A review of David Malouf’s Dream Stuff

A missing father, a missing uncle, a missing place. David Malouf’s latest book of short stories, Dream Stuff is about longing and nostalgia. A desire to reach across the bridge of time, back to some place which may have never existed, except in our dreams and the self-created impressions of the moments we have lived, which are already gone. The 9 stories all have a strong element of longing and loss. From At Schindlers, where a boy begins to understand that his father, missing in action during the second world war, won’t be returning, as he develops an attachment to his mother’s new boyfriend, to the nostalgia of the patriarch Audley as he watches the museum which housed his family treasures go up in flames (Great Day). All of these stories feature something now gone, a moment which has disappeared, only to be revisited and recaptured, reassessed, reworked until it takes on a new truth in the internal dream worlds of the narrators which present them.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Dream Stuff
By David Malouf,
Published by Vintage, April 2001, RRP $21.95
ISBN: 0 09 928990 3
185pp

A missing father, a missing uncle, a missing place. David Malouf’s latest book of short stories, Dream Stuff is about longing and nostalgia. A desire to reach across the bridge of time, back to some place which may have never existed, except in our dreams and the self-created impressions of the moments we have lived, which are already gone. The 9 stories all have a strong element of longing and loss. From At Schindlers, where a boy begins to understand that his father, missing in action during the second world war, won’t be returning, as he develops an attachment to his mother’s new boyfriend, to the nostalgia of the patriarch Audley as he watches the museum which housed his family treasures go up in flames (Great Day). All of these stories feature something now gone, a moment which has disappeared, only to be revisited and recaptured, reassessed, reworked until it takes on a new truth in the internal dream worlds of the narrators which present them.

As is always the case with Malouf’s writing, the sentences are beautifully crafted, as taut and rich as poetry, teasing the reader with the complexity and multiplicity of meaning, without being too obvious in metaphor or imagery. The main action, the epiphany point in each story, takes place deep within the main characters, while the external events are mere triggers. A clear example of this is in At Schindler’s, when Jack walks in on his mother and the boyfriend GI who has come on holiday with them, making love: “Something snapped then. He heard it. A sound louder than the crack of thunder or the rising climax of their cries, or his own smaller one, which they were too far off now in the far place to which their bodies had carried them to hear” (21). The sudden understanding of death and loss, and love, and time passing are all united in this snapping, as Jack begins to comprehend the loss of his father, and his own life before him. Malouf’s world is uniquely Australian, a landscape which is simultaneously young and old, creating an overall metaphor of the new, the child, the first time visitor, and the old, the aboriginal, the family clan, the Jungian dream world, as his characters take us again through their natural world outside and their perceived world inside, teaching us who we are, and always pushing towards the bigger picture. In some stories, like Closer, Sally’s Story, or Jacko’s Reach, nothing really happens in terms of the plot. Sally does her job and then takes a break. Jacko’s Reach is going to be built upon. Amy wants to reach out to her uncle. Most of the action is past tense. They are relatively common tales. A homosexual is banned from his family’s Easter celebrations. A prostitute finds the possible chance of love. A patch of land will disappear under a shopping mall. These are stories which are happening everywhere. The meaning, the beauty of them is in the narrative voice. The assimilation of the event and the way in which the words preserve the moment into something larger. Amy says: “Open your heart now. Let it happen. Come closer, closer. See? Now reach out your hand”, and the gap is bridged. It is a moment of love. Of permanent union, even if the moment never actually happens, except in Amy’s dreams. There are other stories however, where something does happen, and in that moment the natural world is disturbed, turned into something surreal, the reality turning into nightmare, as in Lone Pine, where a couple stops for a night on their first real trip, only to become the victims of a terrible and random crime. Or Dream Stuff, where a case of mistaken identity turns into a story “too extravagant for components of a plot” (of course that is exactly what they are). These pivotal moments too are merely the outside landscape for the main story, which occurs internally. In the mind of Harry Picton, with May’s “name still in his mouth. Warm, dark, filling it, flowing out.” (115) or the inner world of Colin, a child again as he holds his dying dog under the house. The places and things, which “in one part of himself still moved in” long gone, are yet permanently alive inside of us, in our dream landscape.

Despite the intensity, stillness, and sometimes violent imagery in these stories, and they are generally black, submerged, and slow moving, the overall impression is one of light. Of finding what has been lost. Of waking to a new day. Even at its darkest, as in Blacksoil Country, where a boy is killed in retaliation for the death of an Aborigine, the boys voice continues, narrating his dissolution into the soil, “sinking into the ancientness of it, making it mine, grain by grain blending my white grains with its many black ones.” Jordan lives, in a sense, in the levelling reconciliation of death, now part of the vast and ancient landscape he has come to as a guest. These stories are a celebration, as the outward signs of memory are destroyed, leaving only the love that binds us together – family, compassion, history, time moving forward even as we reach back: “Till here, as on other beaches, in coves all round the continent, round the vast outline of it, the heat struck of a new day coming, the light that fills the world.”

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