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Grunge literature

Grunge Literature


The River Ophelia - Justine Ettler

Marilyn's Almost Terminal New York Adventure - Justine Ettler

Less Than Zero - Brett Easton Ellis

American Psycho - Brett Easton Ellis

What quality in a novel is it which prompts it to be labelled as "grunge literature"? And why do so many authors of books which fall into this genre object so strenuously to the label?

Grunge is the literature and fiction of young people living in inner cities around the world, it is not a new genre as publishers would have us believe, but traces its roots back through the history of the novel. There is one common thread which runs throughout all grunge novels, and that is the parody of modern western society and the values which it endorses.

Justine Ettler, 'Sydney's Empress of Grunge', is the author of Marilyn's Almost Terminal New York Adventure and The River Ophelia, which gave her the 'empress' title. Ettler is part of the Australian 'brat pack' of Dirty Realists, the grunge writers who reproduce the urban underside of life with every thrust of a fuck, every snort of a drug and every pocket of grime that coats our cities. They're young, articulate, and write novels that bluntly reflect the nihilism of the generation X-ers. They follow in the footsteps of the US grunge writers, inspired first by Bret Easton Ellis Less Than Zero, American Psycho.

The River Ophelia was Ettler's first published novel but was written after Marilyn's Almost Terminal New York Adventure which has just been released. The River Ophelia was a 'heavy duty' novel. Confronting, repetitive and relentless in its portrayal of an obsessive, self-abusive woman called 'Justine' and her quest for love. It has been hounded as anti-feminist because it portrays women as weak, pathetic victims of themselves as much as of the patriarchy yet it writes under the guise of sexual reclamation, Justine masturbates at least once a chapter and the novel drips with an amazing variety of bodily fluids.

This could be classified as a political novel because of the way it involves the readers in the events, it forces the reader to form opinions about what is happening because of the way in which it is written. Ettler writes of self mutilation, emotional despair and physical and phsychological violence with the dispassionate discourse of the media. The River Ophelia is a reclamation, through a feminist parody, of the media's representation of women, pornography and of the male dominated, often misogynist, grunge novel. Her work is darkly comical, as it refutes the patriarchal representation of female sexuality.

"A lot of the time when I was writing it, especially the grittiest bits, I was laughing at how twisted the events were; how excessive, how far I'd gone. A lot of the time I was crying as well."

Justine Ettler

But how do you make the parody clear enough if it's so important not to have the piece taken as literal representation? Towards the middle of the book it is more overtly comic. People critical of it are only looking at what is purely represented and the ideology/politic of that. They're not looking at the implication of what the writer is doing with Justine, which is quite different to what she is depicting.

Ettler's only strong, together character in The River Ophelia, Juliette the psychiatrist, turns out to be a psychotic killer. Is there no hope for Ettler's women? This character, along with Justine, was drawn from the Marquis de Sade's The Virtuous Sister. What Sade was saying is give someone a toss-up between good and evil, the natural instinct is to evil. The author seemed to want to play around with these polarities. Juliette schemes, knows how to work the system, and gains enormous power from this. She's transformed into a media star, Dr Blood. She's still around, this person that understands and benefits from manipulation.

After the hard grind and political contention of The River Ophelia, Ettler's new novel Marilyn's Almost Terminal New York Adventure reads sweetly and cleanly. Ophelia was full of sex, self-abuse and indecision; Marilyn's only sexual reference is a teenage memory. There are no genitalia in sight and Marilyn has at least a snippet of self-integrity. It's a neatly woven stream-of-consciousness daydream. Ettler speaks of it as a more optimistic book. Marilyn's not obsessed entirely with herself, she has time to look around at the external world and react. The shared theme is an obsession with a man. That's why Marilyn goes to America. It's not hard, she knows she'll meet him. She trusts Fate, but she gets distracted.

The book, inspired by Ettler's own voyage of discovery in New York merges fact and fiction through recollection and cyclic re-interpretations, the air hostess slyly reads Marilyn's journals and so begins to re-enact Marilyn's life in preference to her own, The fictitious re-telling begins. Marilyn uses parody as a cultural critique this time; as well, the theme of manipulation is explored through ideas of culture and image. It is reflected in Ettler's passive portrayal of Marilyn's alliance with Americanism. Everything in the book is posited by adjectives in breathless motion, imitations of US phrases and incantations of consumerism.

"And the party is just like most parties with its loud music and atmosphere - adjusted lighting and there are a lot of people crowded into a small space who are dressed in varying degrees of up and down and at varying stages of progressive inebriation and having conversations that are loud sometimes interesting and probably inconsequential revolving around what everyone's been doing and where everyone's been going and who everyone's been screwing and what drugs everyone's been taking and where everyone's been on their latest trip to Europe and everyone's making vague misunderstood comments about art and misleading plot oversimplification of the latest piece of celluloid to emerge from Hollywood and earnest justified theoretically situated ideologically sound comments about the latest piece of obscure New Wave alternative cinema they just happened to catch on a quiet weeknight at a suburban revival house and some people are making witty and amusing small talk that amounts to nothing at all and the young woman finds herself alone in the middle of all this sipping and spilling her jolly Bolly from a chilled flute and sampling delicately flavoured scrumptious little luxuries from the all too prevalent catering service agency staff who circulate with just the right mixture of subtlety and charm chatting to guests and offering tray after tray of niceties and there's Durrell looking over as she sips spills silly singing to the record of Ella and Louis doing Porgy and Bess as the traffic roars down Macleay Street...."

Marilyn's Almost Terminal New York Adventure

The surfaces of things become more than objects; so top-heavy is the labelling that you forget what the thing is - it's inconsequential. Marilyn creates a surreal cultural collage. The English literary tradition, through characters named Brontë, Virginia Woolfe, Lawrence and, dare I include it, the poetry of John Laws, collides with the barrage of pop-culture. As Marilyn, blonde, blue-eyed and all too easily dismissed as her namesake was, goes to New York to meet Twentiethcentury Fox. As she hunts him out Marilyn bumps into Elvis, Humphrey, Liz and Warner. She holds bizarre conversations with the green mouldy sludge in the share-house sink. She is allergic to television and, finally, after her adventure is nearly terminal, she calls her family: "Mum, I'm coming home".

It is this reflection and parody of the values of modern western society which is the underlying theme throughout all grunge novels. That is what defines these novels, no matter how diverse the plot, characters, settings and styles of writing are, the novels are similar enough to warrant being placed into a genre together. The authors who object to their work being classified as grunge are protesting more about the lack of recognition for their work in other areas than against its classification.

Source: Essay UK -

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