Troubled by Impossible Dreams: Fantasy and Desire in Gerald Murnane's A Lifetime on Clouds

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Author: Lars Andersson
Date: Dec. 2013
From: Antipodes(Vol. 27, Issue 2)
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,298 words

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WHAT IS THE PARTICULAR NATURE OF THE FRUSTRATION one feels upon reading the ending of Gerald Murnane's second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds (1976).' While critics have at times considered this text one of the author's lesser achievements, it remains eminently engaging, not to mention riotously funny, yet clearly lacking some of the more formally experimental elements of his more frequently discussed works, such as The Plains (1982) and Landscape within Landscape (1985). In many ways, A Lifetime on Clouds functions as a more generically realistic version of some of the key plot elements and thematic concerns of other, more "difficult" Murnane novels; to wit, it explores the unreliability of narrative as a representation of reality; the role of memory and fantasy in the shaping of an individual's perception of the world; and the difficulty of orientating oneself in relation to external ideologies and explanations of the experiences of life.

However, against the critical tendency to consider this novel a relatively straightforward exploration of a Catholic schoolboy in Melbourne in the 1950s, I want to propose a reading of the novel as not only a key text in the Murnane canon, but also as a novel that evocatively typifies some of the key contradictions in the political and historical context from which it emerged. Here, I suggest that this novel, even more than Murnane's other works, functions as a symptom of a particular moment in the history of the Western world. While the dominant formal component, the use of irony and satire, seemingly offers a radical critique of Catholic orthodoxy, I will argue that the ending of the novel largely conforms to an ideology of hopelessness in late capitalist, postmodern society. In essence, the novel traps the protagonist and the reader in a solipsistic world from which there is no escape. While seemingly "critical," this entrapment risks becoming politically paralyzing, obliterating any hope of change or resistance to dominant ideologies. Furthermore, I will link the conclusion of Murnane's novel to another modern conception of power in the mid-seventies, arguing that a vision of internalized subjection to a totalizing authority is a product of that specific moment in history. While such views of power have been influential and very widely discussed, they may now be considered more specifically as illustrative of their historical and socio-political context, as well as judged in terms of their potential efficacy in mobilizing resistance to such power structures.

The plot of Murnane's novel is predominantly centered on the inner life of an adolescent, Catholic schoolboy in the western suburbs of Melbourne in the 1950s. Adrian Sherd is initially depicted as being entirely submerged in his own fantasies of orgies with Hollywood starlets; the novel opens with an extended, bravura depiction of such an event. "He was driving a station wagon towards a lovely beach in Florida--an immense arc of untrodden white sand sloping down to the warm, sapphire-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. His name was Adrian Sherd. His friends in the car with him were Jayne and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A357865195