Books

Gerald Murnane
A Million Windows

A reviewer, who is not only a reviewer but also a reader, sits at a desk in a quiet room in a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys, a house that has who knows how many windows, and considers A Million Windows

This is – some might say, particularly those, perhaps, who view this phenomenon called time as chronology and not as the narrator of A Million Windows considers time in fiction, which is as the movement from place to place in what he calls “the invisible world” – the latest novel of the master Australian writer Gerald Murnane. Murnane’s sentences can only be described as Murnanish, so to call it, with their fondness for commas, phrases, clauses, and for their subject-matter that often reflects on the act of the writing of each particular sentence, as it were.   

In A Million Windows, Murnane, or rather, not Murnane himself, but the narrator of the work, who has lived a life that could be approximated to the life of the novelist but who, as is pointed out in the text, is not Murnane, addresses two types of readers directly. Some of this direct address is in the first person, a form of narrative device that, among other fictional techniques, is discussed in the novel. The types of readers are these: the “discerning reader” and the “undiscerning reader”. This reviewer has long admired Murnane, the famously reclusive genius, the writer widely considered to be the next Australian winner of the Nobel. This reviewer would hope to be a “discerning” reader, or at least, discerning enough to not simply rely on a pastiche of the novel’s voice to convey its essence, but also to be satisfied with the threadiest of narrative threads, so to call it.

How should I begin this, the fourth paragraph of the review? Perhaps by listing some themes, if that is the correct word, explored by the narrator through his use of fictional personages and by direct address in A Million Windows

Among many: the act of writing fiction, and fictional techniques and considerations; the Russian-doll nature of images and memories; the relationship of the reader to the narrator to the writer to the work itself; and the difficulties of talking to girls (which may not be a theme, but might instead be an analogy).

During the time I was writing the above paragraph, an image appeared to me from among a series of images that might be said to represent my memories of my favourite of Murnane’s novels, the acclaimed The Plains. The Plains has a narrative, a real one, one that believes in itself. It is the story of a man who moves to a strange countryside to make a documentary about the culture of the families who live there. This protagonist is unnamed and, especially in the second half, there is much discursive weaving of ideas, but it has a story. 

In contrast, in A Million Windows narrative does raise its, some might say, ugly head in the second half, but these stories, so to call them, are self-referential in a way that The Plains is not. The discerning reader might conclude that this makes A Million Windows a more trustworthy piece of fiction. The narrator certainly does: “The narrator of this present work of fiction is one who strives to keep between his actual self and his seeming self and his seeming reader such seeming-distances as will maintain between all three personages a lasting trust.”

Further, the narrator, who is not the author, is untroubled by this abandoning of narrative convention. “My way of writing,” he says, “is intended to prevent even an undiscerning reader from trying to apprehend my subject-matter in the way that a viewer, or so I suppose, apprehends the subject-matter of a film ... [and] that the reader of such paragraphs is entitled to suppose hardly more than that the narrator of the paragraphs was alive at the time when they were written and felt urged to report certain matters.”

Undiscerning readers are not the only cause of the narrator’s stern, some might say, disappointed demeanour. On a chapter in a how-to-write-fiction book: “I can hardly believe that anything so foolish was once delivered as advice to intending writers.” On a Nobel prize-winning South American novelist: “the author of a text lacking a narrative presence is guilty of posturing or, more likely, of incompetence.” 

The narrator mentions one chief character in the work of a supposed writer that the reader might assume “always preferred fictional personages to actual personages”. Any reader who opined that the narrator of A Million Windows held a similar view, and by extension, such a thought might have crossed the mind of the author himself, an idea that is entirely against the spirit of this exploration of the reader/narrator/author relationship, would most certainly be undiscerning. 

Readers of book reviews would be accustomed to some kind of recommendation, so to call it, as to the desirability of the book, as it were, as prospective reading material for a personage of her proclivities. To that expectation, let me only say this: it’s irrelevant. This is Murnane, and this is what he’s like. 

I’ll deliberately conflate the narrator with the author: I think they both know “the reader’s entitlements are limited indeed” in this kind of work. 

“Reader’s entitlements” – such as plot, characters, dialogue and scenes – can be the sugar-coating that helps us swallow difficult ideas about literary theory and the existential nature of reality. In A Million Windows, Murnane is at full flight, at the furthest extremity from any kind of traditional narrative. There’s very little sugar here. For mine, I prefer Murnane when he’s not so combative.  LS

Giramondo, 216pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows". Subscribe here.