Labour and nostalgia in David Ireland’s Unknown Industrial Prisoner

My father grew up in Auburn when the backyards were large enough to turn outhouse sprints into marathons. Their home was a squat fibro Queenslander cut off at the knees to protect against Western Sydney heat waves rather than northern floods, and their neighbour was a feral plain fenced off at the road. ‘An army base,’ Grandpa told me, but even at a young age I suspected this was for the benefit of my imagination.

For my grandparents, Sydney was a map of consumer-goods factories. Grandpa worked in a cigarette factory on a Parramatta tributary. His fingers reeked of tobacco and his pockets bulged with tailored cigarettes long after he retired. He was the oldest son of an Irish farmer and clergy-bound until he crawled aboard a boat to Australia with a mate and no idea grass could be brown. Grandma worked in an industrial bakery, packing endless sugary buns into boxes when she wasn’t raising a catholic-sized family. Her early life was a mad dash west from a Redfern upbringing, manifesting fibro and asbestos destinies in a dozen kids.

I think David Ireland is for them. Their Australia, their Sydney, birthed from factories and pubs more STD-plagued as their punters. Though, Ireland was far too skinny and Protestant-looking for Grandpa to ever trust him, had their paths crossed.

The larger industrial factories David Ireland worked at and wrote about needed oceans for their runoff. Those machines are the shape of his second novel, and his first of three to win a Miles Franklin award, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. I started reading it after an editor, who rejected my fiction but liked me enough to say why it was bad, said I reminded her of Ireland. I immediately read two of his novels to find out what kind of indictment this was.

It turns out Ireland and I have very little in common as people or people writing. I found Ireland did a lot of things I wanted to do with words but couldn’t pull off. He manages to contain the maddening mundanity of work that spreads into every aspect of life in something as weak as a novel. Throughout Ireland’s structures and stories there is a weight of doneness and acceptance of the rote abuses of labour in an industrial Australia that was already then in its last, nostalgic days.

The grateful Pacific drowns the imagination of Australia’s surfer, soldier, and settler literatures, but Ireland has little interest in the body of water beyond its ability to swallow toxic waste. Ireland’s stories are an Australian social realism. His novels are a mass of yarns that could easily be plucked from conversations overheard while double-parked at a pub or the collected folktales passed down generationally through every workplace.

There are good stories here. The Glass Canoe is a renowned company stooge determined to elevate himself into the lofty heights of foreman by the pure forcefulness of his bootlicking. He is emotionally crushed when overlooked for promotion and kills himself in a mental break that barely managed to rehabilitate his dog’s reputation amongst his colleagues.

The Samurai is a model worker whom no-one ever told you don’t get gold medals for not using your sickies. His devotion to industry leads him to despise his lazy colleagues and drives him into fascist fantasies of a great war uniting men under one authority in hatred to drive productivity.

The Great White Father is the last of his kind, a proto-anarchist and beer-spiritualist who creates a pub/brothel hidden in the mangroves bordering the factory where his colleagues are free to drink and fuck themselves into an early grave. Heaven is a cheap beer and mechanical root free from the eyes of overseers and wives. Ireland’s inclusion of pub, brothel, and domestic homes with their female characters in the machine of the factory is a genuinely terrifying depiction of masculinity, sexuality, and work.

Each of these characters and many more have compelling arcs over the course of the novel but Ireland shreds their stories into a mass of yarns. Some episodes last multiple pages—some as long as a sentence or two—but most consist of a few paragraphs that parody the petty bourgeois soul of the novel. This structure implies the endless mundanities of full-time work in the ways each interlude interrupts and builds on the heresy of another to build an image of a factory where each soul is an input inadvertently contributing to the output that will fill cars, trucks, and ocean beds along Australia’s coast. A kind of Australian social realism fished from the pond scum of larrikin habit that shadows Aussie ideals of mateship and digger spirit.

Reading Ireland can be a chore. Description does very little for my pornography- and YouTube-ravaged dyslexic brain. My mind hooks onto momentum and movement and Ireland’s structure and style reject these feelings to create factories and domestic units that shape the novel.

The factory itself is a violent, angry little microcosm of Australia at large that will be familiar to anyone versed in company-speak. It is a body of industry and family conceived in European and American boardrooms haunted by callous violence. It is hard not to feel company pride and marvel at the eugenic perfection in the factory embryo: centuries of engineering workplaces, people, and steel culminate in a grey carapace refining more oil in ever ingeniously efficient ways:

The plant was a new design, the first of its kind; there was a power recovery system hooked into the catalyst reaction and regeneration cycle. Integrated, vulnerable, but designed to save half a million dollars a year on fuel bills.

The actual assemblage on the east coast of Sydney is a parody of this blueprint perfection wounded by bureaucracy and poor working conditions into a barely profitable Wonka factory. Why is this pipe there? Well, there was budget for more steel. Why are the platforms and railings in the blueprint, that are necessary to safely operate the factory, not in place? Well, there’s no budget for that steel.

There are gothic elements here: Australia as a weird and melancholy parody of Europe and America industrial and colonial imaginations and, more directly, work as a site of injury. I remember walking into my first LiquorLand shift, and the employee I was replacing describing in detail how her spinal column had evaporated under the infinite weight of Tooheys New slabs and overlooked workplace health and safety standards. No lawyer on the Central Coast was game for an attritional war with Coles and so she continued her job until it didn’t cover the painkillers and then tried to find another job that didn’t require a spine.

Every few months, Ireland’s factory suffers a violent heart attack. Each turbine, catwalk and ladder is the site of a tragedy. Some are from company negligence: the refusal to install and maintain mandatory safety mechanisms wounds and kills employees. Some violence is brought through callousness: a man who loses his arm on the job, but can still do twice as much work as half the bludgers on site, is let go to die listless poverty.

The ending of The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is apocalyptic: the Last Samurai sabotages the refinery to cause a massive explosion that kills several, The Great White Father and the retreat he has created in the mangroves are dead, and the imminent introduction of machines threaten workers with starvation and freedom. That Australia is over. If The Last Samurai survived his years after the factory, bouncing between work-for-hire gigs on construction sites around Sydney that crack quicker than the cement can dry, then he is currently dying of neglect in an aged-care home somewhere in Western Sydney, as a visa worker attempts to simultaneously change his and fifty other diapers for less money per hour than a RAT test costs.

Those factories my Grandparents worked are car parks and apartment blocks now. Their house is gone, too. It was the last backyard in their stretch of Auburn, snakes cavorting in long grass watched over by the hundred dark eyes of a housing development. The nostalgia for a hurling pitch sized backyard was a surprise for me in Ireland’s novel and I can’t untangle it from his maddening vision of labour. I’ve loved so much Aus lit about life recently but, with the exception of Gunk Baby, it almost always writes around work giving it the surreal appearance of a well-managed instagram feed. Finding meaning in weekends is fine and not everything has to take labour as a subject, but as lives are growingly dominated by arbitrary work, Ireland’s writing seems more cathartic.


Image: Pavel Neznanov

Liam Diviney

Liam (he/him) is a Sydney-based dungeon master, teacher, and recovering retail employee raised on Darkinyung land. His work appears in Overland, terrafirma magazine, and VerveZine.

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    1. Nothing wrong with that thought. I can think of fewer than ten novels that could vie with TUIP for that title. And there would likely be a good film in the story of how The Unknown Industrial Prisoner didn’t come to be adapted as a feature film… When I first read Melissa Lucashenko’s brilliant Too Much Lip, it was with the relief of finding a writer with similar daring and dimensionality. To borrow from Rosi Braidotti speaking about Sartre, Ireland has the courage of his contradictions.

  1. The Puroil refinery (a.k.a Shell at Clyde) may be long gone – but luckily the EV batteries are ramping up to full production over in the PRC. Lucky Uyghurs! Hope one of them can write like Ireland…

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