By David Malouf
Dream Stuff is a book about people who are haunted. The ghosts in its stories are the ghosts of dreams, representing subconscious, underground worlds of imagination, creativity, childhood and loss.
The landscape is a kind of dreamworld itself. David Malouf is one of Australia’s most highly regarded literary exports and the country he describes has about it some of the sense of strangeness and the supernatural we associate with the island continent. Down Under has a double meaning in this collection. In a story like “Jacko’s Reach,” for example, the dream landscape which is also the natural native environment is in the process of being paved over in order to build a new shopping mall:
Those four and a half acres were an eyesore – that’s the council’s line: openly in communication, through the coming and going of native animals and birds, or through the seeds that can travel miles on a current of air, with the wilderness that by fits and starts, in patches here and great swathes of darkness there, still lies like a shadow over the most settled land, a pocket of the dark unmanageable, that troubles the sleep of citizens by offering a point of re-entry to memories that they have no more use for – to unruly and unsettling dreams.
The people we meet are haunted by a sense of loss for things that are not entirely gone. Dreams offer a chance to re-enter a present world of memory and imagination that has been driven underground.
Malouf is at his best when exploring the weird side of this dream world, one filled with the ghosts of lost loves and random violence brought about by false memories. Somewhat like Ian McEwan, Malouf associates the imagination with strangeness and danger. Aborigines, the native inhabitants of the dream world, become mysterious and threatening aliens. In the story “Dream Stuff” the title refers to an urban legend about secret gangs of workers harvesting marijuana at night.
The style is sometimes impressionistic and artificial. In the last story the day breaks upon “an expanding stillness in which clocks, voices and every form of consciousness had still to come into existence and the day as yet, like the sea, had no mark upon it.” But given the symbolic nature of what is being described this isn’t necessarily a fault. Otherwise Malouf’s writing is quite precise, especially in pleasantly fit details like the Australian vocabulary and the names given to American servicemen (“the Rudis, the Dukes, the Vergils, the Kents”).
One of the more interesting issues the book raises is that of national culture. If such a thing still exists then it too is going underground. In the title story of the collection Malouf associates it with the natural environment and Australia’s colonial history, an “underground history” that, like Jacko’s Reach, “no tower block or flyover could entirely obliterate.” But even here the dream is threatened.
The boy in the first story – and many of the stories feature children – can see the change coming when he looks at movie posters. The new world of modernity these posters advertise has a name: “America, that world was called.” Planet Hollywood we would call it now, and its effect on a people and their culture is far greater than any proposed shopping mall or high rise. The book concludes with a mystical speech about how “nothing ever gets lost”, but the action takes place on a national holiday and a local museum has just gone up in flames. The same speech suggests that the native culture of a place like Australia, or Canada for that matter, may only survive in the global village as bits of information floating in the ether, being received by distant satellites.
Review first published September 16, 2000.