Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2009

The Plains, by Gerald Murnane


The PlainsGerald Murnane is a most mysterious author of strangely seductive books, and I’m currently reading Inland, first published in 1988 and now reprinted as part of the Australian Classics Library.  About 30 pages into the book I had to stop reading to dig out my reading journal (Vol12, p58) to see what I had written about The Plains, which I read back in 2007.  I thought I’d publish it here, and hopefully aficionados of Mr Murnane will seize upon my ramblings and set me straight.  Not likely, I know, but strange things happen in the LitBlogSphere…

BEWARE: SPOILERS

1.1.07

This is a strange book.  Gerald Murnane won the 1999 Patrick White Award for under-recognised writers, and until good old Text republished this 1982 novella, it was out of print.  It seems to be a parable or an allegory but of what I am not sure.  For some reason it reminds me of Kafka, but I’m not scholarly enough to know why, except for an incident where the young film-maker petitioning the Plainsmen dare not leave his seat for fear of losing his place.  After 24 hours he is unshaven and in need of a pee, but it’s ok because it makes the Plainsmen feel superior.  This is like K waiting on the bench to sort out his petition.

The Plains is set in an imaginary world where there is inner Australia where the Plainsmen are, and the coast, which has ceased to be important.  The young film-maker, along with many other supplicants such as designers of emblems, wait to present their projects to the Plainsmen who come into town every now and again for the purpose of hearing (but mostly rejecting) the petitions.

Is Murnane mocking the university application process?  One applicant designs a (PhD gone wrong?) program which analyses the interior decorating choices made since settlement and (in a parody?) makes some kind of sense out of what were random choices so that the Plainsmen can feel superior to the others.  The young man wants to make a film out of them, handicapped by his inability to find out the truth about a long-standing (but inane) feud between the Haresmen (gold) and the Horizonutes (blue-green).  This bit’s very odd.  It’s strangely seductive, however…

The writing becomes yet more opaque.  The film-maker is accepted by the one of the landowners and given free rein to research and plan his film.  He is being paid too, but after ten years is still debating with himself how to do it! The issue seems to be, how to make the film and its images unique and yet faithful to the ordinariness of the plains.  It also mustn’t be tainted by images from Outer Australia.  Has the film-maker/narrator been sucked into the odd beliefs of these Plainsmen so that he can no longer be an observer?  Is he a lotus-eater?  I’m mystified…

One of the conundrums is that an explanation or theory must not be complete.  So when the landowner expounds his theory of Time as the Opposite Plain, the film-maker is suspicious that he must be privately really investigating the other populaar theories because the Time theory is too complete.  Is Murnane mocking arcane academic theorising here?

The wife of the landowner comes into the library, but they never speak and he knows nothing about her.  By the rules of the Plains one entertains possibilities but there is no need to do anything other than explore them.  So he decides to write some essays exploring a relationship between them and have it published and reviewed and then placed in the library where she might find it and read it.  But then he decides that he only wants her to know that he wrote it for her, not to read it so he worries about how he might get it reviewed without there being any books in existence.  For some reason this sequence reminds me of The Shadow of the Wind, about the Last Book.  Oh, too odd, I can’t penetrate the ideas behind this book!

The ending is bizarre.  Like all the other writers, artists, modellers etc, the film-maker is required to present a ‘revelation’, attended by the locals.  He gets up and talks about how he can’t possibly film this or that indefinable aspect of the Plains.  They like this, because it’s impossible to make a film about the Plains, so even though the numbers dwindle over the now 20 years  he’s been there, he always has an audience.  It ends with his patron photographing him filming nothing at all.

***

Now in 2009 when I know about Calvino, I think The Plains is an example of postmodernism…but I’d love to be enlightened further. Over to you, cyberspace!

PS (later) There is someone else out there reading Gerald Murnane!  See The Truth about Lies: The Plains.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: The Plains
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2000
ISBN: 9781876485443
Source: Personal Library

Availability:
Fishpond: The Plains (Text Classics)


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link. This was a book that really grabbed me but it definitely needs a second read to appreciate it. He has a new book called ‘Barley Patch’ coming out very soon and a friend says she’ll try and get me a signed copy. She also sent him a copy of my review I’ve just discovered. I have no idea if he liked it or not though.

    • I’ve just realised that I also have Tamarisk Row on my TBR so I’ll be reading that one of these days too….

  2. People keep discovering Gerald Murnane all the time. I keep meeting people who have independently discovered his books, and see themselves as curators of a deep personal secret; or have been taught writing by Murnane, and have happy or rather unhappy memories of the experience. Alison Goodman is his most successful student so far.

    His new book Barley Patch seems (from reading the first twenty pages) even more PoMo then anything he’s done before, except for Inland, since it seems to be about books he hasn’t written yet. Reminds me of Stanislaw Lem’s book of reviews of as-yet-unwritten books, and I think Borges did something similar.

    Murnane has nothing but contempt for labels, but his fiction does fit most of those bullet points of PoMo. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Postmodernism is the first time I’ve seen a useful summary of the movement. I keep editing textbooks by academics (especially in Media Studies) who talk endlessly about postmodernism, but give little idea of what it is, because they don’t really know.

    The only author who fits all the PoMo categories is, of course, Philip K. Dick. Lisa, I suggest exploring his books.

    PS: I wrote a tribute in Scratch Pad (http://efanzines.com ) to Catherine Murnane when she died at the beginning of this year. Also I’m publishing a special issue, including the eulogy that Gerald gave at Catherine’s funeral, and the story of the year that Catherine spent dying from lung cancer. The first is already on efanzine.com in Scratch Pad 70, and the latter should be up there as Scratch Pad 71 sometime during the next month or so.

    • Hi Bruce, thank you for the link to Scratch Pad, I found it very interesting. So he will move from Macleod, after all this time? I’ve been reading in Inland today the part where his narrator talks about moving to the house where he becomes so settled, and it seems impossible not to identify that narrator with Murnane himself.
      It’s odd, on the subject of editing postmodernism…I was chatting with my hairdresser today about Murnane, and read her an excerpt. We wondered about the business of editing Murnane, or any other ‘difficult’ PoMo writer. It would take very special expertise, I suppose, because the characteristics of PoMo are often the very things that an editor might take exception to.
      Anyway, if my feeble posts about his work unearth a few more readers of this most interesting writer, that will be great.

  3. Lisa, she must be one hell of a hairdresser. Great post – I have read The Plains, Tamarisk Row and the essays, and am working my way through Barley Patch.
    It is amazing how many bits of The Plains come back to me while reading the latest book though.
    In the loose sense I suppose this is post-modern writing, in the sense of writing about the act of writing, about the engagement of the reader, etc. But I’m not well-informed enough about the finer details of that definition to suggest much more than that. And also I haven’t read much of it yet…

    • Hi Genevieve, I’m only half way through….and I keep going backwards and forwards and re-reading…and then spinning off with thoughts and ideas of my own that seem to be couched in his kind of circular sentences, as if he has colonised my mind. It is a bizarre experience to read something like this, floundering around trying to work out what’s happening even though it seems unlikely that anything is actually happening.
      And yes, my hairdresser is fantastic: she loves reading and talking about books and ideas.

  4. [...] read The Plains a couple of years ago and found it a curious experience.  Inland is the same, and if there were [...]

  5. [...] Australian Literature Cheer up, Liam, I've been reading Murnane too. I've read The Plains The Plains, by Gerald Murnane ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and Inland Inland, by Gerald Murnane ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and there's also some commentary about [...]

  6. I have just read it and was equally baffled and amused. Often it seemed like a dig at the intellectual sterility of the squattocracy and the filmmaker’s naive reading of deep meaning into their boozing and pontificating. Then he would quote something that suggested that there was some deeper meaning. Beats me!

    • Hello Andrew, and welcome to ANZ LitLovers, I always like to meet new readers who’ve tried Murnane:)
      I don’t claim to understand Murnane’s mind (and would be deeply suspicious of anyone who did) but I reckon he’s like James Joyce. The first time you read Ulysses it’s 99% bafflement, and then the next time, something clicks and you understand a little bit. Each time you read it, it makes a little more sense. It’s like learning to solve cryptic crosswords, not something you can do when you are young because you just don’t know enough to do it. But as you get older, and you’ve read more and thought more and had more experience of the world, these mysteries gradually reveal themselves. The pleasure lies in the gradual revelation, and as you say, in the humour. I really like to read Murnane when I’m on holiday, when I can lose myself in his world without having to stop for more mundane things.
      He has a new one out, which I’m looking forward to. Maybe I’ll get to it this holidays:)

  7. [...] read The Plains a couple of years ago (see my naïve review) and found it a curious experience.  Inland is the same, and if there were only one word I could [...]

  8. [...] Lisa at ANZLitLovers, a Murnane fan, has reviewed The plains [...]

  9. [...] Sue at Whispering Gums has a lovely review of The Plains penned just the other day, which you can read here. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers is also a fan. [...]


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