Carl Harrison-Ford (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Harrison-Ford, Carl. “The Short Stories of Wilding and Moorhouse.” Southerly 33, no. 2 (June 1973): 167–78.
[In the following essay, Harrison-Ford discusses differences in the works of Wilding and the Australian writer Frank Moorhouse.]
In the few published commentaries on the contemporary Australian short story, the names of Michael Wilding and Frank Moorhouse have been linked quite often. It is a natural enough connection to make, but it must be added now that both writers have had collections of stories published1 within weeks of each other, that their differences assume the greater significance. The connections are still there, but they are misleading, often superficial ones. First, and most misleading, is the shared subject-matter of urban, particularly inner-city, life and social, sexually-oriented milieu. Secondly, this subject-matter has until recently frustrated both writers' frequency of publication and both collections have a surprisingly high proportion of previously unpublished material. Of those stories published, many have appeared in girlie magazines rather than literary ones, and sometimes in bowdlerized form. This has led, in turn, to the initiation of Tabloid Story, of which Wilding and Moorhouse are the best known editors. Lastly, and more germane to their literary output, both writers have grouped their stories so that there is a loose-knit interaction, with characters straddling stories and referring to incidents from different ones. This is present in both writers but more pronounced in Moorhouse, who can refer to his two collections, with justification, as “discontinuous narratives.” At times both writers hint at the novel, though it would be unfair to suggest they aspire to the novel or its structure.
But the reader interested in the difference between these two writers need look no further than Wilding's review (in Southerly, No. 2, 1969) of Moorhouse's first collection, Futility and Other Animals. There, after carefully discussing Moorhouse's general areas of interest—“Moorhouse has moved into a whole new area of material, of experience, of sensibility for Australian fiction”—Wilding went on to note Moorhouse's “serious examination of sexual ethics” and concluded:
Behind all these stories lies the ethic of being true to oneself, breaking with delusions and deceits: the occasional three- and four-letter words, the occasionally aberrant activities, all are in the service of this quest for the honest way, are presented to us not to shock, but to ask for a new, truer, fairer way of life. His characters would probably arraign him for it, but the impulse behind the writer is that of the moralist.
Without doubt, that last sentence carries enough of a scald to seriously undermine the claims of the preceding one. It is not so much a literary objection, but a mark of a difference of opinion between the writers as to how to approach their society. In Aspects of the Dying Process Wilding's stories have shifting, more indeterminate points of social reference and words such as “quest” would be quite inappropriate.
In The Americans, Baby, the tone of the moralist is much stronger, though no more conventional. Moorhouse still writes of ethics and lifestyles from a predominantly sexual point of view, and he is obviously anxious to do away with cant and with the social inhibitions barring personal, sexual adjustment. But he is more inclined than previously to do this through playing with types and expectations. His gift for handling dialogue is in the service of mapping in national, social or political types. And even some of his titles tend to give a character's role before his personality or name: “The American, Paul Jonson,” “The American Poet's Visit,” “The Girl from The Family of Man,” “The Girl Who Met Simone de Beauvoir in Paris.” After reading any one of these stories, the reader may find the titles alone of the others easing him into his responses. In the stories the process continues. Moorhouse tends to move, for instance, from dialogue to authorial voice nearly and unobtrusively. In “The Story of Nature,” Hugo, the American academic living with Cindy, the young Australian historian, is a health fanatic who believes, inter alia, that wholesome and organic foods prevent tooth rot, and Cindy answers back:
“My parents' teeth haven't fallen out.” “They will—if they eat a corrupt diet.” He said that modern food manufacturing was criminal.
In the process Hugo's aggressive certainties get enshrined, and it is Moorhouse's narrator who has so placed them.
The method of operation is unobtrusive and extremely serviceable. The stories are usually condensed and yet less than sympathetic characters seem to have condemned themselves out of their own mouths. In fact they are likely to have uttered only a few lines, wrong-footed from the start, that have been carefully arranged as icons, or pointers towards usually self-deceptive faults. Paul Jonson, the American, to re-order the story's title, is quick to give away just enough American expansiveness to both draw in, and repel, the local student radicals he debates in a pub:
He looked at them with an easy grin, “Am I to gather?” he said, reaching for money for another round, “that you fellows don't particularly like America?”
They laughed. He said to Jonson, “Why should we?” speaking for all of them.
Jonson shrugged, “Let me buy you another beer—as a gesture of international goodwill.”
They let him.
“Let's get one thing straight?” he said. “I'm not blind to my country's ills,” handing them the beers.
The rhetoric is hollow and yet sincere, and the gesture of “international goodwill,” like the naive disclaimer, comes across as yet another instance of misplaced American foreign aid, of boughten friendship. But if Jonson has got nothing straight, nor have the radicals in accepting the handout. What does emerge from the story, however, is a homosexual relationship between Jonson and one of the radicals, Carl, that moves outside the stilted terms of many of the book's encounters. Both the American blandness and the radical verbal aggression come across as too general and vague as opposed to the development of a difficult, clandestine personal relationship that, guilt-ridden as its beginnings are, is loaded with the potential for fulfilment because it moves clear of stock responses. In the later “Jonson's Letter,” Jonson writes to Carl of “nude bodies” and “bare minds” (p. 181) and, schematic as his concepts are in the letter, they indicate once more an attempt to move past set responses and social inhibitions to a personal relationship.
In contrast, the radicals with whom Carl has associated emerge as the most reprehensible characters in the book, not so much for the nature of their beliefs as for the strength of them. Turvey, in “The Machine Gun,” is something of a hermit, using women rather mechanically (“I get the stray fuck” [p. 86]), who has deluded himself into believing the Chinese are infiltrating Australia—a fantasy convenient to his personal and political inadequacies. He creates minor havoc at a party with a machine-gun. Turvey's friend Kim is even less pleasant and more authoritarian. He tries to force feed Dell a political and sexual education, he falls into bourgeois line by teaching at a country school and marrying an ex-private schoolgirl, he mixes with Young Liberals rather than miss a party and then, drunk, in “The Coca-Cola Kid” he clings to offensive rhetoric. After Becker, the man from Coca-Cola, has tried to hang himself at a party Kim says that he hopes he dies, and his wife responds:
“Things aren't as simple as you sometimes see them,” she said. Then, lighting a cigarette, she laughed derisively “You'd have fainted if they'd carried the body out.”
“Lenin never watched executions,” he said, accelerating on the straight road towards the scattered lights of the town.
What is offensive here is not so much the heartlessness, which the reader is never asked to feel, as the use of rhetoric to be so totally evasive. Kim misses not just whatever implications there are in Becker's suicide attempt and his own wife's comment; he misses their very fact as he dredges up what sounds suspiciously like a line he had always wanted to use. It is in a similar context, in “The Machine Gun,” that Moorhouse threads fragments of Che Guevara's diaries through Turvey's and Kim's inadequacies and childish games with the Bren gun. (It is also worth noting that the story Moorhouse contributed to the anti-Vietnam anthology, We Took Their Orders and Are Dead, was the politically frustrating and non-committal “Dell Goes Into Politics.” Clearly, Moorhouse is anxious to prevent beliefs setting hard as dogma.)
If these come across as negative virtues in the storytelling, they must also be seen as pointers to some sort of non-aligned, non-authoritarian new order. As noted, the stories are strongly sexually-oriented and set in the inner city suburbs. But they are also not very specific in a physical, geographical sense. The characters don't have far-reaching terms of reference or social backgrounds that impinge on the present. The past is behind them, and very little personal background is considered relevant. When Moorhouse does move into the past, in “Who is Sylvia?,” the result is a journalistic, human interest set-piece that is far from illuminating and that actually slows the revelation of Sylvia, and of Carl. The more dramatic revelations of the neurotic Terri, in “The St Louis Rotary Convention 1923, Recalled” and elsewhere, are outrageous and more to shock Becker in the present than to explain Terri's past. But more often, and more successfully, Moorhouse presents characters whose background seems to have been, in their own terms, idyllic or innocent and therefore not very relevant to present experiences—and the reader is never compelled to believe such self-assessments anyway. Most often, the characters are like Cindy, in “The Story of Nature,” who notes that “She was not of the suburbs any more … She was not dramatically ‘alienated’ but she was bound in her own direction” (p. 46). This sometimes overly explicit story is the earliest collected in The Americans, Baby and was included in Moorhouse's previous book, but in the very recent “The Jack Kerouac Wake: The True Story” in Tabloid Story 2, Moorhouse includes a short soliloquy on the merits and dangers of downtown life, this time as opposed to the academy rather than the suburbs. Clearly, in the absence of any strong sense of actual place, and in the presence of a number of variously bewildered Americans who give the book its title and leitmotiv, the volume is looking for something as vague, and yet as revolutionary, as a new mode of living....
(The entire section is 4705 words.)