Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 20, 2022

The Electrical Experience, by Frank Moorhouse

I had a little buying spree after the death of Frank Moorhouse earlier this year, and found copies of Forty-seventeen (1988) and this one, The Electrical Experience: a Discontinuous Narrative from 1974. It’s wrongly entered at Wikipedia as a short story, but at 188 pages it’s not. It’s a modernist novella. and I reckon that makes it his first novel and a remarkable debut…

The book is prefaced by two Tables of Contents, one listing the more-or-less chronological and coherent narratives about T. George McDowell (TGM) and the mystery of a man who thinks that business is all that matters, and the other listing fragments which purport to be authoritative miscellanea that support George’s preoccupations, plus some B&W photos from the early 20th century.  It’s a clever structure which he termed a discontinuous narrative which was innovative for its time.

Born just after Federation, TGM is a businessman who makes soft drinks on the NSW south coast.  He’s a man of strong opinions, though he keeps many of them to himself. He is anti-government and anti-union, and he broke a local strike by hassling the weakest individuals until they gave in under pressure.  He thinks that reason, progress and stability are defence against a changing world that he doesn’t like, represented by his wayward third daughter Terri.  (He was, of course, hoping for a son.)  He has a pragmatic marriage and a stalwart wife, and he’s obsessed by electrification, refrigeration and the wireless. He likes the positive American approach in the Readers’ Digest.

While on the one hand the narratives reveal TGM’s enthusiasm for Rotary, hard work, and Getting Things Done, they also reveal the hollowness of his philosophy.  On a trek with Dr Trenbow, he is drawn into a discussion by the campfire, where he is quizzed about what’s influenced him.  He has drawn values from Rotary after a trip to America in 1923, but there isn’t a branch on the South Coast.  He’s not a believer, and he can’t remember any book except The Message to Garcia which he read for an ICS (International Correspondence School) course — it’s an 1899 essay by Elbert Hubbard in 1899, expressing the value of conscientiousness in work and unquestioning obedience.  A later narrative reveals that loyalty isn’t among his values: he refuses to help a friend in business difficulties who had stood by him, because Tutman should have moved with the times. He should have known that the ice-delivery business was doomed.

The irony is, as we see even more clearly in the 21st century than Moorhouse did in the 1970s, that TGM’s own business is doomed by the arrival of multinationals like Coca-Cola, and that it is American business that he admires so much that will crush small businessmen like him.

With the convulsions at Twitter this weekend, we should remember that transitions in communication have previously been cause for dismay.  TGM’s discussion with Scribner about forms of communication seems just as relevant today.  Scribner talks about the letter as a ‘failure of form’ which has not profited from mass literacy because ‘the people’ have never made anything of it. but when TGM suggests that the telephone has harmed the letter, Scribner responds that the telephone can be an instrument of art.  While he is surely a mouthpiece for Moorhouse himself when he says that the art  comes from striving, practice, revision and attachment to the traditions — poetry, painting and so forth, he also values the art which comes from felicitous practice in the daily run of our lives: 

We must not undervalue the spontaneous, the ephemeral, the extemporaneous. (p.99)

We will surely miss the spontaneity, the ephemera and the impromptu nature of Book Twitter if it disappears.  It’s not like other forms of social media which can be toxic… it’s where authors and readers come together in shared enthusiasm for the joys of books and reading.

In our era of fake news, we can see that Moorhouse was prescient too, in his character’s anxiety about truth. TGM is uncertain about what to believe.

What is the news from Berlin?

What is the news from Paris? London? Just how does one know what is really happening? Who to ask? On what does one construct one’s actions in these times of allegation?

Where are the Rules of Conduct? (p.108)

Two thirds of the way through the novella, Terri makes an appearance.  This section brings the novella into the seventies, with TGM in confused retirement and the younger generation harsh in their critique of those who’ve gone before them.  Terri betrays her father first of all by seducing a Coca-Cola rep, and then with a film crew, making a film about An Australian of the First Half Century.  They make a mockery of their hapless victim by concealing their intention to expose Australians as pliable, servile, bigoted… dullards. 

1974 was an exciting year for Australian fiction with a progressive government in Canberra, and strong support for the arts.  In that same year as The Electrical Experience, Thea Astley published A Kindness Cup, (see my review) and Gerald Murnane published Tamarisk Row (see my review). Thomas Keneally published Blood Red, Sister Rose (on my TBR) and Ronald McKie won the Miles Franklin for The Mango Tree (also on my TBR).  Though Moorhouse paints a disconcerting picture in his examination of the Australian soul, The Electrical Experience is the kind of literature that interrogates our society fearlessly.  We need more of it.

Author: Frank Moorhouse
Title: The Electrical Experience
Publisher: Picador, 1996, first published 1974
ISBN: 9780330356879, pbk., 188 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from AbeBooks.

 


Responses

  1. Thank you for reminding me of this novel. It is fascinating to read Frank’s books in sequence. One of the country’s great writers.

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    • Yes… I wonder, Carmel, you might be the person to know….
      I discovered in the early days of this blog that Tom Keneally started his writing career with modernist novels and then transitioned to more accessible fiction which is sometimes literary and sometimes not IMO. Did Moorhouse do the same?

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      • I am no expert on this. But it seems to me that Frank was always a very individual, perhaps idiosyncratic writer of great distinction who followed not fashion but just his instinct and his heart.

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  2. Fascinating to see also how Moorhouse used some of the same characters in his books. George was Edith’s childhood school friend who visited her in Geneva in the first book (on his way back from the Rotary tour of the US) and again in the second book when Edith returns to Australia for a while to visit her father. They have a memorable dinner at his home.

    Forty-Seventeen was also the first time he introduced Edith to the world. Apparently she changed somewhat by the time he wrote the trilogy. I’m curious to see what he did.

    I’ll add this to the AusReading Month list as well :-)

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    • Thanks, Brona. Yes, he mentions in the back of the book that readers can learn more about some of the characters from short stories that were published elsewhere. I’ll read Forty-seventeen next and see what I find.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. […] The Electrical Experience | Frank Moorhouse (reviewed by Lisa @Anz LitLovers) […]

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  4. It is close to fifty years since I read “The Electrical Experience”, and the details had slipped my memory, and your descriptions, Lisa, rang faint bells. There was, I think, a sequel, of sorts, called “The Coca Cola Kid”, and that was turned into a film. Hmm, … I have googled the name of the film, and the sequel book (discontinuous novel) was “The Americans, Baby”. Or maybe it is a prequel to “The Electrical Experience”? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coca-Cola_Kid
    But that was not my first Frank Moorhouse book. I read, about fifty years ago, “Futility, and Other Animals”, attracted, perhaps, by the Thurberesque eccentricity of the title, and was struck, intensely, by the discontinuity of the stories and vignettes, AND by the way it seemed to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s first major book, “In Our Time”, a pioneering discontinuous narrative, which is another way of saying, “linked short stories”, something that Henry Lawson, and Rudyard Kipling invented even earlier, with the same characters recurring in different contexts, without the continuity of a joined-up narrative, chapter by chapter, story by story. At the time I was hugely impressed by “Futility” and “The Americans, Baby”, and, as I often do, I hesitated to continue reading later Moorhouse, for fear I would be disappointed by the writer he turned into.

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    • Hello again John:)
      How interesting what you say about Hemingway… I’m sure there are many allusions that I’ve missed in a first reading of this very clever book, but I didn’t miss the allusion to Hemingway. (I don’t include everything in a review, but it’s in the notes in my reading journal.)
      TGM has never heard of him, but he has a meeting with Zee Gee (Zane Gray, the popular American author of adventure fiction) who wanted Hemingway to join him on a fishing trip, and he doesn’t understand the depths of ZG’s disappointment. Or Hemingway’s disdain, which Moorhouse almost certainly did, but makes no comment.
      Wikipedia, which as I’ve said, wrongly describes this as a short story, so I’m not confident that its list of FM’s writing is accurate. It would be interesting to read a not-too-scholarly survey of his writing career, I think…

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      • Thanks, Lisa, for your swift reply. I have edited the Wikipedia listing so that “Short stories” now reads “Linked Short stories (Discontinuous narrative)”. We shall see how long the Wikipedia-minders of “Frank Moorhouse” leave this. My attempts to edit other Wikipedia articles have sometimes been removed within a few days. Zane Gray was, of course, most famous as an author of Westerns, such as “Riders of the Purple Sage”.

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        • Happens to me sometimes too, John, but I’m glad you persevere! What you’ve done here looks sensible to me.

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          • Ha ha, as you know, WP interference on topics they know nothing about has happened to me too often which is why I don’t contribute to WP any more.

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  5. Of course your first paragraph sent me to Wikipedia, but I see that your commenter John has already corrected it in a way that seems right from the book’s subtitle.

    Anyhow, I have always wanted to read some of these earlier short works of his. One day, maybe I will.

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    • I would still call it a novel. Plenty of novels have discontinuous narratives.

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  6. I did read Frank Moorhouse in my younger life and can remember being impressed but have no idea of the books. Your reminder of that fresh wind that blew accross Oz for too short a time with the first Labor government under Gough Whitlam makes me feel the missed opportunity for a much better country.

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    • Oh yes, it was a time of such hope and excitement, and then it all fizzled out…

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  7. Gosh, another author I keep meaning to read. (Sigh). I might even have one somewhere on the shelf or Kindle. I must look. My TBR stack is as tall as I am. Just stop it!!!! Lol. Twitter….what a mess. E M is such a strange man.

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    • Indeed he is. I wonder if what he actually wants to do it to destroy it. Twitter has often been rude about him, and is even more so noe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • He is just so unpredictable. Beyond reason I think. 🙃

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  8. I have a Moorehouse collection somewhere, Conferenceville or The Americans, Baby, one of those but I’m sure I haven’t read it these last forty or fifty years.
    You remind me of Christmases in the country with crates of locally (Swan Hill) made soft drinks with those black screw corks.

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    • I remember our family’s astonishment when our first Australian neighbours had a crate of Loy’s soft drinks delivered every week. We were English children who entered life during rationing, and no matter where we lived, we did not have sweet things except as treats, for birthdays and such like. No wonder our dentist was startled by our excellent teeth!

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  9. […] The Electrical Experience | Frank Moorhouse (reviewed by Lisa @Anz LitLovers) […]

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