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To the Outback and Back

By (August 1, 2007) One Comment

The Complete Stories

By David Malouf
Pantheon, 2007

The colonization of a wild continent offers an irresistible metaphor for the writing of fiction: in both, through the dedicated work of husbanding, shepherding, the building of some manner of infrastructure, and the establishment of comprehensible codes and rules, the task is to impose a viable—and moreover, meaningful—order on otherwise chaotic and indifferent elements.

Of course, you don’t want to overextend the metaphor. Geographical colonization is not just a creative process, after all; with it invariably comes the exploitation or extirpation of a native habitat, up to and including native humans, and it would take a cleverer theorist than I to translate such violence to the act of writing.

But at least we can say that the dueling social impulses of growth and destruction will cause a profound imprint on anyone caught up in them, and any writer who comes to maturity in the midst of an active colonization will have special insight into a powerful and expansive artistic motif. This has certainly been the case for David Malouf, of Brisbane, Australia. For over thirty years, spread across an impressive catalogue of novels and short stories (as well as poetry, libretti, and a memoir) totaling twenty books, and now including The Complete Stories, Malouf has written of the slow and ambiguous imposition of Western civilization upon his outpost homeland. Nearly every phase of Australia’s modern history is featured somewhere in his writing—in fact, it may very well be that he has written more completely about Australia than anyone before him. And because the colonization of Australia has been so creepingly gradual, as opposed to, say, that of the American Midwest, which has had no real wilderness for 150 years, Malouf has been able to evoke from personal experience an early stage in civilization that other writers can only recreate from historical documents.

His setting is usually one he knows intimately, a precariously settled backwater in the Australian interior. The state of Queensland, in which most of these flyspecks are found, is laceratingly described in his 1975 debut novel, Johnno:

Queensland, of course, is a joke. The Moonshine State. Nothing to be said about Queensland. Half of it is still wild (there are tigers as yet undiscovered in Cape York Peninsula according to some authorities), the rest detained in a sort of perpetual nineteenth century. In the main streets of towns not a hundred miles from where I am standing they still have hitching-posts. Aborigines are herded on to reservations. Kids, even in this well-to-do suburb, go to school all the year round with bare feet.

Even Brisbane, its capital and evidently a grim symbol of its progress, is “so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely!” In the story “Dream Stuff,” published in 2000, we see this same slatternly city in the grudging beginnings of commercial development:

…the big country town of his childhood, with its wharves and bond-stores and two-storeyed verandahed pubs, had been levelled to make way for flyovers, multi-level car parks, tower blocks that flashed like tinfoil and warped what they reflected—which was steel girders, other towers like themselves and cranes that swung like giant insects from cloud to cloud. Brisbane, as his cousin Coralie put it, had “gone ahead.”

(Comparatively cosmopolitan Sydney is, in Malouf’s world, a place as foreign and essentially mystifying as Rome or Paris, as it is in the expressively titled story “Elsewhere.”)

Malouf therefore is a chronicler. But because the country he chronicles is a borderland that has stood mostly in the purlieus of world events, and has crept through the 20th century in an undefined, transitional state, his books feel strongly ahistorical, uncommitted to any fixed place or time.

This is a difficult point to illustrate, but an instructive contrast can be found with the work of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. Both Malouf and Coetzee write from former colonial outposts upon which Europeans have left a deep and discontented legacy, and which struggle to reconcile a native culture with one forcibly imported from abroad. In their harrowing starkness and their recalcitrance to Western civilization, too, there is something very similar about the Australian outback and the South African veldt. It’s Coetzee’s stinging Waiting for the Barbarians, about the psychological terror the wilderness can inspire in Western settlers (and the violence with which Westerners flail against such perceived dangers), that most resembles the writing of Malouf.

But South Africa, unlike Australia, has been on the center stage of world events, and so Coetzee writes of a country about which contemporary history has already drawn its conclusions. Accordingly, Coetzee’s prose is clipped, straightforward, decisive. His novels drive home moral and political lessons (Waiting for the Barbarians is a political allegory, something that Malouf’s books never are even as they envelope political events), and his themes align with categorical imperatives. Part of the reason that Coetzee’s novels seem likely to endure is that they have latched upon a particularly significant place and period of time and managed to broadcast the prevailing judgments upon that time—on Apartheid and South African reconstruction—with lucidity and often brutal severity. His books move in the main currents of history.

This is not at all the case with Malouf’s books. Reading them we feel that Australia really has no currents at all, but is some vast eddy in the Earth’s outremer, in which news travels slowly and little ever changes and from which people cannot seem to escape no matter how desperately they want to. These books are about ambiguity, indeterminacy, unsettledness. A passage from The Conversations at Curlow Creek (1996) shows the tensions of the march of civilization upon wilderness:

A dry country, it’s true; yellow, burned-looking, not lush like home [Ireland, the source of many of Australia’s early settlers]. But the earth had taken the unaccustomed seed. It had sprouted, broken ground, shot up, thickened, been reaped, and was now being laid out in bundles in stubble-fields. Men and women, small children too, were staggering over the land with great stooks in their arms, to lean them one against the other and make, in a place that had never known such a thing in all of previous time, a scene, busy, productive that had at first glance the immemorial order of a landscape at home, till you raised your eyes and saw what a tiny patch of order it was in the surrounding bush and against the jagged wilderness of the mountain beyond.

Ordered systems are always tenuous propositions here, and the fluidity with which they drift back into chaos mirrors Malouf’s habit of interspersing his narratives with dreams, blending reality and illusions so that their frontiers are not always distinguishable. These preoccupations, moreover, chime with his prose, which is precise and mannerly, but also pliably responsive to his dream-like moods and can run on in long, sinuous drifts of lyricism. This is from An Imaginary Life (1978):

What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become, except in dreams that blow in from out there bearing the fragrance of islands we have not yet sighted in our waking hours, as in voyaging sometimes the first blossoming branches of our next landfall come bumping against the keel, even in the dark, whole days before the real land rises to meet us.

An Imaginary Life, though a very early work and an anomaly in that it has nothing to do with Australia, is still Malouf’s best novel. It takes as its premise the poet Ovid’s exile from Rome to the barbarian village of Tomis on the nether-edge of the Black Sea, but this is only a springboard for a compact and often spellbindingly beautiful exploration into the themes that Malouf will patiently pursue for the rest of his writing life. Ovid is of course a real figure from history, but Malouf is empowered by the paucity of documentation about the poet’s exile—he creates a narrator whose somberness and Augustinian self-denunciation seem a far cry from the man who wrote The Art of Love and The Metamorphoses (curiously, if his afterword is any indication, Malouf does not appear to much like The Metamorphoses). But this is the point: Malouf is reversing the process of colonization. The urbane poet is sent from the very heart of civilization farther and farther into the wilds. Ovid contrives to capture a savage boy raised by animals, and after a harrowing failure to assimilate the boy into the superstition-laden culture of Tomis, the two flee into a land not yet even recognized on maps, and Ovid realizes his own metamorphosis back into a component of the natural world.

The 1993 novel Remembering Babylon, somewhat arbitrarily Malouf’s best-known book, transplants a variation on this story to 19th-century Queensland, where a British man who has lived for sixteen years among aborigines suddenly stumbles into a small rural settlement. The settlers (in essence no less superstitious than the natives of Tomis) become paranoid that the man, Gemmy, is somehow engaged in espionage for the aborigines, and that the “blacks,” as they are called, are planning to overrun the village. “It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them,” Malouf writes, and there again is the central ambiguity he tirelessly highlights and never attempts to resolve: the haunting omnipresence of the strange and unknown that always mingles with the safe and familiar, and always undermines any rigged-up sense of stability. The unknown frightens the settlers in part because they recognize it as something they have not been able to abolish in themselves.

Indeed, the personalities of Malouf’s characters are often conditioned by reactions against psychological chaos. The harridan mother is a persistent feature, fiercely enforcing codes of etiquette as a rampart against disorder. (I’d watch out if I was you,” Digger Keens’s mother warns him in The Great World (1990), in despair that Digger will adopt the uncouth ways of his father: “You’ll catch his disease if you don’t watch out. You’ll be a dreamer like him.”) In the story “Closer,” an uncle is outcast from a religious family—they literally refuse to open the door to him when he visits—because he’s gay.

Malouf doesn’t demonize the reactionaries and ostracizers (he simply shows how meager their ability to whip an indifferent world into shape must always be, which makes them either pitiful or tragic), but his sympathies are clearly with those who embrace the unknown quantities within them. These are usually children. His children (and they tend to be boys) are prelapsarian—they daydream, they fabulate, they give full vent to their imaginations, they’re baffled by the distinctions their parents relentlessly hammer upon them. And it’s children in adolescence, the most unsettled, inchoate age of all, for whom Malouf has an especial affinity. In the superb story “Southern Skies,” for instance, a 12-year-old boy finds himself inexplicably drawn to visit a friend of his father’s who is obviously trying to seduce him:

Then, out of a state of passive expectancy, willing nothing but waiting poised for my own life to occur; out of a state of being open to the spring night and to the emptiness of the hours between seven and ten when I was expected to be in, or thirteen (was it?) and whatever age I would be when manhood finally came to me; out of my simply being there with my hand on the saddle of the machine, bare-legged, loose-sandalled, going nowhere, I turned into the drive, led my bike up to the stockade gate, and waited for him to throw down the keys.

The boy is compelled to the mystery of what this seduction could mean, as well as to the spectacle of the night sky through the man’s telescope. The man masturbates him as he looks through the lens, but it is almost beside the point for the boy, so overwhelmed is he by the vastness of the starscape. For the man the night has been sordid and shaming with its consummation of a paltry physical desire; but for the boy it has been revelatory, huge with possibility:

We stood on opposite sides of the occasion. Nothing of what he had done could make the slightest difference to me, I was untouched: youth is too physical to accord very much to that side of things. But what I had seen—what he had led me to see—my bursting into the life of things—I would look back on as the real beginning of my existence, as the entry into a vocation, and nothing could diminish the gratitude I felt for it.

A sexual awakening is nothing at all compared to the awakening to the immensity and wildness of the universe.

* * *

James Wood has written that J.M. Coetzee’s stringent economy of language—his clipped, almost peremptory style—circumscribes the range of his artistry by leading him to condense or truncate even at the moments in his novels that seem to call for expansion, for exploration. But if it’s not the rock, it’s the whirlpool. David Malouf has no problem at all with circumscription. An Imaginary Life, Fly Away Peter, Child’s Play: each clocks in at around 150 pages and each is rich, packed tight with feeling, and absorbingly good to read.

The difficulty begins to come with Malouf’s later and longer books, and it’s a difficulty compounded by the fact that in them Malouf is doing exactly what a writer of his caliber should do—stretching out, reaching further, trying to produce something great in both scope and quality. The greatest monuments of man are at once awe-inspiring on a massive scale and in their minute parts (designed by giants, finished by jewelers, it is said of the Taj Mahal), and so it is with novels.

But it’s those very fixations aroused by the circumstances of his nationality that obstruct him from entirely succeeding on a larger scale. Ambiguity and indeterminacy are characteristics that are terribly difficult to reconcile with effective drama. As Malouf’s focus becomes increasingly spread out over an enlarging span of time and cast of characters, the drama of his novels diffuse and defuse. And while his writing is still very beautiful, too many of his scenes feel merely atmospheric and don’t coalesce into a living, flesh-and-bones story.

The Great World is a big, ambitious World War II novel about two men who became friends as Japanese POWs in Malaya. It switches ceaselessly between the perspectives of Digger Keen and Vic Curran (as well as a few other side characters), and simultaneously from scenes of their respective childhoods, their time at war, and their postwar friendship. Furthermore, the scenes themselves are presented elliptically, by a means of narration that cannot seem to pin down upon a moment and often feel intentionally resistant to hard-fast plot. Here, for example, is a description of the first moments of fighting in Malaya:

You saw them [the Japanese Imperial Army] pedaling up the track between the rubber trees, rifles slung across their backs, glasses ablaze, rubber boots and leggings working up and down. Very spindly, the bikes looked. The riders sweated in their heavy gear. You took aim, squeezed gently, and the whole enterprise went haywire, the rider waving his arms about as if he believed there was something up there, the hem of a garment or the big toe of one of his ancestors, that he could grab hold of to hoist himself aloft. He scrabbled for it. Meanwhile the wheels went spinning, gravity insisted, and rider and machine slewed off into the ditch. It was comic.

On one hand, this is an extraordinarily well-written tableaux, as visually acute a war scene as one could hope to read. But who is “you?” Who exactly is shooting the Japanese soldiers and finding the way they fall comic? It seems as though it may be Digger, but Malouf’s habit of drawing away from his main characters—often, for full chapters, viewing them through the eyes of a side character or interloper—makes it feel impossible to know. This is a ruminative book, cautiously feeling its way through boggy, undefined psychological terrain rather than moving toward a conclusion. It is often very revealing, and it is also very hard going getting to the finish.

Likewise Remembering Babylon, which made Malouf, for a brief moment in time, the toast of American book clubs and end-of-year best-of lists. The book was rightly admired, but with its scattered ensemble cast and draggingly limited amount of action, it is a book more admired than enjoyed. The Conversations at Curlow Creek came a few years later, and it is Malouf’s first conspicuous misfire since his debut. This novel is completely static, and in compensation for the lack of any action there appear ethereal metaphors asked to carry far more of the burden of releasing the novels meanings and emotions than any metaphor possibly can. It has perhaps enough meat to serve a story of 50 pages, but has nevertheless been spread across 230.

* * *

This is why The Complete Stories is such a welcome addition to bookstores. The simple truth is that Malouf does his best work in shorter forms, and readers can be confident they will not just admire the best of the stories, but find them pointed, moving, and memorable. True, some of the stories, especially those from the newest collection Every Move You Make, dissolve from ethereal metaphors to ethereal epiphanies and decline to actually tell a story, but in these lapses the time investment is so much less, and in any case the good far outweighs the slight.

In fact, the only major annoyance of this book is that Pantheon has chosen to organize the stories in a reverse chronology. It’s a mistake, because not only does this impede the pleasure that would come from evolving with Malouf over the course of the collection, it hides away the best stories in the back. Still, the reader can just read backwards, beginning with the steely, chilling story “Eustace,” about the abduction of a girl from an orphanage, which displays the uncanny vision Malouf possesses into the minds of children.

“A Trip to the Grundelsee,” from the terrific 1985 collection Antipodes, is also full of insight into young people, in this case a foursome of traveling teenagers who torment one another by being in love with precisely the wrong person. The four, piquing one another’s resentment and exasperation with every gesture and word, visit an old Austrian spinster who was once beautiful and unlucky in love like them. The woman and the most narcissistic member of the group, a handsome boy named Gordon, begin to flirt to the dismay of a girl named Cassie:

It was Cassie who saw all this. In her ugly-duckling way she valued beauty, had pondered the subject deeply, and was made aware of Elsa Fischer’s great measure of that ambiguous gift in the effect it was having on Gordon. He had ceased to be plumply bored and was giving this sixty-year-old woman the sort of attention he reserved for churches, some paintings, and everything to do with himself.

Suddenly the story telescopes ten years into the future, where only an unlikely friendship remains of the foursome. In a wonderful fugue effect, the heartbreak of the trip to Grundelsee is at once dire and profound and deeply, forgettably, irrelevant to what has come of Cassie’s life.

Similarly, in “Sorrows and Secrets” a young man starting his first job is enthralled by “the variousness of the world and the number of paths that were open in each moment of it”; but for his lonely, suicidal boss, who tries awkwardly to befriend him, the world feels increasingly like a dead end. “That Antic Jezebel” is about a quondam social climbing beauty—Queensland’s version of an upper-crust courtesan—who realizes that her age has finally caught up with her. Again and again these stories chart the gulf between youth and adulthood, between living with active hopes and dreams and settling into hard certainties, which, to Malouf, are invariably aligned with death.

Death and violence are recurring features in the stories from Dream Stuff, and often appear as unpredictable, even meaningless, bolts from the heart of the wilderness. A weird and savage act of violence punctuates the title story—even in developing Brisbane lawlessness survives in the back streets. “Lone Pine,” in its awful simplicity, is the most atavistically frightening story in the whole collection. In it, a young family robs and murders a man and woman camping in the outback merely because they want the couple’s trailer and there is no particular force to prevent them from taking it.

But violence doesn’t only emerge suddenly from the unknown; “Blacksoil Country” is about a settler who shoots an aborigine teenager for almost no reason at all—nor, at first, feels any compunction over it—and triggers a back-and-forth war of reprisals that costs the life of his son. As the son puts it, evidently from the grave (a narrative gimmick, but effective here), “that little blood was my blood, not just that black feller’s. Pa’s blood too. So he did come to see at last that I was connected.”

The stories from Every Move You Make are here published for the first time in the United States, and they are slow and ruminative like so much of Malouf’s later work. “The Valley of Lagoons,” for instance, is another coming-of-age tale set in the bush, and while it is quite readable it’s also clear that in his prime Malouf could have crafted the same story to sharper effect at 25 pages instead of the present 45. With “War Baby,” about a clueless young Aussie self-entitledly wasting time before he goes to fight in Vietnam, we get the frustrating sense that Malouf has become overly enamored with inaction, with simply registering minute changes in the psyche, like a radar screen that shows little blips move here and there.

And reading these highly interior, elliptical stories, we can’t help wondering, as Malouf himself ages and the “variousness” of his writing begins to taper down, what will become of his books? It seems almost impossible to imagine that evanescent prose from a peripheral continent, no matter how beautiful or wise, can long survive a publisher’s bottom line; indeed, in North America at least, Malouf’s books are already going out of print faster than he can write them.

Fittingly, then, “The Domestic Cantata” is the best story of this most recent collection, and as a subtle drama of manners it might foretell a new direction for Malouf. It’s apt that as he ages he should become more interested in settled suburbia, but the story works because he integrates the alluring mysteriousness of the unknown into the well-heeled world of dinner parties and misbehaving teenagers. His habit of glancing from the perspective of one character to another yields the layered design of a flawed, loving family, and works nicely because all of these characters are contained in one room, sitting together around a dining room table.

But even in poky, well-to-do suburbia Malouf is interested mostly in the unknown possibilities held in the future, in what is “Beyond the page” and “On the lines of score-paper as yet still empty.” In whatever it is that moves you and that you can’t pin down. Living is a creative process. The last words of the story are, “To be continued.”

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for Pittsburgh Pulp, The Tucson Weekly, The New York Press, The Las Vegas Weekly, Columbia Journal of American Studies, freezerbox.com, and thefanzine.com. He lives in New York City.