The latest work of fiction by Gerald Murnane, the great Australian prose writer, A Million Windows, begins by introducing a narrator: a writer, “seated at his small desk with his back to the glowing blind.” The light of the outside world is mediated; the setting is austere, small, confined. This is Murnane’s native environment—one also seen in Barley Patch, among his other recent titles. It is late afternoon, but the writer “would have got out of his bed and would have washed and dressed at first light.” This narrator is not a frivolous person, but someone disciplined, committed to his asceticism and solitude. He is reading, “by the light of desk-lamp, a sentence that he had written, perhaps only a few minutes earlier, at the head of a blank page.” A strong precedent is set: over the course of A Million Windows, the narrator will examine many words and sentences, not just his own, but also those of other writers—Raymond Carver, Alfred Jarry, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, to name a few—in order to try to get to the heart of something mysterious and difficult, a question that dominates all else in the book: how should I write fiction?
A Million Windows is organized into a series of fragments, many of which describe an image or a succession of connected images: a number of dark-haired women, a young woman “hardly more than a girl” who commits suicide, light reflecting off glass “like spots of golden oil,” and a many-storied house overlooking a sprawling garden. Interspersed with these images are discussions of different aspects of the craft of writing fiction, with the narrator complaining about how a particular book that he once admired has come to disappoint him: “I was at first dazzled by If on a winter’s night a traveler,” he tells us, “but I did not fail to note soon afterwards how little I could recall of its intricate contrivances.”
These images, memories, and discussions never progress, at least not in the way a story does; instead they intersect obliquely, carrying traces and hints of desire, longing, regret, apprehension, and misunderstanding whose painfulness or meaning is not always immediately clear. This is the grand and beautiful contradiction of Murnane’s writing: beneath the immaculate surface of his formal, outmoded sentences runs a dark current of hopelessly compressed—hopeless, in that is otherwise inexpressible, and seemingly irrevocable—emotion.
The recurring image of the house, which is described in detail, but never as a whole, organizes the fragments. There’s an obvious temptation to see the house as a metaphor for the narrator’s memory—a sort of Memory Palace—but Murnane is almost never figurative. The images connect visually rather than conceptually, diverging and converging unexpectedly, according to tiny flickers of color. The memory of a dark-haired schoolgirl who the narrator was at primary school with (he never spoke to her but can remember her turning towards him and looking at him “as though trying to get his measure”) leads to the memory of his own mother who
herself was dark-haired, as he seemed to have learned for the first time one cold morning during his fifth year and later to have forgotten until a certain cloudless afternoon with a cool wind blowing while he was sometimes writing at his desk and sometimes watching through his window the waving of a clump of treetops in the middle distance.
The world can seem, when reading Murnane, as a maze of as yet unmade phenomenal connections. Navigating this maze, and realizing the connections within it, are part of his preoccupation with the act of writing. In writing, these connections are both invented and discovered. A single, remote phrase might rise to a series of responses, which then, like fractals, multiply again. The sheer confusing simplicity of it both pleases and vexes. He dissects his writing and his memory in the way a Christian doctor might have a human corpse centuries ago: earnestly, hopelessly, in search of the soul.
This self-consciousness has unified Murnane’s prose ever since he resumed, following a pause of more than a decade, publishing books, first with Barley Patch in 2009, and then A History of Books in 2012. Taken together, these three most recent books might be seen as a single project: a form of fiction defined by a fragmentary style that avoids plot and characterization, and is instead narrated by association and the fugue-like repetition and variation of images.
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When I interviewed Gerald Murnane in 2012, he said something that stuck with me in the same, distinctive way so many of the plainly perfect and very often surprising sentences in his fiction do: “The old silly conundrum we used to ask at school: can God ever make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it? I would like to be able to write a text, or create a text, so complicated that I would get lost in it . . .”*
The title A Million Windows touches upon the reverence for complexity and endlessness that can be found in many of his books. The “million windows” of the title belong to the house of fiction, which Henry James refers to in the book’s epigraph, taken from the preface to The Portrait of a Lady: “The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million . . .” This brief sentence is Murnanian in its immediate idiosyncrasy and beauty, but also its sense of location and sensitivity to visual knowledge. Only the smallest part of what is at stake in Murnane’s universe is ever at any moment accessible. There may be a million windows, but they only serve to make us realize how little of the world we can know. The rest is there, of course, and if we strain or squint, a sliver more might be discernible, but only ever fleetingly, incompletely. When first introducing the house, the narrator declares, “I should report not the appearance of a particular house but the detail that first alerted me to the existence of the house in what I call the invisible world, which detail would surely have seemed likely to fulfill some or another long-held hope or expectation of mine.”
A Million Windows aches with the promise of half-seen and invisible things. It is also full of keys that unlock the method of Murnane’s writing, none more so than the following passage, which articulates the associative logic of his writing:
What others might have called meaning he called connectedness, and he trusted that he would one day see (revelation being for him always a visual matter) among the multitudes of details that he thought of as his life or as his experience faint lines seeming to link what he had never previously thought of as being linked and the emergence of a rudimentary pattern, which word had always been one of his favorites.
Murnane is eccentric, and often almost hermetic, but he is always deliberate, seeking out the most precise expression of his thoughts. His tone is that of a documentary film. He is both pedantic and romantic. His obsessiveness knows no limits. He avoids all certainty: “In this, as in many other matters, he preferred speculation to research.” Murnane is forever hesitant to find fixed meaning in the world, such as it exists outside of his own consciousness; he refuses to impose himself, preferring instead to be overwhelmed. But he is exacting and exhaustive. Life—expressed in sentences that proceed painstakingly, only to loop backwards without warning, ever so grammatically, accordingly to an incorrigible and emotional logic of memory—is microscopically patterned. He is perplexingly logical, and yet can seem impossibly conceptual, especially when describing fiction:
I object to such fiction because it claims to be other than fiction; because it makes the same absurd claim that a film makes: the claim that its subject matter is of the same order as what is commonly called real or true or actual. Fiction, even what I call true fiction, is fiction.
The people and things of Murnane’s fiction are only ever understood by the faint traces they leave in the world. Remembering a woman with whom he had briefly come into contact, the narrator of A Million Windows remarks that, “He would learn from the oddities of her handwriting and from the choice of words and the patterns and stresses in her prose a sort of knowledge that he could never hope to learn from mere conversation.” Patterns rise up and fall away in between Murnane’s fragments, each one, if only momentarily, a teleological remaking of an otherwise confusing world.
There’s plenty that is familiar about A Million Windows, particularly to anyone who has read Barley Patch and A History of Books, but nevertheless it is newly dizzying and grand. With his typical combination of shyness, sincerity, and thoroughness, the book encircles a tragedy, moving forever closer to it, but never reaching it. Given the elliptical and awkward nature of Murnane’s writing, an easy mistake is to strain to understand him, but his writing is a visual proposition: to enjoy him is to suddenly see the images that knot themselves together across the fragmentary passages of his recent books.
But Murnane, more than ever, is on his own. He is far from the conventions of fiction, and, as such, readers too. He makes no concessions. But he is closer to himself—to the first principles of his own consciousness, of the fiction he so ardently believes in—and because of that his writing glows with an exquisite, rarified loneliness. He has honed his sincerest, most childlike obsessions and feelings into ethereal shapes. He is skeptical of fiction in a way that suggests an overwhelming vulnerability to fiction. A Million Windows is a great escape, inwards. It possesses an intense, focused distractedness: a refusal not just to not see the forest for the trees, or even the trees for the leaves, but the leaves for whatever elementary particles they comprise. If you look at anything for long enough, Murnane has said, it becomes something else.
Will Heyward is an editorial assistant at Knopf. His book reviews and journalism can be found at willheyward.com.
* The full transcript of this interview was published originally in Higher Arc Issue 2, and then later, in an abridged format, in Music & Literature 3.