophelia’s republication in 2017 might seem like an appeal to ’90s nostalgia. But actually, the book has a greater significance, as suggested on its Pronoun.com page, where the novel is described as ‘a dark anti-romance’ and ‘a postmodern account of domestic violence’. The page contains a shot of the new edition’s cover: sombre black background, red and white lettering, and a shot of long hair.
This repackaging or reframing of Ophelia is important for a few reasons. First, the anti-romance’ tag hints at the novel’s critique of male violence in a way that ‘uncompromising love story’ never could. Then there’s the new cover design, which alerts readers to the fact that this will be a bleak read, indeed. There’s none of the stylised, soft focus titillation invoked by the initial cover.
We’re also advised that this is a novel about domestic violence. Like many who have experienced domestic violence in real-life, Justine is conscious of and appalled by her partner’s cruelty, but nonetheless keeps returning to him. Justine’s friend, Ophelia, sums up the dynamic at the heart of this relationship:
The thing is … the thing about all this pain (women) go through, all this love that just hurts all the time, the thing about all this pain is that it’s really exquisite. It’s exquisite pain. That’s what makes us keep going back for more.
Throughout the novel, this ‘exquisite pain’ is described in the same dispassionate manner that one might describe a trip to the supermarket. Justine has, it seems, resigned herself to being the object, not the subject, of her sexual encounters. She has resigned herself to having no agency.
Which is why Ophelia’s importance also lies in the timing of its republication, which coincides with the rise of #MeToo. The women who have publicly spoken about experiences of abuse and assault under this title have collectively contested the myth that men’s violence against women is rare, trivial and ignorable.
The shining of a spotlight on male violence and gender inequality that is crucial to #Me Too is also crucial to The River Ophelia. In the spirit of ‘postmodern’ novelists such as Kathy Acker, Ettler reworks canonical literary texts in order to highlight their (frequently dubious) sexual politics. Her novel’s characters include the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Even though these women live in the apparently woman-friendly 90s, they’re still miserable as ever. The Justine and Ophelia of 1995 are still suffering at the hands of shitty men.
My point is that to classify The River Ophelia as ‘grunge lit’ and leave it there does the novel a disservice. Ettler’s novel provides an unflinching examination of male violence – an issue that is as depressingly pervasive in the #MeToo era as it was in de Sade’s day.
Image: crop from 1995 cover of The River Ophelia.