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Gerald Murnane: A Lifetime on Clouds

The introduction to my copy was written by Andy Griffiths. No, not Andy Griffith but Andy Griffiths. Griffiths says If you only read one Gerald Murnane novel in your life, make it this one. I disagree. The book is essentially divided into two parts. The first part can best be described as being about standard teenage sexual masturbatory fantasies, while the second one might best be described as being about teenage Catholic fantasies. While the book is certainly amusing in part, as Griffiths points out, and mockingly makes the comparison between the hero’s early sexual fantasies and his later Catholic fantasies, I do not find that this makes for great literature. Griffith’s rightly points out that our hero’s view of the history of the world is, to a certain extent, viewed as a masturbatory history of the world and that the comparison between our hero’s erotic fantasies and the dull Melbourne life he leads is one of the many delights of the novel. However, surely all of us view the world and its history through our own prism and if that prism is masturbatory fancies, well, that is how he is going to see the world. Similarly, surely one of the main purposes of masturbation is to take you away from your humdrum existence.

Adrian Sherd is a fifteen-year old boy living in a poor suburb of Melbourne in the 1950s. He has two younger brothers, who are never named. He goes to school and then comes home, where he does chores around the house. Around four times a week, he masturbates. His masturbatory fancies are famous Hollywood film stars. He has never seen any of them in a film as his Catholic parents will not allow him to see any films except wholesome Disney-style films. However, he has seen photos of them in the The Argus. As we later find out, this is considered an unacceptable paper by the Catholic hierarchy and, indeed, they vow to bring it down (which, of course, later happens). However, Adrian’s father takes it, as it is, in his opinion, the best for sport. Adrian has therefore seen photos of Marilyn, Jayne, Susan and others. (We are only given their first names, though it is generally not too difficult to guess who they are.) Adrian has a train set in the back shed. The tracks are laid out on a crude map of the United States. He runs the train and, where the train stops, is where he sets his fantasy. His fantasy involves normally three of the film stars. In various ways, he manages to persuade them to remove their clothes and then have sex with them.

He does, of course, exchange notes with his schoolfriends, who seem to masturbate more than he does. Adrian is determined to avoid having masturbatory fantasies about women he knows, even those he sees in real life, such as the woman he sees on the train or his cousin. This does not seem to be a constraint for his friends. He (and, to a limited extent, they) worries about the fact that it is a moral sin. He confesses to his confessor, as do the others, though one masturbates so much that he tries to avoid going to confession. They also try to see the real thing. One of Adrian’s abiding concerns is that he has never actually seen a vagina, either for real or a photo, except for schematic drawings. Part of the amusement involves his attempt to see one. He also wonders whether real men and women behave as he does in his fantasies. In the books he reads, men and women quite simply do not do such stuff. Of course, the priests have their say, and they are continually advising the boys on what to do and, in particular, what not to do.

But then his life changes, when he sees a girl at church. Later he sees her on the train and, from then on, always makes sure that he travels in her compartment on the train back from school. His masturbation stops. He wants to be in a state of grace, so his fantasies revolve around a clean, wholesome, Catholic life with this girl, whom he nicknames Earth Angel, though he does later learn her real name. Indeed, his fantasies are as unreal as his sexual ones. He changes his behaviour, no longer associating with his former schoolfriends but becoming friends with those he has marked down as being in a state of grace. A priest mentions a US book on psychology. According to the book, over ninety per cent of boys have experimented with masturbation before they’re eighteen years old. Of course these figures wouldn’t apply to Catholic boys but it certainly makes you stop and think. It seems that these figures would not apply to Catholic boys but, rather, that the figure may well be higher for Catholic boys, as all these new found friends are masturbating as much as the old ones. But Adrian is determined to remain in a state of grace and become a good Catholic.

The book is certainly amusing. It is certainly mocking, making fun of teenage boys, the Catholic church and old-fashioned, puritanical values. Adrian is a sympathetic character and obviously most males can identify with his sexual urges, even if, as Griffiths coyly says in the introduction, not to that extent. Clearly, the Catholicism adds an element which does not apply to many. But to say that it is the only Murnane book you should read ? I don’t think so.