Uneasy Pieces

Oz's wizard: Malouf explores a central theme of Australian and American culture, man vs. continent.

Dream Stuff: Stories
Pantheon; 185 pages; $22

Pomp and Circumstance
Methuen; 308 pages; $12.95

By my count, there are a lot more nightmares than dreams in David Malouf’s subtle new collection, but I guess a book entitled Nightmare Stuff might be mistaken for the latest Stephen King (and, unlike the inexplicably underappreciated Malouf, actually get read). In almost every one of these nine stories, set in his native Australia, random acts of violence explode well-ordered existences. The results of these irruptions of chaos into everyday life range from the disorienting to the devastating. In either case, they make for quietly unsettling tales.

The uneasy equilibrium between order and chaos, often expressed as conflict between civilization and the wildness of nature, is a literary preoccupation as deeply Australian as it is American – an inevitable artistic theme in a European outpost ruthlessly imposed on a preexisting native culture. It’s been at the center of Malouf’s work from the very beginning. (He’s written ten novels, six volumes of verse, a memoir, and two opera librettos.) Fly Away Peter (1982) is about the unlikely friendship between a Cambridge-educated Australian and the rough woodsman who shows him how to manage the vast property he’s inherited; in Remembering Babylon, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993, a 13-year-old boy raised by aborigines returns, with difficulty, to civilization. Even when Malouf has strayed far from his native territory, he manages to find his signature theme: In the very beautiful and haunting An Imaginary Life, the ultracivilized Roman love poet Ovid, exiled by the emperor Augustus to the farthest outposts of the empire, befriends a wild child who has been raised in the forest. That’s as stark a contrast between Culture and Nature as you could hope for, but it’s just a more extreme version of the oil-and-water couples and conflicts you’ll find all over Malouf’s writing.

In the title story of the new collection, a successful author returns to Brisbane to do a reading and on his way back to his hotel is viciously attacked on the street by a deranged man; in “Night Training,” a pair of youthful Air Squadron volunteers during the Korean War are terrorized at night by a sadistic officer, who forces them to strip and drills them stark naked; a middle-aged man and his wife in “Lone Pine,” on a camping trip in the outback, come up against a kind of wildness they hadn’t expected – a youth who steals their car and trailer.

It’s true that in a few of these stories, people have pleasant dreams. Jack, the boy whose difficult coming-of-age is the subject of the quietly affecting World War II-era story “At Schindler’s,” has “half-waking dreams” of his beloved father, who’s missing in action and, as Jack comes to realize, won’t be coming home; the young girl who narrates “Closer” dreams that she can make contact with the glamorous gay uncle her Pentecostal family has physically barred from her house. (On holidays, he drives home in his shiny BMW and stands just outside the fence, shouting at them.) The long-dead father of Colin, the writer in “Dream Stuff,” dreamed of Athenian ruins well before he ever got to see them. But in these stories, the dreams, the visions of happiness, order, restored domesticity, and civilization, are always counterbalanced by nightmares – the wild, savage, violent stuff that we can’t contain and that always catches up with us: libidinous urges, war, hatred, naked aggression.

There are places in the new collection where the oppositions feel a bit artificial. “Jacko’s Reach” is an eight-page reverie about a parcel of outback, adjacent to a big city, in which bad things are said to have happened: murders, suicides, possibly a kidnapping, certainly lots of adolescent sex. We read that it is going to be turned into a mall, and then get to the defiant climax. (“If there is only one wild acre somewhere we will make that the place. If they take it away we will preserve it in our head … That’s the way we are.”) Symbolism Alert! “Jacko’s Reach” represents, if you didn’t get it by now, the bit of wildness in all of us. “Blacksoil Country,” narrated by the ghost of a nineteenth-century pioneer’s son who’s been murdered by aborigines, is very good – creepy and well paced – but even here the “moral” about colonization threatens to eclipse the narrative.

In the best of Malouf’s stories and novels, the schematic structure disappears behind carefully observed psychological details and vividly painted landscapes. Malouf’s thematic oppositions become part of a complex, textured moral vision. For him, “nothing” – neither civilization nor the wildness it seeks to eradicate – “ever gets lost.” Indeed, sometimes the author suggests that the darkness we fear isn’t so much outside of us (in nature, in criminals) as it is within. In “Great Day,” the final, longest, and best story in this collection, Audley, the aging scion of a prominent Australian family, watches as the museum of local history that his family built burns to the ground on his birthday; to his surprise, he feels a secret elation. “There is ancient and irreconcilable argument in us,” he thinks as he watches the intensity in the dreamy faces of the people watching the fire, “between settlement and the spirit of the nomad, between the makers of order and our need to give ourselves over at moments to the imps and demons, to the dervish dance of what is in the last resort dust.” That’s as good a summation of Malouf’s career-long preoccupation as you could hope for; it lies at the dark heart of the exquisite miniatures you find in the new book, too.

It’s curious, given the seriousness of Malouf’s concerns, to say nothing of the consistently high quality of his output and the almost transparent beauty of his prose, that he seems to be on so few people’s radars. I was struck by how many publishing people I knew told me, when I mentioned I was writing about him, that they knew he was supposed to be good but had somehow never gotten around to reading him. “Oh, I just don’t go in for that Cairo stuff,” one well-read friend of mine said; it took me a minute to realize that he thought I was talking about the Egyptian Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz. After reading these nuanced and slightly disturbing new tales, however, you can see why Malouf has never been “huge”: The delicate tensions and difficult compromises that he likes to write about – the way our nightmares always lurk beneath our personal and cultural dreams (and are sometimes indistinguishable from them) – don’t make for the blockbuster satisfactions provided by either dreams or nightmares in their distilled literary forms: heartwarming novels inevitably ending with the triumph of the human spirit, etc., etc., or hair-raising thrillers, like Mr. King’s. Whatever its small inconsistencies, Dream Stuff is a beguiling introduction to the work of a writer whose refusal to offer easy answers will wake serious readers from their reveries and keep them thinking for many nights to come.

Dangerously beautiful south pacific locales; gentle tensions between European colonists and a native population that’s been reduced to grumbling servitude; the sudden, violent disintegration of civilization into total chaos: Who’d have thought that Noël Coward’s deliciously ditzy Pomp and Circumstance could have so much in common with the ultraserious Malouf? With Labor Day just a month away you should really do yourself a favor and snag a copy of the Master’s sole novel – the perfect beach read. Never mind the zany plot, which is about how news of an impending royal visit destroys the delicate social fabric of a tiny British island possession called Samola; it’s Coward’s flawless pacing that’s sheer heaven – the way some bit of offhand hilarity waits for you at the end of nearly every sentence like an olive at the bottom of a perfect martini. (Of the colonial governor and his wife: “They were both dim and a bit desiccated and lacked vitality to such a degree that one felt oxygen should be served after the fish.”) Pomp and Circumstance hasn’t lost a bit of vitality since it was published in 1960; I read it every August on vacation, and each time (I have witnesses), it leaves me literally weeping with laughter, if not worse: There’s a bit about Prince Philip and a broken toilet seat that might have you peeing in your pants.

Uneasy Pieces