At an advanced point in his already prolific career, the Australian writer David Malouf has produced a book of fresh beginnings. Nominally a collection of nine short stories, Dream Stuff could just as easily be nine different outlines for new novels, each of them remarkably unlike any novel he has turned out before. If that sounds like a polite way of reclassifying his novels as expanded short stories, it’s a stricture that he invites. His novels have always left out much of the framework and furniture that most novelists are careful to put in. On the other hand, what he puts in instead makes them read more like a poetic fermentation than a long short story.
“Everything spread quickly,” he says in the title story of Dream Stuff: “Germs, butter, rumours.” He is talking about subtropical Queensland, the stamping ground of his childhood, but he could equally be evoking the luxuriant mental climate of his entire creative life. Fecund is a word that fits him as it fits few other Australian writers. Seen from space, Australia is a thin, wet edge running only halfway around a colossal swathe of hot rock. For Australia, read austere. A celebrated poem by Judith Wright addresses the largest island’s anhydrous vastness in the appropriately desiccated vocative: “Your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart.”
Chez Malouf, however, there is scarcely a dry breast to be seen. Propagating itself like honeysuckle on a trellis, his mind exfoliates in the thin wet edge, and everything it dreams up sends out tendrils, starting new, wild gardens that you couldn’t keep down with a flame thrower. Aridity being decidedly not his thing, he is thus the least characteristic Australian writer yet to have reached world prominence, and therefore one of the surest signs that Australia’s literary culture—cosseted in the long years when it scarcely existed—has by now arrived and is running nicely out of control, the way a culture should.
None of this means that Malouf is an incoherent writer. At his frequent best, and occasionally for a whole book, his prose is as tightly under control as his poetry, and often more so: his poems usually avoid the prosaic with such success that it is hard to figure out what is going on. In his narrative prose he is more likely to evoke before he implies, achieving a clarity that has helped to make obvious the main subject on which he has been reluctant to touch. That subject is sexual love, about which, on the whole, he has had less to say than almost any other serious novelist since Joseph Conrad. In Malouf’s sumptuous corner of a sparse country, there is only one kind of juice that has so far failed to flow. But there are signs in these short stories that it might be finally on the move.
“At Schindler’s,” the first story in the new book, evokes a south Queensland childhood with the same enchanting clarity that he achieved in his directly autobiographical 12 Edmondstone Street (1985), named for the house that his miraculous memory has never completely left. “I can feel my way in the dark through every room…,” he said in the autobiography. “First houses are the grounds of our first experience.” In the new story, he could still be expounding the importance of early experience, with the descriptions uncannily getting sharper instead of duller as the point of view advances ever further from the object:
There was a pool at Schindler’s. In the old days Jack and his father had swum there each morning. Jack would cling to the edge and kick, while his father, high up on the matted board…
For any Australian who first went swimming at the end of World War II, the matted board will have the same effect as a truck full of madeleines would have had on Proust. Yes, the diving boards were wrapped with matting: he’s got it exactly.
The child at the center of the auto-biography, the real Malouf, came from Lebanese immigrants on his father’s side and English on his mother’s. The boy in the story has nothing like so interesting a background, but something much more interesting happens in the foreground. In the autobiography he merely grows taller. In the story he grows up. It is wartime, most of the Australian young men are already overseas (too many of them, including the boy’s father, as prisoners of war), and south Queensland is teeming with American service personnel, young men who have only one thing on their minds while they wait to ship out for the fighting in the north—the Australian young women.
A crucial time in modern Australian history and a crucial place are both vividly recreated. After the fall of Singapore, Australia was obliged to sideline its hallowed but fatally outdated military dependence on Britain and go all out in its new partnership with the United States—a shift of alliance, if not of loyalty, so far-reaching that its consequences are still making themselves felt today. One of the immediate consequences was that the strategically placed south Queensland became an occupied zone. It hardly needs saying that if the Japanese had been occupying it instead of the Americans the results would have been dramatic in an even more unsettling way.
Nevertheless the drama was unsettling enough. The jealousies and resentments were intense, and partly because the Americans, on the whole, behaved like gentlemen. Their good manners, added to their high pay and ready access to a PX full of otherwise unavailable consumer goods, made them hard to resist. Hard to resist didn’t mean irresistible: to form a sexual relationship with an American serviceman was by no means common among Australian women already spoken for by one of our absent nation-als. But fraternization in the form of friendship was. And of course the boy in the story, when his mother takes up with her charming Yank, suspects nothing more. When he walks in on them while they are making love, he hardly knows what is going on, but the story, written from his viewpoint, registers his shock. The long-term consequences are only hinted at, but clearly there will be some.
For the reader of Malouf’s work, this is an uncustomary use for the word “clearly.” The only previous instance I can think of for a potentially formative sexual event was in another short story, included in his 1985 collection Antipodes. In that story, called “Southern Skies,” a first-person narrator, brought up in a refugee family, recalls how when he was a boy at high school a friend of the family called the Professor took the opportunity to grope him while showing him the stars through a telescope. Since the boy has already declined the advances of his mother’s mature and attractive female friend, yet does nothing to stop the Professor jacking him off while he melts with awe at the revelation of the heavens, it would be legitimate to infer that a future course is being charted. No celestial music is heard, but the favorable auspices of the heavenly bodies are hard to miss.
In the fictional world of Malouf’s novels—a world in which childhood is a time rarely touched by sexuality and in which the same, on the whole, can be said for adulthood—the emotional relationships among men are even more fascinating for their lack of specificity than the heterosexual relationships. Apart from that one middle-period short story, there have been no instances of males sharing an explic-itly sexual moment while the cosmos sparkles in approval. The heterosexual coupling in “At Schindler’s” (“nothing he had been told or imagined was a preparation for the extent to which, in their utter absorption in one another, they had freed themselves of all restraint”) has a few harbingers, if only sketchily established. In his biggest novel, The Great World (1990), the character nicknamed Digger, a returned prisoner of war, has a years-long and quite believable Thursdays-only relationship with a widow similarly reluctant to give up her solitude. Nothing explicit is said, but at least you can assume there is a mutual sexual attraction, in the same way you can assume that the male and female protagonists in Jane Austen, upon achieving marriage, will at some time get into the same bed.
But the main relationship in The Great World is between man and man, and the interesting thing about it is that nothing emotional is even implied. Vic and Digger are prisoners of war together on the Thailand railway. The hellish conditions are thoroughly evoked, but one is all too aware that the source-point lies in research. The classic treatment of the subject was written by an eyewitness: Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island (1952). Malouf, marvelous with his own memories, is never quite as good with other people’s. Still, the backdrop is sharply painted. Suffering in front of it, however, Vic and Digger are wavy outlines. Vic is unbearably insensitive, yet Digger is drawn to him. There are heavy hints that their personalities are complementary: Vic has the sense of possibility, Digger the solidity. After the war, Vic gets married and goes on to be a headlong, headline-grabbing entrepreneur, while Digger lives out a quiet life with the woman who is Thursday. Yet we are given to understand that the true relationship is between Vic and Digger. They don’t get on, yet they can’t do without each other. But in what way?
There doesn’t have to be sex: there is such a thing as chaste love between men. But if this is love, why can’t it be explored? Beyond a reciprocal irritability, the thing going on between them is all implied intensity and no expressed feeling. A vacuum is not the same thing as ambiguity, which requires at least two different meanings. For the long scenes between the main men in The Great World it is sometimes hard to find even one meaning, and the general effect of Malouf’s most ambitious novel is of being empty in the middle, a doughnut as big as the Ritz. The fault is compounded by the richness around the periphery. Malouf is touchingly right about how Australia’s unemployed men during the Depression insisted on being given work to do for their handout. And among those same men there was always a tradition of self-improvement: indigent autodidacts would swallow their pride to borrow knowledge.
This tradition reached a sad apotheosis in the prison camps, whose informal oral universities Malouf conjures up with tender, admiring accuracy. He has a real feeling for the kind of friendship between males that Australians are encouraged by their nationalist cheerleaders to call “mateship.” But Vic and Digger, never able to relax with each other or say what is on their minds, are pretty strange mates. They barely even like each other. So what gives?
The same question mark-shaped cloud has hung over Malouf’s nov-els since the beginning, although it should be remembered that a dark enough cloud, as well as blocking out the sun, can provide much-needed rain. Seductively forecasting what his autobiography was going to be like, the novel Johnno was published in 1975. At the exact time when Bris-bane was changing irrevocably into a skyscraper-studded modern metropolis, Johnno recreated the single-story, small-town city of its author’s youth, thereby providing Brisbane’s current and future citizens with a vocabulary and a map by which to cherish its remnants. Malouf was already a wizard for nostalgic detail, conjuring up such ephemeral treasures as the album-cum-catalog, celebrating the career and products of the confectioner James MacRobertson, whose color plates “seemed as beautiful to me then as anything I had ever seen or could imagine, a sort of colonial Book of Hours.”