Pity Gerald Murnane’s publicist. Authors fleeing attention can be made into myths of course, but it helps if they do the fleeing somewhere in the vicinity of where they might be discovered. Murnane is famous enough in Australia—and rumored to be on the short list for a Nobel—but his refusal to leave his home country has limited the reach of his reputation. By simultaneously releasing Stream System, a collection of Murnane’s short fiction produced over the past thirty years, and Border Districts, his purportedly last novel, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is clearly hoping that his books will finally do what their author has not: travel the world, make landing in all the major cities where English is spoken, and take up residence in that most trying of countries, the United States. While Murnane’s allergy to travel is apparently real, the other rumors—that he’s never boarded an airplane or worn sunglasses, that he does not own a phone or computer, that he addictively gambles on horses and has memorized practically every combination of racing colors he has ever glimpsed, that he learned Hungarian at age fifty-six—these his publicist will neither confirm nor deny. Whether such details will prove too weird or just weird enough to produce the kind of mystique that attracts American readers is unclear, but they are, in any case, no match for the peculiarities of his fiction. Just once, perhaps, it would be nice to encounter a willfully odd recluse who retreats to his study to produce feel-good romantic comedies or generic potboilers, but Murnane is not such a case
In fact plot of any sort seems to be the one thing absent from most of Murnane’s fiction. Stream System is eclectic, with no story quite like any other in content or style, but certain fixations lend the compendium a unity, a geography of thought that is recognizably Murnane’s. Over and over we encounter real and imagined landscapes, maps, horse races and racing colors, forgotten and discarded books, adolescent sexual anxieties that persist longer than they should, objects and people repeatedly referred to as those “mentioned in the previous paragraph,” images that have passed through the supposed author’s mind while writing the very text we are reading, which summon other images, which demand description, which provokes further thoughts about further images, and so forth. Things do often happen to his characters and Murnane occasionally tracks these developments chronologically, but more often his fictions splay out in atemporal fashion, becoming a web of discrete moments all connected to each other through multiple strands of association.
Here’s a recap of the titular story. The narrator visits a location designated “stream system”—two connected bodies of water so labeled on a map. He notes that the bodies are yellow-brown, despite being pale blue on the map. One of them makes him think of a human heart. But its oval shape actually resembles a gold jewelry item from a 1946 catalog. He recalls studying the catalog in the house of his four unmarried aunts where he stayed as a child. This alongside the Saturday Evening Post leads him, while young, to imagine himself wearing jewelry as an adult living in America. He also pictures the jewelry item hanging just below the throat of his one married aunt.
As an adult he returns in his mind to the map. Together, the two bodies of water suggest a mustache, that of his grandfather, whom he feared, and that of an overseer whom he witnessed supervising, near the area now labeled Stream System, the killing of rats by the inmates of a mental hospital where his father worked. The Stream System also resembles a woman’s bra, which reminds him of the time he tried, using an illustration, to explain to his brother a bra’s function and was interrupted by his father, who explained that the illustration actually pictured a woman in an evening dress. The narrator, we learn, is presently walking in the place whose location on the map resembles the spot in the picture of the woman’s chest that his father rapped with a knuckle.
The narrator recalls one of the inmates of the mental hospital, Boy Webster, described by his mother as not a “loony,” just “backward.” He thinks about his brother, also described by his mother as “backward,” whose efforts to speak consisted only of “strange sounds.” The narrator admits that he was “never a friend to my brother.” Boy Webster, he reports, spoke endlessly of firecarts and firemen. The narrator has a conversation with a housepainter who met Webster as an older man, still hospitalized, still obsessed with firemen; the painter tells the narrator that he brought Webster a cloak and hat which allowed Webster to believe that he was a fireman. The narrator describes visiting his brother, who was dying in the hospital. He kept his arm around him for the whole day while speaking to him, hoping someone would notice him so he could announce that he was the patient’s brother. His brother, the narrator tells us, died the next night alone.
The narrator remembers considering giving a pendant to the woman who was going to be his wife; his married aunt, upon discovering his interest in pendants, showed him hers: “[she] moved one of her hands to the lowest part of the triangle of yellow-brown skin below her throat. She rested her hand in that place, and with the ends of her fingers she unfastened the second-top button at the front of her dress.” The boy expects to see a heart shaped pendant, but discovers that it is oval shaped. The narrator reports finding pictures that his brother had taken while riding in an airplane, something the narrator has never done The brother apparently hired someone to fly him over the southern boundary of Australia’s mainland. Studying the pictures, the narrator remarks, “I seem sometimes to be looking at a place all of pale blue and sometimes to be looking at a place all of dark blue and sometimes to be looking at a place all of yellow-brown. But sometimes I seem to be looking from an impossible vantage-point at dark-blue water and, on the far side of the dark-blue water, the endless yellow-brown grasslands and the endless pale-blue sky of America.”
The reader may have noticed motifs. These multiply with further reflection, so that each moment gets bound to every other through numerous threads. Any given episode, depending on which hint you take, can lead you to almost any other, and thus you can journey through the world described by the text via all variety of crisscrossing routes. Chronology quickly comes to seem like the least intuitive organizing structure. Or as Murnane puts it in another story: “What people call time is only place after place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.” Arguably the central ambition of Stream System is to reimagine temporal experiences as places, all plotted on a color-coded map, all continuously available, ready to be visited again, ready to reveal new connecting paths through the vast landscape of which they are a part. It is a conceit no less alluring than it is inconceivable—one’s life as a nature preserve rather than a one-way road. What makes Murnane’s stories sting are the moments, deliberately placed like hazard signs throughout the text, when the fantasy falters. The narrator’s brother is dead and it is too late to be his friend. The character who denies time’s existence concludes his story remembering how he felt when his father told him they were leaving his hometown of Bendigo forever, the tint of its particular sky never to be seen again.
Although Murnane’s fiction is never fully insulated against time and other real-world aggravations, he does often present it as a bizarre alternative to the reality that most people inhabit. It is tempting, particularly for those of us who are not his compatriots, to call this alternative Australia. Indeed, Murnane often presents his self-imposed confinement to that continent and his distance from the U.S. and Europe as the basis for his peculiar powers of invention. But he also makes it clear that the Australia that appears in his fiction is his own fabrication, noting, for instance that a utopian settlement is “situated between two rivers, the names of which are identical to the names of two rivers on the maps of Victoria,” as if the only thing these invented places have in common with their real counterparts is their name. In various ways, Murnane’s work underscores its own fictionality—a tactic that aligns it with both modernist and postmodernist experimental fiction, and situates him within a well-populated, cosmopolitan tradition, complicating his pose as an untraveled naïf producing work that is miles and miles away from that of his contemporaries.
But let’s get back to Murnane’s strangeness for a minute, because his fiction is so very, so intricately strange and one benefit of his refusal of realist protocols is that he can make it just as strange as he likes, thereby expanding our sense of and our admiration for the possible—the one thing, he notes, that the “actual” can never be. Wondering whether the fiction he has produced will survive, the narrator of Murnane’s 1985 short story “Precious Bane” imagines another man like himself in 2020 standing before his bookshelves trying to recall a particular passage in a book; his brain is made of many cells; these are like the cells in a Carthusian monastery, themselves crammed with manuscripts. As the man’s brain struggles to remember, it is as if a lay-brother is wandering through the hallways of the monastery of his brain. How, the narrator wonders, might the “collection of such bound manuscripts” in this monastery, “be stored—lying flat, on top of one another? sideways? upright in ranks like cloth-bound books on my own shelves?” And “what sort of furniture” the narrator asks, “would store or display the manuscripts”? In case we ask why we should care about the interior décor of a hypothetical monastery summoned only to serve as a symbol of the brain, the answer is that it is possible that the passage the man in 2020 is seeking is the one that a monk living in the cell of the monastery of the mind of the man living in 2020 has himself written. Moreover it is just such a monastery, the narrator decides, that might shelter his own work against destruction, not a physical monastery, which will inevitably break down, but a fictional one—as if a literary work could survive the vicissitudes of material existence within an imagined place of its own making.
Another character, inept at dating, desires a particular response from the woman he is courting: “He wanted her to say that she and her family had gone for three weeks during every Christmas holiday to the camping-ground beside the beach at Rosebud or Rye or Dromona,” and the reader has to wonder: who in the world has such logistically precise fantasies? It is yet another example of the attention Murnane pays to hypotheticals, loading them with such careful and quotidian details so they become both realer than reality and stranger than fantasies. Later, the same character proves too peculiar even to stalk another woman he likes in any recognizable fashion. He merely studies “detailed maps of the district where the parents of the young woman lived.” His obsessions, like those of many of Murnane’s characters, are as much cartographic as they are erotic.
Such moments necessarily raise a difficult subject, namely: Murnane’s treatment of women. In Stream System, it must be said, women tend to function as a gateway to manhood by means of the sexual experiences they offer; they are frequently analogized, like the aunt who shows the narrator of “Stream System” her pendant, to the land, and the question of whether both—women and the land—are better left unexplored and merely imagined is one the collection repeatedly asks. Murnane periodically registers the pathological character of his male narrators’ attitudes and several women speak back to the narrators who seek to impose these limiting conceptions onto them. That said, many women will be justifiably reluctant to give their time to Murnane’s work. And thus it’s a pity that he has not succeeded at imagining more complex possibilities for his female characters, since his fiction is not merely a metafictional playground for men who wish they were boys. Not only does it offer ways of reimagining what literature can do unavailable elsewhere; it shares with feminist criticism an abiding interest in what readers do with texts and how they revolt against the power of the author in order to make the literary work serve their own personal uses.
The most far-fetched example of this preoccupation is the fictional (female) reader in “The Interior of Gaaldine” who assigns numerical values to the words in novels by means of a Byzantine system designed to generate thousands of imaginary horse races. Elsewhere Murnane incessantly dramatizes the more everyday but still radically particular ways readers engage with literary works: where they get their books, where they store them, why they discard them, what images pass through their minds while they read, how their minds are changed by letting such images pass, what they forget from the books they read, what few sentence and images they remember and why. It is through these questions that Murnane initiates his most pressing investigations into how fiction, even fiction as hermetically self-referential as his own, makes contact with actual lives.
Fiction, the protagonist of “Boy Blue” recognizes, is our way of bearing the pain of others. Learning that his son’s co-worker has been laid off from a nearby factory, the protagonist imagines him sitting in his kitchen, one room away from his wife, son, and daughter when the news arrives. As if to master the feelings that the image unleashes,“[the protagonist] told himself that the scene was in his mind and not in the place that was called by many persons the real world. During the hour just mentioned, the man told himself further that the scene in his mind was of the kind of scene that appeared in his mind while he read from a book of fiction.” But later the same character remembers weeping as a child when his mother read him the poem “Little Boy Blue,” about abandoned toys waiting for their owner to return. If the claim that the imagined scene is merely fiction briefly inures the adult character to the suffering of an actual person, the same claim is no help to the youthful character contemplating an entirely invented situation involving non-human toys. The story, one of the most affecting in the book, is a reminder of the ways, often contradictory, that fiction helps us cope because it is fiction: of how it allows us to experience the full range of our feelings precisely by not being about the things we cannot stand to face directly:
The father as a boy pretended that the room in his mind was a room in the place called the real world so that he could further pretend that a person who lived in the place just mentioned would come into the room at some time in the future and would explain to the dog and the soldier mentioned previously why they had to wait and to wonder for so long and so that he could further pretend that he would never again begin to weep while his mother read the poem and would never again pretend to be comforted after his mother had read to the end of the poem and had then looked at his face and had then told him that the dog and the solider and the room where they were waiting were only details in a story.
Regrettably, there are few such moments of barely tamped down pathos in Murnane’s latest novel, Border Districts. It is a fascinating read, and those devoted to the author will not want to miss what may be his final fictional offering. The book is about an aging man who moves to the border to come to terms with his catalog of memories. His focus is the life of images, particularly religious images: what happens to them when the faith in the divinities they are designed to represent dissipates. Recalling a woman’s account of her decision to leave the Catholic church after learning about a sexual abuse scandal, the narrator remarks: “If only I had the wit to ask the woman on that evening in the lounge-bar what she supposed had become of the imagery connected with her lifelong beliefs.” How the woman might have dealt emotionally with her disillusionment is not really of interest. The narrator treats human minds, including his own, as important primarily as a housing for images, and it is the fragility, maturation, and peculiar resilience of the latter that claim the majority of his concern throughout the book.
Border Districts is not exactly an outlier among Murnane’s novels. Indeed, images function like protagonists in much of Murnane’s fiction. But in his other work, these images compete valiantly and fruitfully with the narratives, the human dramas and feelings, that they both hint at and labor to eclipse. In Border Districts, by contrast, what stories emerge feel like a pretext for generating further meditations about images. Some of these images, like his mental picture conjured by the words “spirit or psyche” of “an ovoid or diamond-shaped or rhomboidal or many-sided zone of one or more colours superimposed on or congruent with or permeating the space occupied by the inner organs of its possessor,” are duly mesmerizing. But thus spared interference and spotlighted, the images don’t really live. It is as if Murnane has succeeded at sheltering them against the eroding assaults of the world only by locking them within a continent that readers are not permitted to visit.
Those fortified by faith in Murnane’s power to reward the unflagging patience that his fiction demands may find themselves lingering at the border of his final creation, hoping to glimpse clues through the fretwork of his protective prose as to the shape of the landscape they cannot quite see. They may remember Murnane’s obsession with peripheral objects, things just beyond the frame of the picture: undescribed rooms adjacent to where the action is set, extras in movies unnoticed by the camera, unvisited countries. They may pursue the “precious knowledge” that Murnane suggests, in “Emerald Blue,” is “lying on the other side of the pages of one or another book,” imagining everything that Border Districts refuses to describe in order to discover its secrets. Or they may decide to turn their gaze in another direction: back to the other stories and novels Murnane has produced during his prolific career, including those in Stream System, knowing as they do, that they will probably never arrive at the heart of the country that he has imagined, never reach the revelation that they sometimes believe is hidden at the center of what he calls “Australia.” But this will not deter their travels. Unswervingly eccentric, Murnane’s fiction keeps his readers moving, like train passengers with their faces pressed to the glass, forever sideways.
Timothy Aubry is an associate professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY. He is the author of Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Best American Essays 2014, and many other venues. His latest book, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, is forthcoming this fall with Harvard University Press.
Banner image by Cheryl Ruddock, a detail of the painting" Woodcut 9," 2013. www.cherylruddock.ca