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The Complete Stories by David Malouf

Down Under Comes On Top

Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who said, “Sydney is the city that San Francisco thinks it is”? In Australian short story writer David Malouf’s milieu, Australia is probably the country that California thinks it is. Malouf’s characters shift between urban and rural settings, always conscious of their man-made habitats: houses are made of pinewood and sandstone, kids play on warm bitumen. Here we see buddleia to be noticed, quince to be picked and blackfish to be angled. But like the reality of today’s California, people constantly converge on one another, parents on children, teenagers on playmates, in-laws on well-meaning couples.

In these 31 stories, some newly published, Malouf is the master of moments, whether it is documenting a pre-adolescent’s attempt to bring his father a beer without spilling it, or the way a Vietnam soldier sits on the toilet while his lover takes a bath. Malouf notices subtle life.

The first story in this collection, "In the Valley of Lagoons", is a wonder. Angus loves going to his best friend Braden’s home where dinners are quiet and men only talk when they have something to say, so unlike Angus’ own family fueled by reading and debate. The story stratifies when Braden’s brother Stuart falls for Angus’ older sister Katie who wants to get out of Far North Queensland. Malouf deftly shows how everyone goes back to the same routine once the romance fails, but the visceral daily experience has turned eerie. If you know your Chekhov, you know that a gun introduced in the first act, will appear in the third.

"A Trip to the Grundelsee" shows Malouf’s mastery of time shifts. Many short story writers will focus on one instant in time and call it a story. Here Malouf characterizes a moment during a summer course in Graz, Austria -- as most travelers know, many Australians take advantage of summer courses or take a year abroad to discover the world before they have to head back to the island. Cassie, our Australian, is in love with a fellow countryman Gordon, who lusts for French girl Anick, whom he follows like a “whipped puppy.” Cassie forges a friendship with Anick to tame the waters, offering a revealing look as to how some female friendships germinate. But the story takes off when Gordon is no longer part of the equation but the friendship persists in new ways.

"With Mrs. Porter and the Rock", Malouf has great fun mocking what has become a great Australian symbol, Ayers Rock in the center of the country straddling the Gibson and Simpson Deserts. Mrs. Porter is here at the behest of her teenage son to “stare a bit on an imaginable wonder.” All her son wants is for her to be interested in what interests him. As Mrs. Porter says, “first Proust, now this rock!” With her husband dead and her interests far from intellectual, she finds herself competing with the rock in unusual ways. Substitute X-Box and Half Dome and you might get the idea.

Malouf has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He has also composed librettos, including one for Jane Eyre. Reading a foreigner’s fiction, I was hoping for more inherent “Australianess” references to nobbies (opals) or eskys (coolers) or backblocks (remote country). And while he drops a “windcheater” or an “ute” here and there, everything is so damn unforeign. Perhaps this is the sign of our times. As the world becomes more flat, we can’t be two countries separated by a common language because we never were.

The Complete Stories by David Malouf
Pantheon Books
June 24, 2007
Hardcover, $27.50
ISBN: 978-0375-424977
508 pages