Veiled epiphanies

Since the publication of Tamarisk Row (1974), Gerald Murnane has continued to shape his own peculiar literary landscape. With The Plains (1982), he perfected the novelistic expression of his style; since then Murnane has concentrated on hybrid forms better suited to his purposes. Landscape with Landscape (1985), Velvet Waters (1990), and A History of Books (2012) are high points of this phase, but his newest fiction, A Million Windows, is in every part their equal.

The narrator of A Million Windows says of one of the characters:

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 favourites.

A Million Windows documents the search for such a pattern, and much of the narrative is concerned with one or another character’s relationship with dark-haired females, beginning and ending with the image of a dark-haired mother. The first visual memory of that mother coincides with estrangement: ‘On the cold morning mentioned he had decided, and for reasons that he could never afterwards recall, that his mother was not to be trusted.’ Elements of this estrangement feature in the romantic relations between various characters and dark-haired females thereafter.

For chief characters across Murnane’s fiction, psychological duress often leads to heavy drinking, which then stimulates poetic or drunken flights of consciousness. These flights are signalled by linguistic excess, where sentences lengthen, almost lose track of sense, before culminating in veiled epiphanies. The narrator then weaves the epiphanic vision into a larger image-tapestry. We, the readers, are presented with the patterns and colours of that tapestry, arranged in seemingly meaningful relations, but the ultimate meaning remains hidden.

A Million Windows seems to repeat this pattern in places, but the content of the narrator’s concern is rather more explicit than usual. At the culmination of a page-long sentence of the kind just described, we read: ‘… a certain boy, a mere child, while he watched unobserved a certain girl, a mere child, whose name he did not know and who had almost certainly never had sight of him, wished for the means to inform her that he was worthy of trust.’ The desire for trust animates much of what follows.

The narrator of A Million Windows values nothing more than trustworthy narration. He tells the ‘discerning reader’ and the ‘undiscerning reader’ alike:

I decline to read any piece of fiction if I suspect the author of believing that fiction is mere artifice and that the reader of fiction has no more urgent need than to be diverted or teased. (Even the undiscerning reader should have learned from the previous sentence that the narrator of this present work of fiction is to be trusted.)

In addition, all of the chief fictional personages (as Murnane calls them) in A Million Windows agree that the ‘implied readers’ of their works ‘are utterly to be trusted’. This concern with trust has several intriguing permeations throughout, culminating in one of the more distressing revelations of the author’s fiction to date. Murnane here combines narrative wizardry and deep emotion with rare skill.

A Million Windows marks a triumph of creative configuration, where pre-existing contexts, images, and voices are arranged and rearranged for affective resonance. Following hard upon his ‘history’ of reading in A History of Books, this is Murnane’s history of narrative. He reanimates several fictional personages from previous books and seems to suggest, in the process, that those narratives are forever being written by parallel Murnanes who jointly haunt the image-world of their fictions.

Readers inevitably become tongue-tied when trying to tease out the relationship between Murnane’s fictional personages and their author. In A Million Windows, as with Landscape with Landscape, Murnane presents characters who are, seemingly, Murnanes drawn from other dimensions, or a series of possible Murnanes who share some of their author’s basic characteristics and biography, with variations in comportment and mood. We can suggest, vaguely, that these Murnanes and the worlds they occupy exist only in the author’s mind or in the pages of books, but a better analogy might spring from multiverse theories prominent in cosmology, physics, and psychology, or from animist cultures where the line between spiritual and material realities are blurred.

‘‘‘A Million Windows’’ marks a triumph of creative configuration, where pre-existing contexts, images, and voices are arranged and rearranged for affective resonance.’

Murnane tends to build narratives through complex relationships between image and emotion (or mood), where the image is considered and remarked upon from several angles, while the correlating emotion is implied, typically through variations in syntax – or even withheld. The question of Murnane’s accessibility hinges on whether or not the image, and the particular grammar of Murnane’s obsession with images, reverberates in the reader.

In A Million Windows, images of dark-haired girls or women; two- or three-storey houses; grassy, level countryside; butterflies, or specks of golden oil resound like powerful conjurations of primal but long-forgotten experiences. While sharing the Imagist’s preference for clear and direct expression, Murnane’s treatment of his subject has more in common with ancient cave paintings than literary movements. The sense of fluid and permeable realities evoked in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, for instance – as shown in Werner Herzog’s memorable documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) – produces something like the affective enigma of Murnane’s imagery. From a 32,000-year distance, we cannot grasp the symbolic rapport between the varieties of images present in that cave, and Murnane initially approaches his own internal images with much the same remoteness. The result, for the reader, is an untethering of affect and a giddiness of association.

Murnane combats this disorientation with a strong – some might say overdeveloped – spatial emphasis. He regularly employs visual and linguistic orientation, referring back, for instance, to ‘the seventh paragraph’ or ‘first paragraph’ or ‘this, the fifth section of the book’. Murnane has always indulged in cartographic narrative – usually when image-mapping – but his later fictions utilise explicit textual markers as well. At one moment, readers perceive the territories of the fiction spread out before them; in the next, they track the narrative from within. These orienting routines are, to my mind, reminiscent of the constant and scrupulous spatial sense demonstrated by indigenous Australians as they wander through the doubled territories of ‘real’ space and cultural dreaming. This and other figurations of inter-dimensional movement place Murnane firmly within the metaphysical tradition of Australian literature, best exemplified by Voss (1957).

With A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane continues to produce a kind of writing and a kind of sentence that no other writer is able, or inclined, to produce; a writing at once idiosyncratic and elemental; a writing that speaks across communicative divides via the modern caves we call ‘books’. On top of this, Murnane’s late works have proven embracing enough to incorporate his earlier writing. I cannot recall a more remarkable literary reconfiguration than that achieved by Murnane from Barley Patch (2009) onwards, and find it hard to imagine a greater trust between writer and reader than the one generated with A Million Windows.

Published in August 2014 no. 363

Comments (1)

  • Leave a comment

    Excellent review!

    Friday, 01 August 2014 10:33 posted by Ivor Indyk

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