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These Places Have Their Moments: Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows

Friday, 1 August, 2014

Describing Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, Gerald Murnane once wrote:

The contour of our thought is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or Karl Marx probably help other people.

This approach is at the heart of his newest work of “true fiction,” A Million Windows, published earlier this year. Murnane’s eleventh book, it follows on with directions of thought explored continually in his life’s work—most recently in 2009’s The Plains, but going back as far as 1974’s Tamarisk Row. Murnane contends that the mind is properly understood as a space, that reality can be perceived in terms of a distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” world, that time is more like a map than a linear progression of events, and that it is imperative that a work of fiction should never pretend to be anything other than a work of fiction. A Million Windows dwells on these ideas, and on Murnane’s usual fixations: imagery, women, and horseracing. But it’s also about reluctance, trust, and concealed pain.

If you aren’t familiar with Murnane, you’re far from alone. Although he’s won numerous awards, and received much attention from writers and academics like Teju Cole, J.M. Coetzee, Northop Frye, Frank Kermode, Imre Salusinszky, and Kevin Brophy, he doesn’t have a large readership. What’s more, he intends to be mysterious. To borrow his phrase, he has structured A Million Windows—as well as a great deal of his public presence—on “the withholding of essential information.” Without very much effort, you can find biographical information. He was born in Coburg in 1949 and he has spent nearly all of his life in Victoria. He has never travelled by aeroplane. He married Catherine Lancaster in 1966 and had three sons, and lived in Macleod until 2009, when he moved to Goroke, in north-west Victoria. He appeared in the 1989 documentary Words and Silk. And yet these details seem to reveal almost nothing about him. In a brief interview for the ABC’s The Writer’s Room, he shows the camera his violin, and comments: “I play it quite often, but only when no-one can hear me, so I won’t be doing a demonstration for you.”

A Million Windows is demanding to read, and slow. Its dynamics of intimacy and distancing can be frustrating, and at the beginning it doesn’t offer much goodwill, at least as that word is usually understood. It provokes you to question whether you are a “discerning” or an “undiscerning” reader, and in the early sections it seems to anticipate the reader’s prejudices and to reprimand them.  Because Murnane’s narrators disdain film, theatre and (worst of all!) fiction that pretends to be film or theatre, A Million Windows avoids scenic form. With one exception, it contains no dialogue apart from that implied to exist between writer and reader. It deals more in images and patterns than in plot. As it elaborates on its central image, a distant house inhabited by many narrators, it becomes increasing challenging and complex. But nevertheless it’s captivating, and in the end it’s rewarding. I don’t trust my own discernment enough to provide a confident evaluation. But if you’re willing to put in the time parsing paragraph-long sentences, and paging back to earlier sections when prompted, then I recommend it.