June 10, 2014
It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.
A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.
As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.
What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier:
He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road.
What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”
While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter.