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Essay by Ted Gioia

I’d love to give you a spoiler alert here. But there are no spoilers in a
review of a Gerald Murnane novel. Spoilers require a plot, and Murnane
doesn’t do plot.

This is merely one of many quirks exhibited by our reclusive Australian
novelist, sometimes mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in
Literature. In his latest novel
Border Districts, Murnane also proves very
parsimonious in matters of character and landscape. The characters don’t
have names, and lead shadowy, indistinct lives on the fringes of the
narrative. The cities and regions are almost always unidentified, which is
quite an achievement in a book that often obsesses on landscape and
geography. There is a narrator—let’s be thankful for small concessions
from our author, who disdains so many of the familiar trappings of
fiction—but don’t expect to learn our protagonist’s name or occupation or
much of anything else.





















  
Gerald Murnane and his typewriter. (He doesn't do computers.)

I have read books like this before, but they weren’t novels. When I
studied philosophy at Oxford many years ago, I was required to read
stacks of books on epistemology, and Murnane’s
Border Districts
frequently reminded me of these analytical works.  In fact, this so-called
novel has more in common with Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant than
with Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf and Proust. Murnane expostulates at length
on the relationship between empirical perceptions and mental images and
ideas. And even when he leaves that subject behind, he invariably
returns to it a few sentences later. Whenever Murnane discusses a
house, he soon moves on to consider the
idea of a house. When he
writes about a landscape, he can’t help reflecting on the
mental images
evoked by various landscapes. Instead of moving from the general to the
particular—as would most novelists—he always travels in the opposite
direction, shifting from the particular to the general.

This wouldn’t be so bad, if Murnane had some talent for philosophy. But
his concepts are clumsy and unwieldy. If I wanted to read something
insightful on these subjects, I would pick up Wittgenstein’s
Philosophical
Investigations
, or Peter Strawson’s Individuals, or Saul Kripke’s Naming
and Necessity
—works that are far deeper in their musings, and also
possessing a certain wry poetry of their own. Wittgenstein is actually a
better prose stylist than Murnane—and, needless to say, a far superior
conceptual thinker.  The narrator of
Border Districts, for his part, seems
to believe that reading about the Trojan army requires him to construct in
his head images of soldiers and weaponry; and with this as a starting-
point, he worries incessantly about correspondences between the real
and the imagined—in fact, roughly half of this book deals with precisely
this issue. It’s like fretting over how many angels can dance on the head
of a needle. I’d like to think that Murnane is satirizing a kind of primitive
epistemology—that might give me some entry point to enjoying this
book. But satire requires a much lighter touch than is exhibited at any
point in this ponderous book.

Murnane may not be deadly serious—he probably is offering ironic
commentary on a certain way of thinking. But in any case, he is definitely
deadly.  Most readers would describe
Border Districts as boring. I don’t
disagree, but in all fairness to our author, I prefer to classify the novel as
deliberately frustrating. That’s a slightly different shade of tedium. And
there have been masterworks of fiction that have aimed to frustrate
reader expectations. I would include
Tristram Shandy, Report on
Probability A, Finnegans Wake, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,
Hopscotch, Wittgenstein's Mistress and others in this category.

Like each of these books,
Border Districts
tends to circle in on itself. Murnane often
starts a paragraph with the phrase: “While
I was writing the previous paragraph…” And
then he goes on to describe a mental image
or idea that had appeared in his mind at
that previous juncture.  This sometimes
requires him to return to some even earlier
remark or description, and discuss the mental
image or idea summoned up by that preceding
passage. This might be compelling if it made
any sense, but Murnane’s conceptualization
of the human mind as a cross between a
movie screen and topographical map is “fake
psychology” (if I can adapt a popular meme).
He wants to write a psychological novel, but
you will get more insights on the human
condition from a collection of
Peanuts comic
strips.

Here’s a taste of what is in store for you, if you decide to read this
novel:

"I had never been able to read or hear the words
spirit or soul or psyche
without my seeing a mental image 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. I have asked myself often what are the origins of this
image. I have sometimes supposed that I was influenced as a child by
the rainbow-flashes I saw when sunlight fell at a certain angle on the
bevelled edge of a mirror hanging in the lounge-room of a cream-coloured
house mentioned elsewhere in this report, in which room everything
seemed tasteful and elegant….”

At a few random moments in this novel, the narrator mentions a famous
writer by name. These passages stand out, because names—or proper
nouns of any sort—are such a rarity in
Border Districts. And the authors
mentioned (Marcel Proust, George Gissing, John Clare, etc.) have
something in common. They each tended to lead solitary, isolated lives.  
Murnane himself is another of this same breed. He has lived almost his
entire life in the state of Victoria in Australia, and even by his own
admission has a “reputation in some quarters as an aloof recluse.”

This perhaps gives us a clue how to make sense of this mostly
nonsensical book. Murnane is demonstrating—perhaps with self-directed
humor or maybe unintentionally (you be the judge)—the recursive manner
of thought of someone whose discussions are interior and mental schema
handmade at home, without much input from others.  If you constructed
a theory of psychology while sitting at a bar or waiting for the next horse
race, it might look like
Border Districts.

After making my way through
Border Districts, I finally learned a few
facts about our narrator. Here they are—spoiler alert! He likes to look at
colored glass (stained glass window, kaleidoscope, etc.). He is interested
in horse racing. He sometimes travels from the capital city to the border
district of the unnamed state where he lives. That’s pretty much it.

So sorry for spoiling that for you.

Another "plot point" deserves mention. At one juncture, our narrator
recalls his first girlfriend. As is par for this subpar course, this woman has
no name. But readers are given two facts: (1) Our narrator was thrilled to
have someone he could finally talk to, but (2) the girlfriend soon got
bored of his rambling conversations and dumped him.

Okay, so Murnane may win awards. He might even get a Nobel Prize. But
the soundest advice in this novel comes from the girlfriend.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next book, Music: A Subversive
History
, will be published in 2019 by Basic Books.

Publication date: April 16, 2018
Gerald Murnane & the Art
of the Frustrating Novel

He doesn't do plot and won't even give names to his characters,
but Gerald Murnane might just win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Selected Reviews
BY TED GIOIA

Gerald Murnane [click here]
Colson Whitehead [
click here]
Michel Houellebecq [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Emily St. John Mandel [
click here]
Daniel Kehlmann [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Donna Tartt [
click here]
Eleanor Catton [
click here]
Marisha Pessl [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Zadie Smith [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Karen Walker [
click here]
Kurt Vonnegut [
click here]
Hari Kunzru [
click here]
Chad Harbach [
click here]
Chuck Palahniuk [
click here]
Ernest Cline [
click here]
Mark Haddon [
click here]
Bonnie Jo Campbell [
click here]
China Miéville [
click here]
V.S. Naipaul [
click here]
David Foster Wallace [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Bruce Machart [
click here]
Jonathan Franzen [
click here]
Per Petterson [
click here]
David Mitchell [
click here]
Joseph Epstein [
click here]
Frederick Turner [
click here]
Tom Rachman [
click here]
Martin Amis [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Robert Stone [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Joshua Ferris [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Richard Powers [
click here]
Jedediah Berry [
click here]
Richard Russo [
click here]
Thomas Pynchon [
click here]
Reif Larsen [
click here]
Arthur Phillips [
click here]
Colm Tóibín [
click here]
Jayne Anne Phillips [
click here]
Geoff Dyer [
click here]
T.C. Boyle [
click here]
Jonathan Littell [
click here]
Daniel Suarez [
click here]
Jim Harrison [
click here]
José Saramago [
click here]
Toni Morrison [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Elizabeth Strout [
click here]
Chuck Klosterman [
click here]
Paul Auster [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Julian Barnes [
click here]
Marilynne Robinson
[click here]
Tim Winton [
click here]
Jonathan Miles [
click here]
Jhumpa Lahiri [
click here]
Joseph O'Neill [
click here]
Richard Price [
click here]
Tobias Wolff [
click here]
Donald Ray Pollock
[click here]
Charles Bock [
click here]
Geraldine Brooks [
click here]
Alan Bennett [
click here]
Mario Vargas Llosa [
click here]
Denis Johnson [
click here]
Philip Roth [
click here]
Ann Patchett [
click here]
Junot Diaz [
click here]
Matt Ruff [
click here]
Ryszard Kapuściński [
click here]
Roberto Bolaño [
click here]
Jack Kerouac [
click here]
John Leland [
click here]
Ian McEwan [
click here]
Khaled Hosseini [
click here]
Don DeLillo [
click here]
Michael Chabon [
click here]
Haruki Murakami [click here]
Jonathan Lethem [
click here]
Michael Ondaatje [
click here]
Steven Hall [
click here]