Inland by Gerald Murnane. Dalkey Archive Press, 176pp., $13.95.
As in his 2009 novel Barley Patch, Australia’s Gerald Murnane explores in Inland (1988) the creative writer’s relationship with his or her own text, and, by extension, the precarious and often tenuous relationship between author and reader. While Barley Patch focuses on a writer who has abandoned his craft altogether, and the myriad inducements back to the page made by his calling, Inland is less concerned with the act of creativity (or its disavowal) than with the act of writing. “Pages drifting” becomes a testament to the unnamed narrator’s need to forge—as well as complicate—an intimacy with his reader.
In spite of the two decades between their composition, the two novels are very much a continuation of each other: in both one finds authorial insertions into fictional characters (“A reader of this work of fiction may be wondering why I had to insinuate a version of myself into the scenery of so many novels or short stories,” as Murnane puts it in Barley Patch); reflections on growing up in Melbourne and how nature and oppressive religious doctrines shape one’s youth; intertexual allusions and analyses (e.g., both novels invoke Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights at length); and the often illusory distinction between truth and fiction.
Regularly compared to literary giants like Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Italo Calvino, Murnane’s recurring themes of memory, time, desire, and the individual’s relation to space do indeed owe much to these figures. However, Inland lacks the overarching logic of Proust’s Recherche—a logic that requires a repetition Murnane attempts but at which Inland fails to fully succeed—as well as the linguistic and semiotic playfulness of Beckett or the more precise consideration of the author/reader relationship Calvino sets forth in If on a winter’s night a traveler . . . Murnane admits his debt to Proust in a 2008 interview in Australia’s The Book Show, regarding fictionalizing himself in his works: “the narrator of the fiction that [Proust] wrote is a person that I feel drawn to and I feel most attracted to, so that a version of Proust created the fiction which was a version and not necessarily the whole person.” Whereas Murnane’s invocation of Proust’s technique is generally successful in Barley Patch—whose narrator admits to a “life as a ghostly fictional character” who is “the creation of the reader rather than the writer”—Inland fails to deliver on many levels.
Inland’s narrator is a writer, although he is adamantly not a reader. He is presumably located in Szolnok County, Hungary, even if later sections place the writer’s childhood in Melbourne County, Australia. Admitting that “the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write,” the narrator then intimates that it was at the urging of his editor (“Write to me. . . . Send me your paragraphs, your pages, your stories of the Great Alföld”) that he has endeavored to produce these erratic pages: “I am writing to my editor. I am writing to a living woman.” What is interesting about the opening section of Inland is that the narrator’s editor, Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen, is also located along fractured geographic lines: born in Transdanubia, Hungary, Gunnarsen now lives in South Dakota and is attached to an institute where “the scientists of prairies” “calculate how many more seeds they must sow before the wasteland will have the look and the feel of virgin prairie.” Related to this is the intriguing but never fleshed out scrutiny of language, translation, the meaning of words in different geographical and linguistic contexts, and the poststructuralist mantra of the (living) death of the author; but instead of an in-depth examination of these points, the narrator only iteratively calls them to the forefront of the text before readily discarding them.
The sense of living between specific countries is a recurring motif in Inland. It may even be why the narrator initially situates himself in the country in which his editor was born: as he later admits, “I view the scene from several vantage-points” as his writing allows him to dream that he is in the American prairie and therefore able to relate bodily to his addressee. Even more potently, it underscores the narrator’s need to refer to his life inland, “born between . . . two streams,” and yet how “[e]ach place is more than one place” and how “my thinking leads me by way of many places.” The latter is a point that is emphasized by repeated turns to Paul Éluard’s statement: “There is another world but it is in this one.” The reader’s identity changes in this hermetic world from Gunnarsen to her possibly jealous husband, from yet another male colleague of Gunnarsen’s to an unspecified and ungendered reader over whom the narrator exercises control (“Let me tell you, reader, what I consider you to be”), a chain of dissociation that Murnane fails to explain. The narrator confesses to the reader ”that the district between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri,” where he was born, “is a part of the same America that you have always lived in,” a juxtaposition of worlds and alternate “dream-countries” that allow his fantasmatic travels through time and space. While this opens interesting questions about one’s identity being formed by one’s geographical surroundings, Murnane fails to examine it in any depth.
The repetitive phrases scattered throughout Inland, coupled with a disappointing, stagnant rendering of memory, time, and fantasy, make the novel a tedious read. Even though Murnane’s interest is in geographic borderlands and individuals’ gnawing isolations in their own (and in their imagined) surroundings, neither the reader nor the narrator escape the overemphasized—and thus redundant—middle ground of the inland: “In the pool the green strands of weed are unwavering. No currents or tides disturb the deep water. The pool is far inland, in soil that is mostly clay. If any stream flows into or out of the pool, it is only a trickling stream.” In a very similar way, the narrator’s circuitous and at times senile meanderings are mere “trickling stream[s]” which are unexplored areas of thought and memory that move nowhere except farther inland, to the unvarying space between two streams.
To be fair, this may be Murnane’s intent: his narrator might be so exiled in his own mind and isolated in his own land (wherever that may be) that the only escape is by means of these meandering narrative threads of real or imagined memories. He may only be able to continue writing by imagining a reader for his as yet unpublished work. This might also be meant to confuse and confound the fluid, changing state of the imagined reader by drawing attention to the writer’s static, anchored, and rather tethered state of mind. However, if this is the case, the length of the novel does not justify these perambulations; Murnane leaves unexamined his Derridean slippages of meaning and identity. For instance, the narrator’s excessive rumination on his first adolescent love, the girl from Bendigo Street, is ambiguously complicated without reflection by the introduction of a girl from Bendigo, Australia. Does this mean something or nothing? One might well read Murnane’s comments on Barley Patch in the interview mentioned above as more relevant to Inland:
I sat down to write a piece of 20,000 words called Barley Patch which would make up a book, together with a few other shorter pieces that I’d never had published in a book. That was three years ago, and just a week or two back I finished a 70,000 or 80,000-word book called Barley Patch. In other words, it grew, to my great surprise and delight. It took a long time to finish and it is still being edited. So I wrote a whole book instead of a piece of short fiction, and that means I’ve probably still got another book of short pieces waiting.
While Barley Patch warrants the extra length, Inland reads too much like a short piece of fiction stretched far beyond its narrative limits. About two-thirds of the way through Inland, the narrator readily admits the novel’s lack of a much-needed structure governing these otherwise fascinating themes: “But while I write I cannot be sure of coming to the end. . . . But I am in danger of writing on endless pages.” Frustratingly, Murnane neglects to shape these memories and fantasies.
Related by the fictional writer in a manner that is less stream of consciousness than chaotic, Inland offers much evidence that a novel of fractured identity and isolation needs some organization. It might usefully be compared to Edouard Levé’s work, which is similarly interested in random trains of thought and memory; unlike Murnane, however, Levé’s work is governed by an overarching structure that is as much a part of, just as it is helped by, the use of a poetic rhythm and repetition. In Levé’s Autoportrait, what seems at first to be a completely random sequence of confessions eventually becomes structured by Levé’s ache for an intimate textual relationship with his reader. Autoportrait is a novel that centralizes a writer’s fractured sense of identity (much like Inland), and yet it is one that succeeds in its project of performing alienation more succinctly than Murnane’s novel by balancing chaos and order: in the words of Emily Dickinson, in Inland one finds “Much Madness” and very little “divinest Sense.”
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City; he is the curator of @proustitute.
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