Dream Stuff earned Malouf overwhelming critical praise, and “Great Day” is often singled out as the finest story in the collection. Paul Sharrad, in his article on Malouf’s short prose, insists that Malouf is “Australia’s leading producer of ‘poetic prose.’” He finds that “the shorter work . . . relies for its impact on musical qualities such as rhythm and cadence and the modulation of evocative motifs” and allows Malouf “more consistently to tap into his creative strengths and to provide new insights into old experiences.” Rebecca Miller in her review of Dream Stuff Library Journal , praises “these nine beautiful and often brutal stories” that “[describe] a precarious world in which the imagination, through dreams, is the only thing that can face down the losses of life.” She adds, “Almost all of the stories here are superb, evocative creations.” She finds, “As a whole, the collection is like a tumultuous life: it reels through surprising turns of plot, alternating between moments on the brink of death in one story and loss of innocence in another, then presses on, redeemed only by the warmth of human feeling and a glimpse of the possible.” A review in the Economist applauds the tone of the collection, arguing that “there is nothing conventionally ‘dreamy’ about the stories themselves. Not so much as a trace of sentimentality. Not the least haziness or insubstantiality.” The reviewer also admires the solid construction, the “uncompromisingly gritty and emotionally charged” subject matter, the “extent of psychological territory covered,” and “physical landscape” of the stories, which is “carefully charted.” The review concludes by insisting, “Such, in the hands of a latter-day Prospero like Mr. Malouf, is the stuff that dreams are made on.”
Peter Pierce, in his article on Dream Stuff finds “an artful casualness” in the stories and praises their focus on “the variegated stuff of dreams—longed for and summoned up. Or come unbidden, bringing peace, or disquiet,” which, he claims is their “unifying metaphorical thread.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes the regionalism of the stories, arguing that “Malouf . . . has a peculiarly Australian sensitivity to the mechanics of large families” and that his “stories show his feeling for the intense grip of the continent’s space upon its people.” Yet, the reviewer also insists that Malouf “[transcends] regionalism by his instinct for that odd, modulated empathy victims and outsiders can feel for their assailants” and so “shows a rare, exploratory intelligence coupled with a compassionate view of human conduct.” Singling out “Great Day,” this reviewer states, “of the nine stories gathered in Malouf’s latest collection, most are excellent, and one—“Great Day,” the final entry—is outstanding,” finding it “elegantly structured and perfectly pitched.” Miller also singles out the story, which she claims is “the collection’s final and most deeply crafted work” as does a review in New Statesman that claims, ““Great Day” [is] a charming, life-affirming account of a family gathering on the bicentenary Australia Day in 1988.” While, like the other stories, it “also turns opaque, with characters making gnomic utterances,” the reviewer concludes that “here and elsewhere, Malouf’s fine writing does live up to its pretensions as often as not.” Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins traces the characters’ achievement of a harmonious balance.
In his article on David Malouf’s shorter fiction, Paul Sharrad argues that Malouf’s stories explore the mystery inherent in “the moment of contact between different orders of experience,” specifically “the mystery of what makes people tick” and “of how some of us find intuitive balance in a world that others force into solid blocks of unfeeling certitude.” These mysteries are the main focal points of “Great Day” in its chronicle of one day in the life of the Tyler clan. During the course of this day, readers get glimpses of what makes each member tick as well as their struggles with the inevitable tensions that arise in a tightly knit family structure. The day, however, becomes “great” by its close, when the characters are able to strike a balance between connection and disconnection and between the past and the future.
Ned, Angie and Ralph’s son, is one of the first to feel the tensions on the morning of Audley Tyler’s seventy-second birthday, which falls on a national Australian holiday. At eleven, Ned, “whose idea of the world was very different” from that of his relatives, has “a hunger for order that the circumstances of his life frustrated.” At breakfast, he wonders why Clem and Fran are still friends after getting a divorce. When he does not get a satisfactory answer to this mystery, he explodes, “People never tell me anything. . . . How am I ever going to know how to act or anything if I can’t find out the simplest thing?” Later in the day, when he sees a group of people begin to set up a bonfire on the beach, he is certain that they are breaking rules and so tells one of the boys who has come up suddenly behind him to “piss off.” Nat gets no satisfaction from his father who tells him, “it’s a free country.” Preferring the more formal attitude of his grandfather, Ned turns to Audley but gets no response. Yet, Audley’s formality tempers Ned’s indignation. When he returns to the beach and watches the group set up the bonfire, Ned is able to find a balance between his need for rules, his patriotism as he watches the celebratory fire, and his introduction to a new way of thinking. His experiences this day cause him to widen his view of the world, and as a result, he is able then to greet the boy he had rebuked earlier and so establish “a kind of reconcilement.” Fran and Angie have always felt a sense of disconnection between themselves and the rest of the Tyler family, “a close-knit tribe” that “hedged against intruders.” Angie was “always ill at ease in Madge’s kitchen, fearful she might register visible disapproval of the mess” she finds there. Angie “always felt, down here, like a child who had been dumped on them for a wet weekend and could find nothing to do.” As a result, she hangs back during family gatherings, staying on the edges of the celebrations and often leaving for a time to walk along the beach.
Fran was “never quite sure that Madge approved of her” and had married Clem because she regarded him “as a fellow sufferer among them and decided it was her role to save him.” Initially, she and Angie “had been wary of one another” because “they were so unalike,” but they eventually came together, feeling “so out of it at times that they would huddle in subversive pockets, finding relief in hilarity or in whispered resentment.” During Audley’s party, feeling overwhelmed by the crowd, the two go off together for a walk on the beach during which they criticize some of the guests.
Tension between Fran and the family has increased after the divorce, which becomes evident when the family ignores Clem’s question, “Do we look like newlyweds?” Yet, Fran is able to find a tentative balance in her relationship with the family by the end of the day. Malouf solves the mystery of Fran and Clem’s friendship when he notes that the two “had begun to see one another again, locked in an odd dependency. She was adventurous, what she wanted was experience, ‘affairs.’ Clem was the element in her life that was stable.” Fran also feels compelled to maintain her relationship with the family. She is one of those people “who’d got hooked on the Tylers,” to “the illusion of belonging, however briefly, to the world of rare affinities and stern, unfettered views they represented.” Her need for acceptance is illustrated in the vision she has while she and Angie watch the group on the beach drawing together by the bonfire. Fran admits, “I could sit here till I understood at last what it all means: why the sea, why the stars, why this lump in my throat.” When she imagines herself lying down on the sand with the others in “a circle of light,” Fran has an epiphany of sorts, suggesting that she can be content inside the circle of the family as well as outside it, by striking a balance between the two. This knowledge allows her to acknowledge her ties to Clem as well as to leave later with Cedric.
Clem, like his ex-wife, has always felt like an outsider to his family, especially after the accident, which caused him to lose much of his memory. Tension arises when he says “whatever [comes] into his head,” as he does with his newlywed comment. When he sits in his mother’s kitchen that morning, he tries to gain reassurance from her that she and his father loved him. Madge insists that they did and that he was Audley’s favorite, but then she admits that he may also have been a disappointment to his father.
By the end of the day, though, Clem is able to accept his role in the family, which is illustrated in the speech he gives after the museum has burned down. Feeling that “something more was needed” before everyone said goodnight, he begins to talk with growing confidence to these “friends, people he loved, who would understand if what he said went astray and did not come out the way he meant.” Like his wife, he experiences an epiphany this evening, recognizing a connection among all of them, which proves that “anything is possible. . . . Nothing ever gets .” This recognition makes everything “all right,” even though Fran had not been there. “They could go to bed now. He could. They all could. The day was over.” Audley realizes the same thing this evening after watching all his beloved family artifacts go up in smoke. Peter Pierce, in his article on the story, argues that “the destruction of the museum is cathartic” for Audley. Pierce claims that “he welcomes this destruction of the stuff of his past” because it serves as “a drastic cleansing of the sort that one’s own mind and actions can seldom manage.” Audley comes to recognize that his family, which represents the true importance of the past and of the present, has not been lost.
Wendy Perkins, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, David Malouf, Published by Gale Group, 2006