Gerald 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…
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
Source: Personal Library