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David (Manning) Foster Biography

australian novel penguin ringwood

Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, New South Wales, 1944. Education: The University of Sydney, B.Sc. in chemistry 1967; Australian National University, Canberra, Ph.D. 1970. Career: Research fellow, U.S. Public Health Service, Philadephia, 1970-71; senior research officer, University of Sydney Medical School, 1971-72. Awards: Australian Literature Board fellowships, 1973-91; The Age award, 1974; Marten Bequest award, 1978; Australian National Book Council award, 1981; New South Wales Premier's fellowship, 1986; Australian creative fellowship, 1992-95; Miles Franklin Award, 1997.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Pure Land. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1974; New York, Penguin, 1985.

The Empathy Experiment, with D.K. Lyall. Sydney, Wild and Woolley, 1977.

Moonlite. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1981; London, Pan, 1982; NewYork, Penguin, 1987.

Plumbum. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1983.

Dog Rock: A Postal Pastoral. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1985.

The Adventures of Christian Rosy Cross. Ringwood, Victoria, London, and New York, Penguin, 1986.

Testostero. Ringwood, Victoria, and New York, Penguin, 1987.

The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1988.

Mates of Mars. Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1991.

The Glade within the Grove. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Australia, and New York, Vintage, 1996.

The Ballad of Erinungarah. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Australia, and New York, Vintage, 1997.

Short Stories

North South West: Three Novellas. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1973.

Escape to Reality. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1977.

Hitting the Wall: Two Novellas. Ringwood, Victoria, and London, Penguin, 1989.

Poetry

The Fleeing Atalanta. Adelaide, Maximus, 1975.

Other

Studs and Nogs: Essays 1987-98. Milsons Point, New South Wales, Australia, and New York, Vintage, 1999.

Editor, Self Portraits. Canberra, Australian National Library, 1991.

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Manuscript Collection:

Australian Defence Force Academy Library, Canberra.

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David Foster's background as a scientist is very much in evidence in his fiction, in his interest in concepts such as entropy and in his vast and eclectic vocabulary, which is full of technical words. For instance, his first book, North South West, contains sentences such as "We will fall before their arrows as before the nematocysts of a coelenterate." The stories foreshadow Foster's directions in other ways too, in their ambivalent dichotomy of country and city and in the writer's political conservatism: "I functioned as the opponent of all liberalism," one of his characters says. In "Mobil Medley," a kind of latterday Canterbury Tales, there is again a significant remark from the narrator which is applicable to Foster's fiction in general. "His words never settled fully about the object, but created a diversion to themselves, leaving the naked."

Foster's second book and first novel, The Pure Land, is an unusual and at times parodic example of that familiar Australian fictive stand-by, the generational novel. Divided into three parts, it tells the stories of three generations of a family, with only minor connecting links between the largely discrete sections. Beginning in Sydney it crosses to the United States before returning to its original base and finally petering out in a series of unanswered letters. The Empathy Experiment is set some time in the future and in a city something like Canberra, to judge from its obsessive bureaucracy. It concerns a scientist named FX and his experiments in harnessing the forces of empathic identification with his subjects. Although there are mad puns and various bizarrely comic incidents, the book is less playful than most of Foster's work. What emerges eventually from the novel's frantic improvisation is an angry satire of scientific experimentation which ignores the rights of its victims. Escape to Reality is Foster's only collection of short fiction to date. Like much of his work, it is concerned with outsiders or outlaws of some kind, and is written in a coolly objective, unjudging way, often in the first person. The collection is full of voices, the narrator's and other characters', in the many dialogues. In the longest and best story, "The Job," the narrator Billie is a petty criminal who is picked up on his release by another petty criminal, Brian. The story follows a familiarly circular pattern, with Billie waiting outside the jail at the end to pick up another released man, just as Brian had waited for him.

By now Foster had made a mark as a writer but still gave the impression of a talent of considerable, if somewhat cerebral, intelligence, deeply uncertain as to the direction in which it wanted to go. It is with the novels of the 1980s and especially Moonlite, still probably the best work, that he seems to find that direction and that personal voice. It is a less coldly written but still ingenious narrative of the picaresque adventures of one Finbar ("Moonbar") MacBuffie which amount to something like an allegorical account of the history of immigration to Australia. It is a wittily parodic novel, reminiscent in many ways of John Barth and especially of The Sot-Weed Factor. Foster displays his characteristic fascination with language, using arcane or self-invented words, punning vigorously, giving characters names like the Marquis of Moneymore and Grogstrife and employing a variety of dialects as well as a multitude of satiric targets, from academic scholarship and Christianity through advocates of temperance to Australian myths of heroism and identity.

Plumbum is written in a mode which Foster makes his own from Moonlite onwards, a self-conscious but also surreal, highly inventive but sometimes irritatingly cerebral comedy. It concerns a group of young musicians who form a heavy metal band, but the satiric targets are lost in the medley of competing voices and increasingly frantic pace. Dog Rock is a country town, population 776 of which the narrator D'Arcy D'Oliveres has been postman for ten years. A murderer known only as the Queen's Park Ripper is terrorising the town's citizens by progressively eliminating them. The novel is a parody of the detective genre, with an abundance of improbable clues and an impossibly complicated plot. Foster returned to Dog Rock and D'Arcy D'Oliveres later with the slight but genially witty The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover.

The Adventures of Christian Rosy Cross, which Foster has said he considers his magnum opus, is another picaresque novel, or parody of one. Its hero is born in 1378, the son of Comte de Rosencreutz who manages to finish off his own wife by immediately after the birth engaging in violent sexual intercourse with her. The novel recounts his adventures up until the age of twenty-three, after which, we are told at the end, "By judicious speculation he acquires a modest income, and spends the remaining years of his life, till his death in 1483, keeping fit, playing the harpsichord, cultivating bulbs, arguing with his neighbour over who should build the new boundary fence, and striving to improve the local breed of dog." Foster speaks in his introduction of his conviction that our present age resembles that of Christian Rosy Cross but the connections he claims with modern parallels are tenuous and much of the humour is built on simpleminded juxtapositions between modern and medieval ("Would you care to see some filthy woodcuts?"). Testostero is sub-titled "a comic novel" but is in fact a laboured, tedious farce involving Noel Horniman, talented but ockerish Australian poet, and Leon Hunnybun, limp-wristed English aristocrat, who discover in the course of the novel that they are twins. Hitting the Wall is actually two novellas of which one, "The Job," is reprinted from Escape to Reality.

Foster revived D'Arcy D'Oliveres for The Glade within the Grove, which chronicles the postman's tenure in the small town of Obligna Creek. There he discovers an intriguing manuscript, by a mysterious author named "Orion"—and this later appeared as Foster's next novel, The Ballad of Erinungarah. Needless to say, the two books are meant to be read together.

On the face of it, Foster would seem to have an imagination as original and inventive as almost any contemporary Australian novelist, and he commands an astounding range of material. But that imagination seems difficult for him to harness, and like Barth and perhaps Thomas Pynchon, he reads better in bits and pieces than in toto. There are brilliantly original gags but no normative centre against which to place them. Perhaps he might do well to take note of one of his own witty scientific analogues from Plumbum: "You will sometimes see a middle-aged man holding the jaws of his mind open with every intellectual prop and pole at his disposal. In such a state he resembles a bivalve mollusc, constrained to sup whatever shit floats by."

—Laurie Clancy

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