Finding Fishboy: The Grotesque and Making Strange in Australian Fiction

Author: Piri Eddy

Eddy, Piri, 2019 Finding Fishboy: The Grotesque and Making Strange in Australian Fiction, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Stories matter, and so does the way we tell them. The exegetical component of this thesis explores the way the grotesque – as an aesthetic, as a tool of perceptual disruption, as a form of creative play – can change the way writers tell their stories, and the way readers see the world, both real and otherwise. The exegesis outlines the practice-led research methodology behind finding Jonah the Fishboy – the protagonist of my novel Fish Head or Ways to be Human – and how that allowed me to tell my story about Australia. I argue that the grotesque became, for me, a powerful form of making strange – what the Russian Formalist Viktor Shlovsky called ostranenie. Further, I suggest that the destruction of my work was a necessary path to creation. This moment of destruction allowed the grotesque to open a Speilraum, or “room to play” (Connelly), which created a new way to see my work. I refrain from giving a conclusive answer to what is and what is not the grotesque, arguing that the grotesque is a shapeshifter that undergoes constant revision across time and place, a protean form built on contradiction and undecidability. Instead, I identify the theoretical positions of the grotesque taken by Mikhail Bakhtin and Wolfgang Kayser as occupying opposing ends of a diverse spectrum. Further, I suggest that two recurrent aspects of all grotesques are first, play, and, second, a challenge to perceptual understanding. Acknowledging that the grotesque is, above all, relative, and that no work of the grotesque is experienced by any two people in precisely the same way, I approach each grotesque work from a personal perspective. Three case studies – Melissa Lucashenko’s “Country: Being and Belonging on Aboriginal Lands”, Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, and my own novel Fish Head – explore how the grotesque can interrogate issues pertinent to Australia, most especially, the ideas of land and identity. This practice-led research intends to demonstrate how the grotesque, as a form of making strange, can act as a powerful creative tool to play with, and challenge ways of seeing, not just for the reader, but importantly, for the writer as well. The conclusions, drawn from the creative process I undertook to produce my novel Fish Head, provide practitioners with novel methods of creative exploration through the intersecting ideas of destruction, the grotesque, making strange and play. Further, by examining two Australian fiction texts as works of the grotesque, this thesis broadens the field and contributes original knowledge beneficial to researchers exploring the relationship between the grotesque and Australian stories.

The creative component of this thesis is a novel called Fish Head or Ways to be Human that explores issues of faith, humanness, environmental destruction and land rights. The story’s action takes place in the imagined coastal town of Fortune, an (un)real version of Australia. It follows Jonah, a half-boy, half-fish who is kidnapped by Donald Walker, and becomes the unwitting centrepiece for Donald’s cult, The Church of the Holy Fish. With Jonah trapped in a giant glass tank, his mother, Charmaine, rushes to rescue him, but Charmaine must face her own demons and the fear that her son has been turned into a monster. As Donald’s followers swell in numbers, Fortune is faced with an existential crisis of faith, as well as economy, with the nearby uranium mine grinding to a halt. Boris Barnaby, Fortune’s mayor and chief demagogue, attempts to frame the narrative, but as an election approaches, he must reckon with a terrible deed committed ten years earlier. A dark comedy, Fish Head aims to show that we are all, in our own way, struggling with ways to be human. While there are many ways to explore these ideas, I believe the grotesque became a powerful way to encode and explore otherness and monstrosity in my story.

Keywords: the grotesque, Australian fiction, ostranenie, creative writing, Australian space, Australian identity, Melissa Lucashenko, Peter Carey

Subject: English thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Patrick Allington