Inland is a strange adventure that plays with your mind from the first page. It’s not ‘easy’ but it’s not meant to be: Gerald Murnane is not that kind of writer. Before long he signposts what he is up to with a witty reference to Italo Calvino, and I am reminded of Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night, A Traveller – that strange, circuitous experience of reading about yourself as a reader, of being inside the book as well, sharing somehow in the writing of it. (See my review) There is, according to the introduction, also a reference to the American writer Dahlberg, but I’d never heard of him so it was wasted on me.
Murnane is a postmodern author, which means that it’s a good idea to have a look at what postmodernism (PoMo) is before you start reading. With a set of postmodern characteristics in mind, Murnane starts to make sense. Sort of.
I 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 use to describe Murnane ‘s narrators it is tentative. Nothing is certain, there are endless possibilities and the narrator of Inland is always worried that he might get it wrong, be misinterpreted, attract unwarranted or unwanted interest, or – worst of all – be thought to be, as Australians say, ‘up himself’. (Despite the indisputable evidence that there is widespread inequality here, democratic humbug requires that Australians pretend to be as good as each other. To be labelled as ‘one of the elites’ is the one of worst insults there is.)
BEWARE: SPOILERS (not that I imagine anyone reads Inland for the plot!)
The hesitant narrator of Inland is ensconced in his library in a manor house in Hungary. Jim Murdoch and Ramona Koval make much of the fact that Murnane has never travelled out of Australia, and rarely out of Victoria, and therefore it seems a bit bizarre that he should set his characters in places he has never been to. He has written a book that can preoccupy his reader with places, when he’s never been to any. But a PoMo writer can do this with impunity because (a) his Hungarian village that he ‘prefers not to name’(p3) is entirely imaginary, though the ‘nearby’ town of Kunmadaras does exist and so does the Northern Great Plain and (b) Inland is not about real places anyway, but a landscape of the mind.
What is this narrator doing? Well, he might be writing something. Or maybe not. He has an editor, Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen, and she works at the Calvin O. (wordplay, get it?) Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies in Ideal, Dakota, a very small place which does exist, though only just. He says he’s writing in Hungarian, and he might be Hungarian, but that’s neither here nor there. This part of the book is about his angst, which is that he’s worried about what he might write. Indeed he frets about so many things he seems not to put pen to paper at all, other than these pages about not writing, that is. This is Murnane playing around with metafiction, drawing our attention to the process of writing. (See my PostModernism for the Uninitiated for an explanation of this and other strange terms in this post.) He’s also making sure that we distrust the author/narrator, undermining his control of one voice…
Murnane plays around with absurdity right through the book. His narrator has never met his editor, but he knows all about her bedroom and her desk at work and the view that she sees from her windows. He’s very interested in clouds, but also in plants, even though he has no sense of smell. This gives Murnane the opportunity to use pastiche (mixing genres that don’t belong in this kind of book) with his catalogues of grasses and shrubs and whatnot. There’s an obituary too (pp14-17) written by the narrator to go into his editor’s magazine, The Hinterland because he believes that writers of books are always dead and that her jealous husband will turn his pages into a book, and therefore he will be dead. Classic paranoia, except that after a while he decides he’s been blaming the wrong rival for forging the letter purporting to be from Anna so that he will be lured into doing some writing about things he’d rather not reveal. (Is it possible to write about Inland without writing tortured sentences??)
There are some parts of this book that make me feel uneasy. The narrator has a wife and daughter. Following on from a bizarre exchange between the writer of books from Tolma County and the man from the library in Szolnok County about what they might or might not do with sows and heifers (!) there is then an exchange of identity so that the writer of books pretends to be the man from Szolnok County. This man (which? who??) writes about watching young women in his fields and arranging for his overseer to bring them to him in the library. These young women have to have perfect skin, ‘pale and ready for me to mark.’ (p37). Whatever does Murnane mean by this? He writes: ‘I would never mark her skin boldly or as another sort of man would mark a white page with black, or as still another sort of man would cause the pink of blood to spread beneath her skin. I may not mark her paleness for some time’. (p37) Is it just a blush? Or something nastier? Much later in the book he guides a young woman into his room, not by taking her hand, as we might expect, but by the wrist. (p121) Words are never used carelessly in Inland…
We are not to know, for these circumlocutions vanish on page 46, the tortured soul in Hungary is gone, and we are somewhere between the Hopkins River and Russells Creek. But where? It seems to be America, so silly me, I looked these places up on Google Earth – but of course they don’t exist, not in America, anyway, though there is indeed a Hopkins River and a Russells Creek down near Warrnambool here in Victoria. Still, the narrator takes us on a circuitous route all over the US, to end up in Dinosaur, Utah. Is there really such a place as that? I looked that up too, and as if he knew that silly people like me would do this, Murnane (or his narrator) intrudes as author/narrator:
I am not sorry for you reader, if you think of me as deceiving you…Now you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.
Trust me or not, but whatever I write about myself having done, I will write about places. I will name the streams on either side wherever I am; I will match landscape with landscape. (p46)
I should have known better than to take these place names literally, but it becomes irresistible. For then there is another abrupt shift: from a place that doesn’t exist in America we journey to a house ‘in a district of swamps and heaths between Scotchman’s Creek and Elster Creek’. (p49) Now, Scotchman’s Creek does exist, I’ve walked the trail along it doing an audit of native grasses. It potters around Mt Waverley. But Elster Creek? Even if you know the area well as I do, you may never have recognised it as a creek. It lurks, looking a lot like a drain, from Bentleigh down to Elwood, where it is better known as the Elsternwick Canal. These real places bring us to a section of the book that seems a bit less strange and alienating, and not just because I know where they are. (Or I think I do. I’m probably not supposed to, and it’s probably not supposed to matter.)
For now we are exploring adolescence – of a boy-man who transcends loneliness and meets the right kind of girl and eventually marries her. He has to put up with family holidays down by that ‘idiot sea’but these summer weeks in the caravan park are useful for reconnoitres to watch for girls, girls only of a certain narrow age group, between too young and already selected by someone else. It takes him seven summers for his choice to be reciprocated, but – much as I enjoyed his descriptions of ‘the pleated skirt and blouse and tie and blazer and gloves and bowl-shaped hat of the school uniform of Catholic colleges for girls in Melbourne County thirty-five years ago’ (p88) - this part of the book is only purporting to be a memoir of childhood. It deals with other concerns:
Each thing was more than one thing. Nearly every day in January was fine and hot, but in the evening a cool wind blew from the sea. Each evening in the garden I wore sandals on my feet and shorts on my legs but a thick sweater to keep my body warm. My legs felt cool with the wind blowing over them but they were hot to touch where the sun had burnt them during the day. The skin of my thighs was red from the sun, but if I lifted the rim of my shorts the skin was white. (p50).
The inland of the title comes into clearer focus as he writes about Melbourne’s infamous north winds…
In the last week of January…one day at least is always a day of north winds. On that day every year the wind is so strong and the air is so hot that even the people on beaches or safe among the streets of Melbourne County look up at the sky for the smoke of bushfires inland. And even if no smoke drifts in the sky, the people think of the month of February still to come, with days of hotter air and stronger winds.(p56)
As the people of Sydney learned so recently on the day of the duststorm, no matter how we may cluster along the eastern seaboard, the inland will possess us anyway, with monstrous winds, superheated air from the inland deserts, eerie dust storms, and smoke from malevolent fires. Writing before Black Saturday 2009, but not long after Ash Wednesday 1983, Murnane evokes the horror that haunts us all…
I was born on a day when the north wind blew in late February. In the January before that February, in the counties around Melbourne County, bushfires had burned more forests and grasslands and towns and had killed more people than any fires had burned and killed in all the time since Europeans had first settled in those counties. Even when I was born, one month after the fires had burned away, the stumps of the trees were still smouldering on mountainsides just outside Melbourne County. (p56)
The tragedy of fire is not all that bothers this narrator, nor the conundrum of our place as settled interlopers on our continent. But whatever empathy we might feel for a narrator-boy who spends his holidays burning what are probably National Geographics at the behest of his neurotic aunts, it is tempered by his activities to exterminate non-native birds. We are meant to feel like this: the emotionally distant narrator is signalled also by the flat unemotional tone when his father kills the dog Belle because it is a nuisance. There is his hectoring of the reader to contend with too. Do not merely suppose, reader, he commands. Look with your eyes at what is in front of you. (p65) I felt mildly peeved at being addressed like an errant pupil until I realised on p73 that the reader being addressed is that tiresome fellow in the institute for prairie grasses in America. (I think).
On the other hand, the word play is funny. I defy anyone to read his verbal gymnastics parsing girl-language on p108 and not laugh out loud. (Well, maybe you need to have done Grade 6 grammar with Mrs Sheedy in 1964 to fully appreciate it.) The language of females needs to be learned, though 13-year old girls speak it fluently, and a precise strategy to acquire it needs to be undertaken. (p112-3) I also like the wry adolescent notion that the fish pond in his unremarkable suburban backyard makes the boy and his girlfriend ‘older and more elegant’ (p110). Murnane is at his accessible best in these pictures of the tentative young male negotiating a place in the world.
Being accessible, however, is not one of Murnane’s concerns. As he signals with a quotation from Hemingway, he writes for himself and for she whom he loves. On the World Literature Forum I discovered an American called Liam who cites a Swedish scholar called Hansson. She describes Murnane’s world view as a ‘double or treble perspective’ where ‘he is seeing himself from his position in the present evoking memories of a place in the past when he as a young man was looking towards the future, imagining the place where he would find himself then.’ This perspective can seem claustrophobic, dense and strange…
When I took on reviewing this book for Sydney University Press, I did so as a general reader who blogs about Australian literary fiction. (This is my niche, publishers – see my review policy! ) As it happens I’ve been on holiday, and have had time to fossick around in the intricacies of postmodernism online, but of course I’m conscious that academics and experts out there in cyberspace may well be chortling over my interpretations and/or aghast at my impertinence. This is a book that is studied and I’ve only read it once. Gerald Murnane is reviewed by the august: those of his new book Barley Patch are by David Musgraven in this month’s ABR (October 2009); by Louis Nowra in The Monthly; by Peter Craven in The Age; and there’s a classy interview by Simon Caterson in The Australian. You can also read a beautifully written short essay by Yvonne Martinsson about Inland at Studio Freewheelin. I feel as if I’ve blundered into PhD territory and am out of my depth.
On the other hand, there might be general readers who discover Murnane in some indie bookshop, perhaps more so now because he’s in the news, who stumble onto this blog. For all the flaws in what I’ve written here, such readers may enjoy sharing a journey of discovery that starts in the same place that they are.
Gerald Murnane has been awarded the Australia Council Writers Emeritus Award (2008), the Patrick White Award (1999) and has been shortlisted for the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2009. There’s a People’s Choice award too, so you can vote for him if you like. I have, though (a) I was a bit torn over Alex Miller because I think he’s a wonderful writer too and (b) I think People’s Choice awards are too open to populism, blatant manipulism and cheating – look what happened with the Not the Booker initiative. At least with regular awards there’s a reasonable chance that the judges have read all the books in the shortlist, and aren’t just voting for the one they read and liked…
Best to finish with a quotation from Peter Craven, I think:If you have not read [Murnane], you should do so. He is a staggering original…It would be surprising if people were not still poring over Gerald Murnane in a hundred years time. (The Age, October 3, 2009, A2, p22)
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press.