Brian Kiernan (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: “Notes on Frank Moorhouse,” in Overland, Spring, 1973, pp. 9-11.
[In the following essay, Kiernan provides a brief overview of Moorhouse's short fiction.]
With his The Americans, Baby (Angus & Robertson), Frank Moorhouse seems to have won some long deserved general recognition. The book has been received enthusiastically, though more interest has been shown in the trendy nature of his material—the Sydney push, the drug scene, student radicalism, sexual permissiveness, women's liberation et al.—than with his handling of it. Partly, one suspects, this enthusiasm is a matter of general consciousness catching up with the individual talent. Although Moorhouse, at thirty-four, is still regarded as a “young writer,” he has been writing about his urban tribe and their now suddenly ‘relevant’ preoccupations for most of the past decade, slowly winning an audience who could appreciate his sort of story and the sometimes uncomfortable integrity that was behind it. Perhaps also that old chestnut about Australian writers being obsessed with the outback and the mythic past helps explain the excited discovery that Moorhouse, like young dramatists and poets, is writing about contemporary urban Australian society. Whereas the new men are cool as spreading fern over the cultural dilemmas of Ern Malley's generation, accepting the society they know as the natural, familiar and substantial background to what they want to write about, their audiences still tend to be fascinated with the background itself.
Not that Moorhouse himself objects to this fascination with the sub-culture he has drawn upon for his fiction. “I find it complimentary that people are totally taken in by the performance and talk to me about the characters and the situations as though they were real. But they're realistic or naturalistic stories in their observed details only. There was a party for Rexroth which attended, but that story (“The American Poet's Visit”) was written long after and isn't a record of what actually happened. It's all been adjusted from a distance.” Another example of adjustment to reality is “The Jack Kerouac Wake,” a story not yet published that turns up at Sydney readings in different versions. One version is by Michael Wilding (whose own collection, which includes stories of Sydney push life, has just been published by Queensland University Press), others are by Moorhouse. Each claims to present the “true” account of a chaotic night. Each is close to the truth—but what is truth? What mainly come out of his adjustments to reality in The Americans, Baby, Moorhouse feels, are allegorical or politically representative characters. “If I were a literary critic, I'd suggest that Becker (his Coca-Cola sales executive and the anti-hero of a sequence of stories) is a human trying to be a technological giant—in fact playing one of America's major roles.”
Moorhouse's interest in Americans goes back to his boyhood memories of U.S. servicemen during the war and business associates of his father. They always seemed visitors from a remote and powerful land. When last year he went overseas for the first time his destination was New Orleans, the place that, particularly from his reading, had most excited his imagination, With Becker, the American who appears most frequently in his stories, Moorhouse twists a number of conventional expectations. In a time-honored American tradition, Becker is an innocent abroad; but it is the New World of Australia that corrupts him, a world that seems to him as remote from his home town of Atlanta, Georgia, as the moon. Becker's view of Australia is fresh and comic:
Becker was thinking this: how rarely in this foul country did the milk carton open up as the printed directions promised, “to open push up here”—push up where, for goddam. It had to do with the spread of talent across the land. For a country with a population so small they should, in terms of technology, still be peasants. That was his feeling, harsh as it may be. The way he figured it, the high-performance five-percenters were spread over too diversified an economy. By accident of history. The accident of history, as Becker saw it, was that they were English speakers. They attempted the higher technology of the main English nations. That was it. Result: milk cartons which wouldn't spout.
Becker is an outsider to Australian society as a whole, as well as to the worlds of the drag queens, speed freaks and liberated females he stumbles into. As an outsider, he is like a number of other characters who are affected by subcultural in-groups. Another example of the outsider, and of what Moorhouse sees as ‘allegorical’ or socially representative characterization, would be in “Dell Goes Into Politics.” Dell returns to her country town after an unsatisfactory affair with a Trotskyist schoolteacher in Sydney. Wanting to appear sophisticated, she speaks out boldly on Vietnam, to the amazement and embarrassment of all in the local pub. Yet, as she admits to herself at the end of the story, this has only been to evade what is really troubling her. The gulf between her political ‘awareness,’ which is no more than the holding of fashionable attitudes, and her personal experience seems to offer a more general comment about the impact of the Vietnam war on public consciousness.
For someone who sees himself partly motivated as a writer by his interest in politics and social theory, Moorhouse is cooly detached from his characters and their beliefs. As the author, he seems interested in ideology only as it affects people, and his political autobiography is relevant here:
When I was an...
(The entire section is 2381 words.)