This Shifting Web: ‘Stream System and ‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane

Stream Systems“The writers of the present century have lost respect for the invisible,” says one of the narrators of Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane (560 pages; FSG). “They have tried to describe what they had better have left unreported.” Perhaps we are fortunate, then, that Gerald Murnane has not lost this connection, for his writing is unlike anything being published today. It could be the way Murnane works his prose, filling it with repetitions and pulling out commas so the syntax shines like glass; or it could be something about all these nameless men and boys walking their small parts of Australia, dreaming about women and grass and clouds. In any respect, Murnane is one of the rare few actually working to alter the experience of reading fiction, and it is time his works are recognized more fully in this regard.

Despite an impressive body of work consisting of nine novels, three books of short fiction, one essay collection, and a memoir—as well as the highest praise from writers J. M. Coetzee, Teju Cole, Helen Garner, and Shirley Hazzard—Murnane’s books have mostly been confined to Australia and the United Kingdom. The release this spring in the United States of Stream System and Border Districts: A Fiction (144 pages; FSG) is therefore a major event in the publishing history of this writer and in contemporary literature. In Stream System we have the fullest collection of Murnane’s short fiction to date, giving us access to stories that were difficult or impossible to find before, and in the elegant Border Districts, which Murnane has called the last piece of fiction he will ever write, we have the vantage point to look over his ambitious life work.

Murnane’s fictions are composed like vast diagrams of far-away boxes connected by thin blue lines. For those unfamiliar with his writing, his subjects can be summed up fairly easily. In order of increasing abstraction they are: Catholicism, horse racing, women, fiction, landscape, light. The tone ranges from the reflective to the documentarian, with the extreme on one side resembling the best writing from Beckett and Conrad, and the other sounding a lot like that infamous 2012 report from the US Government Accountability Office about reports about reports that suggests the preparation of a further report about said report. In the harsh but necessary world of jacket copy blurbs it has become commonplace to call someone’s style “unique,” but Murnane really does seem to write differently from anyone else. The best comparison might be an artist like Glenn Gould: substitute features of the basin or plains for the arctic, and the opening line of Gould’s The Idea of North, “I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” could easily be the start of a Murnane story.

Murnane does not write for an audience, that much is clear. His repetitive and sometimes off-putting style has borne its fair share of detractors. But unlike most writers in this line, Murnane also does not seem to be writing deliberately away from an audience, or in other words, being difficult for the sake of being difficult. It takes time to see this, but his writing truly does seem to reflect who he is as a person. (Character will out, as they say.) It exhibits humility, curiosity, and a careful, inward intelligence.

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Border DistrictsOne of the best stories in Stream System, “Stone Quarry,” describes a writer’s retreat whose participants are not allowed any form of communication between one another other than written prose. A woman at the workshop has nevertheless caught the interest of the narrator with her story about a man obsessed with knowing the bedrock beneath him. The narrator, committed to the rules of the workshop, refrains from speaking to the woman or stealing more than the occasional glance at her, but she ends up sending him a direct message of some kind and as a result she is “taken away” from the retreat. Love is one of the many things Murnane refuses to write about directly—one of those “invisible” things writers have lost respect for, which should perhaps never be wholly dug up and laid bare. He will write about adolescent love, or love of writing, or love of spirit, but beyond that he is extremely careful with what he says. “All the fiction I have written in the stone house,” says the narrator at the end of the story, “has been an encoded message for a certain woman. In order to send this message I have had to imagine a world in which the woman does not exist and neither do I.”

Real writers also make frequent appearances in Murnane’s fiction, among them Kafka, Proust, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Merton, Emily Brontë, G. B. Edwards, and Michel de Ghelderode, but Murnane generally presents himself as a reader rather than a writer of literature. When referencing a real book, he is careful to include both the publisher and year of the specific edition—not, I think, so that we may follow up his reference accordingly, but so that his reference might be honest to the material conditions which obliged it—and when he quotes someone like Proust or Kafka, he seems to prefer to quote from memory. If an author like Borges were to do this, it would be in a sense of play, inviting the reader to study the misquotation as both intentional and potentially significant, but Murnane’s misquotations have the opposite effect of bringing his lived experience closer to the texture of the page. As the narrator of Border Districts says: “I have learned to trust the promptings of my mind.”

Before this review gives too strong an impression of a dry author of cerebral fiction, I do want to emphasize that Murnane is capable of beautiful writing. Color and light enter significantly into all his fictions. There are long, gorgeous passages in Border Districts on the qualities of marbles and stained glass. “Precious Bane” ends with the lines: “I stopped writing. I poured another drink and looked far into the deep colour in my glass. Then I read aloud what I had written of my story, pausing now and then to sip, and after each sip to gaze at the red-gold sunset in the sky over all that I could remember.” Murnane’s characters hold tightly to their relationships with images, especially of the sky and landscapes of grass or sand, and their development as characters is often eked out within the descriptive language used for such images. This gives a feeling of concentrated stylistic brilliance, rather like the changing light source in Hollis Frampton’s Lemon. The first story in Stream System, “When the Mice Failed to Arrive,” has just such a passage in which a young boy walks home from school and imagines the storm that will someday come:

I prayed that I would not be killed by the storm and that my father would not be lost and confused during the hour when the clouds had passed suddenly away to the east, and when the twilight that had seemed about to turn into darkness had turned instead into a bright afternoon with wet leaves flashing in the sun and steam rising from the roofs. I prayed, and I was always spared, and I walked home while the gutters were flowing and the last of the black clouds were rumbling above the eastern horizon.

Most people out there writing about themselves must decide how honest to be about their experiences, even if their work purports to blur the so-called line between fiction and non-fiction. Some people decide they must go further and write about their writing, and if they do this in their fiction it is called “metafiction,” and if they do it in their non-fiction it is called “metacriticism,” but either way, this act alone cannot add much value to a work. There are exceptionally few examples in which the writing about writing is better than the writing itself. One might be John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and another is by someone whose influence lies throughout Murnane’s work: the critical prefaces of Henry James.

Murnane writes about himself in the sense that many of his narrators follow a variation of his own life trajectory: a Catholic upbringing in Melbourne, followed by moves westward to more rural parts of Australia; then a career in secondary education, succeeded by creative writing teaching; and finally the rather solitary life he currently leads in the small town of Goroke, Victoria. His first two novels, Tamarisk Row (1974) and A Lifetime Spent on Clouds (1976), are essentially autobiographical portraits of his childhood, and he also published a memoir in 2015 called Something For the Pain about his avid interest in horse racing.

But these are secondary details for a writer like Murnane. It is true that when describing places or events he will often give a high degree of positional detail—“On the wall of a sandstone quarry on the hill called Quarry Hill near the mouth of Buckley’s Creek in the district of Mepunga East on the south-west coast of Victoria, my father’s surname and his two initials are still deeply inscribed above the date 1924”—and to a reader like myself, who visited Australia once as a child and remembers only sea shells, these place names mean nothing. When Murnane was nominated for the Melbourne Prize, some people worried he could not accept, as the award stipulates that the recipient spend half the prize money on international travel and Murnane had never left the country. Naturally, the judges ended up bending the rules, and the writer Helen Garner recounts the acceptance speech in which Murnane pledged to spend the money traveling around Australia and visiting all the places he had ever lived—a detailed list of addresses he then delivered, like a poem, to a standing ovation.

From a speech like this, we might expect Border Districts to venerate certain Australian street corners, gardens, fish ponds, libraries, etc., some sort of response to the heap of American fiction about New York City and the freeways of Los Angeles. When James revised his novels, he commissioned photographs of their various settings to serve as frontispieces, and he did so in part to familiarize an American audience with the places described like Paris, London, and Rome. But Murnane means a very different thing by “place” than most. Border Districts features a line from The Aeneid—“Iam [sic] rubescebat stellis aurora fugatis”—meaning, sort of, “as the dawn reddened and the stars faded,” setting the scene for when the Trojans first see their homeland again after so many years of wandering. By contrast, the opening line of Border Districts is: “Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes.”

Murnane has a reputation as a highly solitary person, and this is reflected in his fiction. His characters are often solitary people who read a lot of novels, and they accordingly have a tendency to experience the world as this dire, shifting web of strings between images, thoughts, and narratives out of which a clean pattern may hopefully be extracted, or at least recognized. In other words, “place” more often describes a place in their mind than in the real world. Like Henry James, Murnane is committed to pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do; his works as a whole demonstrate a continuing and strengthening commitment to this single, massively interesting idea, which is something like the representation of his own mind. But unlike James, who often wrote about the physical influence of one place or another on his writing—the architecture of Venice, for instance, or the foggy streets of London—Murnane writes about place as nothing less than the defining characteristic of existence. As the narrator of Border Districts reminds us: “What we call time is no more than our awareness of place after place as we move continuously through endless space.”

What “place” means more specifically in “fiction” is much clearer in another story, “Boy Blue.” One of the best in the collection, this story begins with the narrator recounting a reading he gave recently at which someone asked why he did not give his characters names. Failing to provide a worthy response, the narrator instead sits down to write a story, beginning with an explanation often found in Murnane’s work about how he does not write fiction in order to understand or depict the “real world” but rather to understand or depict the “invisible world” in his mind.

The story that follows features a father and son. The son arrives home one day to tell his father that at the factory where he works there are rumors of someone being let go soon. The son thinks it will either be himself or another man who makes frequent, unapologetic mistakes. Once, the son tried to help this man by pointing out to him that the settings on his machine were wrong, but the man shrugged him off, saying that if the machine made things wrong, then it was the machine’s fault. The father listens carefully to his son’s story, as it is the first time he has spoken about his work. A few days later, when the son tells his father that the other man was laid off, the father sees this man in his mind sitting at a kitchen table smoking a cigarette. The story then ends with the father reminiscing about a poem his mother used to read him, “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field. The poem is about a young child who dies in his sleep after saying goodnight to his brand-new toy solider and toy dog. While the father listens to his mother, he imagines the young child’s room:

While the father saw in his mind the image of the room just mentioned he pretended that the room was not part of an image in the invisible place that he often called his mind but a room in the place that he and others called the real world. 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 soldier and the room where they were waiting were only details in a story.

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