The Complete Stories

by David Malouf

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The Complete Stories

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1699

David Malouf’s The Complete Stories is made up of a total of thirty-one stories, several of them long enough to be called novellas. The book is divided into four segments, arranged according to the date of publication in book form. Thus, the seven works of short fiction in the first section, which is titled “Every Move You Make,” came from the book of that name, which appeared in 2006 and was written in anticipation of this volume. The second section, “Dream Stuff,” was published as a book in 2000; the third, “Antipodes,” came out in 1985; and the fourth and final section, “Child’s Play,” contains just two stories, “Eustace” and “The Prowler,” which were published in 1982 along with a novella, “Child’s Play.” The novella, which had also appeared in an earlier volume, was not included in this collection.

Whether his novels are set in his native Queensland, Australia, like the autobiographical Johnno (1975) and Remembering Babylon (1993), or at a distance, like An Imaginary Life (1978), which follows the Roman poet Ovid into his exile in a Black Sea village, Malouf always includes as one of his themes the presence of the past. In the works of short fiction that appear in his Complete Stories, Malouf again emphasizes this theme. In fact, like the short fiction of the Irish writer James Joyce and the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, a typical story by Malouf builds toward an epiphany, or revelation, which casts new light on past events and provides a basis for the protagonist’s future thoughts and actions.

This pattern is illustrated in “The Valley of Lagoons.” For years, the narrator Angus has watched as his neighbors, the McGowans, set off on their annual hunting trips into the swampy wilderness known as the Lagoons; for years, his father has made him refuse their invitation to come along. Finally, when he is sixteen, Angus is allowed to go. One of the boys in the party is his friend Braden McGowan. Another is Braden’s older brother Stuart, who is desperately in love with Angus’s sister Katie. Though Angus would far rather be with Braden, who has the same intellectual interests as he does, he cannot get away from Stuart, who has evidently decided that by becoming Angus’s friend, he can get closer to Katie. In Angus’s presence, Stuart deliberately shoots himself in the thigh, hoping that Angus will report his manliness to Katie, along with the fact that he is willing to endure pain or even to risk death for her sake. On the way home, Angus realizes that he does not really know Stuart or Katie or even Braden. However, he does suspect that Katie will not be impressed by Stuart’s sacrifice. He also realizes that, in one way, he resembles Stuart more than the other two. Once they leave the area, neither Katie nor Braden will return. By contrast, though he, too, will leave, Angus will always be drawn back to the wilderness and its simple values.

Such revelations do not come only to children. In “Elsewhere,” a widower, Harry Larcombe, plans to represent the family at the funeral of his stepdaughter Debbie, which will be held in Sydney, where she lived. Since Debbie’s younger sister Helen feels that she should not leave her young children for an all-day trip, her husband, Andy Mayo, who is a fellow miner and longtime friend of Harry, offers to go with him. From that point on, the story is really Andy’s. At thirty-three, Andy has been to Sydney only once, and that was for a rugby match. Though he had met Debbie only twice, he gathered that her world was much more exciting than his. Now he has his chance to enter that world. However, at the wake after the funeral, when a strange woman makes a move on him, Andy realizes that he is not the free spirit he had believed himself to be; in fact, though he cannot help responding to her, he is put off by her aggressiveness. With a new knowledge of who he is and where he belongs, he drives Harry home. However, though he has had enough of Sydney, he now realizes that even in the familiar world to which he is returning, and despite the fact that he has a wife and children, essentially he will always be alone.

In the title story of his collection Dream Stuff, Malouf takes a well-known writer, Colin Lattimer, back to his native Brisbane, which he had not seen for some three decades, and also into his memories of childhood and the ever-changing world of dreams. The story begins with a memory: As a very young child, Colin found the body of his mother’s dog, Maxie, under the house and crawled in to be with him. For hours, he held Maxie tight, refusing to come out despite the pleas of the adults. He does not know how his father finally got him out, but he also remembers that soon after that episode, when his father was trying to teach him how to swim, Colin thought he was about to drown. Later, when he heard that his father had drowned while attempting to escape from Crete during World War II, in his imagination Colin merged the two incidents and imagined that he had witnessed the death of his father. Later, his yearning to recapture something of his father took Colin to Athens, but that effort was a failure. His mother’s coldness toward him during his childhood and youth intensified his sense of isolation, and though an exchange of letters finally brought them closer, she kept putting off a visit from him until it was too late.

Colin’s ex-wife and his two daughters loathe him, and when he looks up his cousin Coralie, who lives in Brisbane, he finds that she no longer loves him. On his way home from her house, he is attacked by a stranger who is convinced that Colin has harmed him, and after turning the knife on his assailant, Colin ends up in jail. Though he is released the next morning, when officialdom finds out who he is, he now has to accept the fact that there is no one left who could explain his past life to him. All that he has left of that lost reality is his fragmentary memories and his dreams of an escape from life.

Though “Dream Stuff” appears to be a simple story, in fact, like most of Malouf’s short fiction, it has an extremely complex structure. The author moves at will from one place to another, at one moment re-creating the Brisbane of Colin’s childhood and youth, at another setting the action in present-day Brisbane or Athens or London. Since his narrative is governed by the protagonist’s thought processes, it ignores chronology. Episodes from childhood are juxtaposed with more recent events, and real threats move easily into the dream world, where they are transmuted into new impressions that in the morning become as real as memories of actual events.

“Dream Stuff” is also typical of the stories in this collection in that it involves violence. As Malouf pointed out in a Publishers Weekly interview, Australia has always been a violent place. In “Blacksoil Country,” after his father, who hates blacks, shoots a man who was bringing him a lamb as a gift, young Jordan McGivern disappears, obviously killed in an act of vengeance, and the blacks are then hunted down by the white settlers. Malouf’s lifelong commitment to pacifism is evident in Jordan’s comment that as long as they got along, black and whites were both protected; when they turned on each other, neither group was safe. In “Great Day,” Audley Tyler, the head of a long-established family, sees the museum in which he took such pride go up in flames. The arsonist’s deed, he muses, is a reflection of the eternal human conflict between the desire for order and the demonic impulse, the love of destruction and death. That satanic impulse is what drives the young hoodlum to murder a pair of campers in “Lone Pine.”

Malouf also sees that impulse reflected in the eagerness of young men to go to war. In “War Baby,” Charlie Down can hardly wait for his induction; his service in Vietnam, he is certain, will provide him with the direction he lacks. However, when he comes back, he finds that he has not changed for the better. In fact, because he cannot share his experiences with the other members of his community, he is more isolated than ever. At the end of the story, he realizes that his only hope for healing lies in his responding to the natural beauty surrounding him.

Malouf admits that his fiction may seem preoccupied with death. Sometimes, as in “Elsewhere,” a death serves primarily to inspire a revelation. In other stories, it is a temptation to be resisted; thus, in “Out of the Stream,” fourteen-year-old Luke puts away his dagger and goes to tea with his grandfather. At other times, as in “Mrs. Porter and the Rock,” death is the result of a process in which one is freed from life’s obligations. In “Sorrows and Secrets,” it marks surrender; having given up hope of reclaiming his wife, a middle-aged foreman commits suicide. One of the final stories in the volume shows death at its most seductive. In “Eustace,” a boy finds his way into a dormitory at a girls’ boarding school, selects as his target a susceptible child called Jane, and entices her into running away with him. Though the other children go on with their lives, the memory of Jane’s disappearance and their recognition of the terror she must have felt come to all of them when they find themselves confronted with death.

David Malouf has referred to his Complete Stories as a single work. Certainly the stories in the volume are similar in theme and structure. However, every plot is satisfyingly unpredictable, and every character is a unique creation. Malouf’s gift for language and his storytelling talent make this collection a work that readers will not soon forget.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34

Booklist 103, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2007): 35.

Chicago Tribune, July 28, 2007, p. 8.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 9 (May 1, 2007): 414.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 87.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 22, 2007, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (August 19, 2007): 10.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 18 (April 30, 2007): 134-135.

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