These notes are about 3 printed pages long.
The Floor of Heaven was first published in 1992. Now in its third edition, it has been set from time to time as an optional prescribed text for the New South Wales (Australia) Higher School Certificate English Extension 1 course. The ‘gender’ course module requires students to investigate, explore and evaluate the ways in which language shapes and reflects culture and values as they relate to gender. Here are some questions that a reader might want to ask:
Q: Is the confusion about who is narrating each section of the poem meant to convey anything about how gender is shaped and reflected by language?
JT: Partly so. Though I got the idea for those unreliable narrators and the dream-within-a-dream shape from Luis Bunuel’s 1972 film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie.
Q: Are you challenging and blurring gender conventions and other assumptions about the identity and role of the narrator especially for example, at the end of Rain Part 3?
JT: As I began to write the last part of ‘Rain’, I had in mind that the narrator — an architect or town planner — was in some ways the ‘hero’ of that story. But of course the assumption of who is telling which story, and therefore who has the authority, who is in charge, can be questioned. I hope the complexities of the shifting roles of some of the characters might come as a pleasant surprise, and encourage the reader to query assumptions like that.
Q: Who is the narrator? Why is the identity of the narrator sometimes doubtful or obscure?
JT: There are different narrators for each of the poems. Usually the writer ‘owns’ the narrator, and the narrator ‘owns’ his or her story. But I like my readers to feel that they ‘own’ the poems, that they can decide what the poems mean at a deep level.
A person’s dreams usually have a strong feeling of meaningfulness: they seem to mean something important, if only we could work out what it is. But when you have a dream, who is ‘narrating’ the dream? It can’t be ‘you’, or you’d know exactly what the dream means, and you hardly ever do. The poems in this book are meant to work like dreams.
The narrators tell the reader certain things (that is, what I, the writer, make the various narrators tell), but what the characters offer to each other (and thus to the reader, who is overhearing) is sometimes a misunderstanding, or is biassed or distorted by the narrator’s needs or desires or failures to understand everything that has happened. And of course nothing else has happened except what we can read on the page.
What was Hamlet doing when he wasn’t on the stage? Nothing: he doesn’t exist when he is not present on the stage. What he had for lunch or what he did at university only exists in our imagination. And when you think about it, what he does when he is on stage only exists in our imagination, too. Those people don’t all die at the end of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: they are just actors.
The actors tell us their stories in real life, but the characters live and die in our imagination.
In 2012, I received a query from a high school student:
My English Ext class is studying your prose novel The Floor of Heaven. We have been discussing «Stella» and we have had many arguments about whether or not the narrator is male or female. I personally think the narrator is female, however we were wondering if you could clear the air for us, it would be much appreciated.
Here’s what I replied:
… Thanks for writing. When I wrote «The Floor of Heaven» some twenty years ago I meant some of the narrators to be male, some female, and one ambiguous until the final page of the story. But with «Stella» the narrator is meant to be the same gender as the reader.
When I imagined and wrote the poem the narrator was seeing things through my eyes — or vice versa, perhaps. So he was probably male, in a vague way.
Once the story is published, though, it belongs to the reader, not to me. I meant that narrator’s voice to be neutral. One reason was to allow the other characters, especially Max, to take over the story strongly. So I wanted that narrator to be simply an observer, the way a camera observes a movie unfolding. When an old man reads that story, he will probably think of that narrator as rather like himself. When a young woman reads that story, she will probably see that narrator as rather like herself.
Basically I wanted to get some distance from Max, who recounts much of the story, and who is a very unreliable narrator. Stella, for example, seems to be a selfish user (though Max can’t see that) and after a few years probably became totally sick of him (we guess), though Max can’t allow himself to see that either.
If the story’s narrator was involved in the action, he or she would probably comment on how selfish Stella is, and how self-serving and dishonest Max is, but I want the reader herself to work that out, not have it worked out for her.
Making the narrator neutral is meant to allow the reader to move into the story, inside the narrator’s head (as it were), and take over the job of interpreting and judging what’s going on. My main aim is to allow the reader to “own” the story. Sure, I wrote it, but then I gave it to the readers, and now they own it. I hope they enjoy it.
I hope that helps.
The narrator in «Rain», the last story, is quite different; and has a definite gender. But that’s another story.
These links may be useful for background research for The Floor of Heaven:
[»»] Andrew Riemer
[»»] Christopher Pollnitz
[»»] Carmel Bird
[»»] Alison Croggon
[»»] Catherine Kenneally
Off-site: [»»] Jack Israel, in Frigate Magazine, USA
A detailed critical analysis by Kate Lilley: Textual Relations: John Tranter’s "The Floor of Heaven". This piece was first published in Southerly magazine, Sydney, Volume 60, Number 2, September 2000. It is 3,200 words or about ten printed pages long.
Kate Lilley interviews John Tranter:
An interview with John Kinsella which mentions the book several times:
A long discussion (in an MA thesis) of many poems including "The Floor of Heaven" (This is in Adobe Acrobat PDF format):
Katherine Furgol: Dwelling on The Floor of Heaven: An Analysis of John Tranter’s Verse Novel — B.A. Thesis by Katherine Furgol for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2006.
Some of my own notes to the poem ‘Breathless’, as it appeared in my book Urban Myths in 2006:
‘Breathless’ is one of four similar long narrative poems in The Floor of Heaven, published in 1992 and set on the NSW school syllabus at various times under the general topic of ‘gender relations’. The book was widely reviewed, and some reviewers liked it and some did not. At least two female reviewers objected to its supposed masculine tone, and one spoiled the ending for anyone who had read her review before they had read the book.
Line 5 (in the version of the poem in Urban Myths): Florenzini’s]
Among the dreary wowser wasteland of Sydney in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was one oasis of bohemian good cheer, cheap spaghetti and plentiful red wine: a coffee lounge in Elizabeth Street near Hunter Street called Lorenzini’s. It later moved to William Street near King’s Cross, and later (late 1960s, I think) closed. The Newcastle Hotel in George Street Sydney near Circular Quay was another gathering place for artists, journalists and others; it closed in the early 1970s and the Qantas building now occupies the site. A detailed description of it is given in chapter ten of Martin Johnston’s novel Cicada Gambit (Hale & Iremonger, GPO Box 2552, Sydney NSW 2001) where it is disguised as the Wessex Hotel. The walls were covered with bad student paintings for sale. These two places (plus a few others) are blended into Florenzini’s.
Page 41, lines 23-24: “… her husband’s ranch wagon, rather, / an old Nash with fake wood panelling.”
Line 479: some insurance executive from New Haven]
In 1916 the poet Wallace Stevens joined the home office of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity and left New York City to live in Hartford, where he would remain the rest of his life. By 1934, he had been named Vice President of his company. One of his poems is titled An Ordinary Evening in New Haven (1950).
Line 692: The Harbour flows always to the East…]
the poem which Mr Lee recites is a loose (and indeed rather clumsy) translation of the first and last stanzas of ‘Meditation at Red Cliff’, by Su Shih, the Sung Dynasty Chinese poet and scholar of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism whose literary name was Su Tung P’o, A.D. 1036–1101. A complete and more reliable version, translated by Yu Min-chuan, can be found in the anthology The White Pony, ed. Robert Payne, Mentor (The New American Library of World Literature), New York, 1960, page 266.
Finally, a PDF file of the first two poems in the book The Floor of Heaven. This file is free to read in its entirety.
The two other poems, “Breathless” and “Rain”, are only available in the printed version of the book, available from the distributor, the University of Queensland Press at http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/.
Printed copies of this book can be purchased from the publisher’s website:
or from the University of Queensland Bookshop mail order department: phone (617+) 3346 9434, fax (617+) 3365 1988 and email at
The book can also be purchased on the internet: