Murray Bail has passed muster as an important Australian novelist for quite a while now. His 1980 novel Homesickness, with its sustained parodic conceit of Australian tourists forever entering the prefab theme park, rather than its ‘real’ original, was an early national venture into what might have been postmodernism. Holden's Performance, a good time later, was as unyielding in its comedy, its surrealism, and its ungainly effortful lurch towards art. The ungainliness with Bail is part and parcel of whatever triumph there is (and it can be considerable). He is to fiction-writing something like what Buster Keaton was to the life of the body. There is a stoical sadness and solemnity to his fictions (which resemble even the more magical forms of realistic novel writing the way a slab hut resembles a townhouse) that comes it seems from the author’s incomprehension and incapacity in the face of anything like novelese. The husband of Helen Garner seems as incapable of telling an involving transparent story where the characters come off the page as he is of flying at the moon. On the contrary, he is a kind of homespun modernist, the sophistication of whose handling of his material is in inverse relation to his own narrative suavity.
Murray Bail has always written with a bit of a clunk. His sentences sing no tune, and he is always in danger of defying the very comprehension of the reader because his material seems so undramatic.
Somehow, however, by some act of mercy or access of craft, he is, as a writer, aware of this, and his natural disabilities are transfigured into a kind of deadpan humour of nearly bottomless slyness and buffoonery. And his narrative powers, which look, at times, like a man trying to build the house of fiction out of icy-pole sticks, are salvaged by his acute sense of the corniness of every story – particularly the kind of calamitously enfeebled one he might concoct – and the fact that his artistry is therefore a critique of the very idea of structure in fiction.