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The Strange Brilliance of Gerald Murnane

The Strange Brilliance of Gerald Murnane

The first Gerald Murnane book I read was The Plains, originally published in 1982. I only came across it because my Australian publisher sent it to me in 2016, along with a few other books. I picked it up out of curiosity, and was immediately drawn in. As I get older, I rarely find my sense of the possibilities of fiction changed by a new writer, but Murnane did that for me: The Plains read almost as if Kafka had drained a few Fosters and written an outback novel. It takes the Australian interior and reworks it into an odd and mythical place with a very peculiar etiquette. It was stunningly good, and made me want to read everything Murnane had written.

Now, more than half a dozen books in, I think of Murnane in terms similar to how I think of one of my other favorite writers, Antoine Volodine. Both have eccentric concerns and approaches, both demand to be read in a way different from what you’re used to, and both leave you constantly guessing as to what they’re doing. Where Volodine nimbly crosses lines between genres in a way that keeps reinventing an imagined future world, Murnane crosses the line between fiction and nonfiction. Each “story” or “novel” raises auto-fictional questions in a highly original and metafictional (or perhaps metanonfictional) way. Material used in one piece of “fiction” (or “report”, as he calls them in Border Districts) circulates back in slightly different forms. With Murnane (as with Volodine), the more you read, the more you experience a sense of déjà vu, as if you’re reading something you’ve already read before, as if all of his fictions are in conversation with one another and each new one changes your sense of the earlier ones.

This is clearly manifest in the two books by Murnane that FSG published this year, the short novel Border Districts and the story collection Stream System. Stream System collects short fiction from throughout Murnane’s career, gathering work previously found in four earlier collections as well as one additional story. It gives a quite accurate sense of Murnane’s development as a writer and is a strong introduction to his concerns, his obsessions, and his stylistic tics. Here, he moves between the impersonal and the intimate, plays with notions of fiction and fact, plumbs more than one character’s childhood which seems to resemble very closely his own, and above all strings together disparate mental images to create remarkable and unexpected resonances. Many of the stories are about the act of writing itself, including one, “Stone Quarry,” about an imaginary creative writing workshop in which participants work under a vow of silence. Others detail a writer’s imagination of a country that doesn’t exist, including an elaborate system used to predict a series of imagined horse races. Almost all deal with rural Australia, with their protagonists’ relation to place, but also with their relation to books. Indeed, one of Murnane’s concerns is with the few scattered images that remain in the mind years after a book has been read—images that often have little do with anything touched upon in the book itself.

As “Emerald Blue” suggests, what fiction is about for Murnane is the depiction of a mind and its operations—though his definition of mind is slightly eccentric:

He had come to believe that he was made up mostly of images. He was aware only of images and feelings. The feelings connected him to images and connected the images to one another. The connected images made up a vast network. He was never able to imagine this network as having a boundary in any direction. He called the network, for convenience, his mind.

Many of these stories are about linking one image to another and trying to articulate the feelings they create in a way that might be accessible to someone (i.e. the reader) who exists outside of that mind. In that sense these are intimate stories, sometimes almost uncomfortably so, but also analytic ones, ones that are really convinced that language can productively strive to create and convey a representation of “mind.”

You can see the struggle it is to talk about Murnane’s fiction, since in a way it is about itself—but not in a way that strikes a careful reader as pedantic or insular. The strength of it is that it deals with the minute particulars of how a human being interacts with the world in a way that is, at its best, revelatory: Murnane makes you think closely about the way you interact with the world, and the way the mind uses those interactions to augment the image systems of which it is composed.

Border Districts can almost be read as a distillation of Stream System, since it takes up many of the same concerns, though what makes it a powerful book—and indeed, I think of it as among Murnane’s two or three best—is its concision and the delicacy with which it renders its connections. True, it has many of the metafictional gestures of Murnane’s earlier novel Barley Patch, including moments in which Murnane will give us a paragraph and then spend the next paragraph describing what he did or thought after writing it. Murnane never lets us forget for long that we are reading something written, and he never lets us get far from the process of that writing.

Barley Patch takes these metafictional gestures fairly far, quite frequently calling attention to the writing and sometimes even using curious circumlocutions to refer to characters in such a way as to keep them from coming fully to life (calling one, for instance, over and over, “the chief character”). But Border Districts has found more of a balance. For me, Barley Patch has compelling, even glorious moments, but Border Districts builds quietly and slowly and unexpectedly from beginning to end. It is a book about light, colored glass, and religion as much as it is about anything, with an aging man reflecting on the way these variables are linked by particular moments and images across his life. It carries forward with no real plot, the mind of the narrator being what gives the work shape. It demands to be read in a way different than we normally read fiction; the more of Murnane’s work you read, the more you see the nuance of it, and the more satisfying it is.

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It’s hard to describe Murnane in a way that suggests how wonderful he can be to read. There are no knife fights or quick plot twists, and any sex scenes are usually abbreviated and onanistic. There are not even any of the party scenes you get in Proust, in which you see the resonance of ripples within a social order. In terms of action, you might get someone’s trip by train from the country to stay a few days in a city so as to visit a relation who is in a monastery. Or a writer invited to a festival in Tasmania who has never ridden in an airplane and refuses to come unless they bring him by boat, and who, anxious, drinks his way through the trip. That might explain why, despite having been told in abstract ways by a half dozen people how great Murnane’s Barley Patch was back when it came out from Dalkey Archive in 2011, it took me until picking up and reading The Plains to understand. Murnane is unlike anyone else, the sort of writer who demands to be read in a new way but, above all, demands to be read.


Stream System
Border Districts
By Gerald Murnane
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published April 3, 2018


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