Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Every Move You Make
By David Malouf
Chatto & Windus (Random House)
October 2006, ISBN 9780701180485, $39.95(aud), hardcover, 244pages
David Malouf is a writer who is able to skip past the surface of his characters lives into the place of perception. There’s a submerged feeling to all of his writing. While the reader follows a superficial and simple plotline, they are experiencing it through the character’s consciousness, with the same sense of confusion, sleepiness, and epiphany. In his latest collection of stories, Every Move You Make, one of the common threads linking the seven stories is the relationship between youth and maturity. Throughout the book, the narrative voices have the tendency to move closer and closer to his protagonists and to the things they see and experience until, thorough a sumptuous accumulation of detail, an inner truth is revealed about what it means to be a human.
The first four stories focus on a kind of coming of age. The first two stories are traditional coming of age pieces — that moment of transition between adolescence and adulthood, although the relationship between a youthful coming of age and the transition from adulthood to old age maturity is never far away. “The Valley of Lagoons” is narrated as a first person memoir set in Northern Queensland in the 1960s. The narrator is a thoughtful intellectual boy on his first hunting trip with McGowan family. The hunting trips are annual events, and one of the McGowan’s, Braden, is the narrator’s best friend. Another, Stuart, has been dating the narrator’s older sister. The story is driven forward, not so much through the plot, but through the progression of the narrator from from wide eyed and slightly anxious child, through to self aware. Malouf’s descriptions of the narrator’s sensations and experiences are powerful, evocative and develop the character of his narrator better than any physical description could:
But a single ravaged limb thrust out in the dirt, the soaked denim of the jeans that covered it violently ripped and peeled away, black hairs curling on the hollow of the high and growing furlike close to the groin, has a brute particularity that brought me closer to something exposed and shockingly intimate in him, to the bare forked animal, than anything I had seen when he stood fully naked under the shower. I was shaken.(53)
The writing is both naively delicate, and wise, set with the wisdom of hindsight without losing the immediacy of its insights. Much of this story is pure poetry:
This greenish light, full and luminous, always with a heaviness in it that was a reminder of the underlying dark – like the persistent memory, under even the most open of cleared land, of the ancient gloom of rainforests – was for me the light by which all moments of expectation and high feeling would in my mind for ever be touched. This was the country I would go on dreaming in, wherever I lay my head. (58)
The title story in the book, “Every Move You Make” is also about the acquiring of adult wisdom, although the protagonist is a little older and the third person narrative further removed. Jo is a young woman who grows through tragedy. Like all of the stories in Every Move You Make there is a moment when youth and age meet, and in this story it happens literally:
On another occasion, on the third or fourth day, she woke to find she had finally emerged from herself, and wondered – in the other order of time she now moved in – how many years had passed. She was older, heavier, her hair was grey, and this older, greyer self was seated across from her wearing the same intent, puzzled look that she too must be wearing. (82)
Sadness and loss permeate all the stories, but it never becomes either depressing or oppressive. Always the loss is matched by the gain in understanding and a greater sense of the beauty in almost every detail that the characters find. Jo finds a beginning in her ending. So too does Charlie Dowd, the protagonist of “War Baby”, who spends two weeks leaving for Vietnam and then returns after it, struggling to come to terms with the changes in both his home town and within him. Again, there is a moment when the newly mature Charlie confronts the younger Charlie: “the boy was still there, his wallet and the little machine for producing roll-your-owns, which he had long since abandoned, on the sill before him. Urgently, solemnly setting down his thoughts. (123) Charlie doesn’t get to the point of clarity that narrator of “The Valley of Lagoons” or “Every Move You Make” but it doesn’t matter. In the melding of the miraculous with the “ordinary and explicable” the “glimpse” of transcendence is enough. The reader senses, along with Charlie, that there is indeed something miraculous in the “concatenation of small events” – that an awakening is all we need to move past the many confusions and tragedies that complicate our lives towards the creation of meaning.
The other stories in the book explore the aging process from an older perspective, with an even more intense, tilt towards transcendence. “Towards Midnight” is back in the first person – an introspective narrative from the point of view of a woman who is undergoing chemotherapy in an Italian village outside Siena. Although the woman experiences the usual pain and nausea of chemo, along with an impending sense of her death, she finds beauty in watching a youthful workman who comes to swim in her pool each night: “Back and forth he hurled himself. Effortless, the body its own affair. Weightless. As if there was no limit to the energy that powered it. As if the breath it drew on might have no end.” (148) It is, in an odd way, the woman’s own breath, drawing in and out without limit. And nothing really happens as such in this, as in the other stories on the outside. The woman gets her medicine, and returns, alone to her house. It’s hardly the stuff of fiction, but Malouf turns it into a wonderful moving piece on immortality and endurance. Other stories are similarly quiet on the outside, whether they follow a man’s visit from Lithgow to Sydney for his sister in law’s funeral, accompanied by his father in law, or an aging woman’s visit to Uluru with her tediously sophisticated son Donald. Mrs Porter of “Mrs Porter and the Rock” opens the story with irritation: “on sufferance, accepting, with minimal grace, what Donald had intended as a treat.” (172) But as the story progresses, Mrs Porter becomes a kind of Mrs Dalloway character as her hallucinations take her inside the pain of others. In a way that mirrors some of Malouf’s earlier world like Remembering Babylon she has apparitions that seem to speak of the dreamtime. Her dreams seem to drive her forward towards her own demise, but as she moves closer to her own end, she heads towards a beginning, merging the spectacular colours of her own immortality with those of the The Rock, and a dying dolphin she found as a child:
The waves continued to whisper at the edge of the beach. The colours continued to play over the humped back and belly, flushing, changing, until slowly they became less vivid. The pulsing under the gills fluttered, then ceased, and the flesh, slowly as they watched, grew silvery-grey, then leaden.(209)
Malouf’s capabilities reach full realization in the final story, “The Domestic Cantata,” which has been designed structurally to follow a musical cantata. The whole piece is set off by sound, with individual vocal chords like Sam McCall’s exasperated cry which opens the narrative: “Maaggieee!” to a kind of choral chaos of doors banging open and shut, children needing attention, clicking of knives and crockery, arguments, stories, and in general, lives being lived to the full in the present. Mingling with the choral of the busy household is an alterative recitative of reminiscence, musing, composition, unspoken but not silent—the inner voice. The reader gets both simultaneously, noise and silence playing off one another in perfect pitch:
They stood for a moment outside time, outside their thickened bodies, in renewed youthfulness. He nibbled. She sipped. The chord moved out through the house, discovering new possibilities in what might have passed for silence. (221)
Just when you think it can’t get any better, Malouf conjures a moment of pure sublimity that transcends everything—embodied in the voice of Maggie’s soprano as she sings Sam’s music. Maggie’s aria, repeated at intervals throughout the story, turn the domestic chaos into a beautiful piece of music: “She felt the vibrations still. No longer emanating from her, they went on where the music continued to flow and spread. Beyond the page.” Although in Sam’s limited scope, the noise of his life is part of what he struggles against, Maggie knows better and proves it with her instinctive wisdom that appears, almost effortlessly, in her voice, “a high pure sound out of elsewhere.” It is the culmination of the mishap and risk, the tornado of card games and shaking limbs, television noises, and calibrated sound. The chaos culminates in what comes out between Sam and Maggie. Sam’s work didn’t have to “make up for” life, but rather capture, distill, and celebrate it.
Although “The Domestic Cantata” is the most complex and extraordinary of the stories in this collection, all of the stories are set off by Malouf’s clear love of life that underpins the work. The plots move easily and the characters all develop forward, but it is the collective meaning created by the glimpse at something that goes beyond the prose that makes these stories so remarkable. This is a not to be missed collection of stories that are as important as they are pleasurable.