Relentlessly introspective but dependably playful, Gerald Murnane’s “Border Districts” is a novel that continually calls attention to its own book-ness. The narrator says things like, “While writing the previous paragraph . . .” or “I strayed a little in the previous two sentences . . . ” or even the comically pedantic, “I reported in the fourth most recent paragraph that. . . .” This is writing peppered with phrases of a purposeful stiltedness. The result is tedious — but fascinating.
Throughout his career, Murnane, Australia’s stealthiest Nobel candidate, has drawn parallels to J.M. Coetzee for his emphasis on the artificiality of fiction and for his mythical geography that reduces countries to allegories and characters to archetypes. “Border Districts” lives resolutely in the narrator’s own head. Like Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” it is a philosophical proposition as much as a work of fiction — and often an act of devotion.
As we read descriptions of sandstone houses and stained glass, it becomes apparent that the 60-year-old narrator has discarded most of the trappings of his old life, including, apparently, his wife and children. A self-described “failed” reader, he has sold nearly all of his library and moved to “this district near the border.” Here he hopes to dismantle his received ideas and find “proof of something I had for long wanted to believe, namely, that my mind was the source of not only my wants and desires but the imagery that tempered them.” In his yearning for primal knowledge, there are parallels to Descartes, and to Tom McCarthy, whose experimental novel “Remainder” (2005) suggested to Zadie Smith a new path for the novel.
In the absence of plot, “Border Districts” is bound together by intersected themes of light and faith. As a child, the narrator was taught by religious brothers in “the capital city.” Later, he claims to have lost his faith, and with it the sacred imagery that meant so much to him in childhood. Murnane’s is a vision that blesses and beatifies every detail. He describes the light through a window pane as “wavering richness” and recalls how, when young, he liked to stare at his watercolor palette “to let each color seem to soak into each word of its name.” Objects at the furthest range of his vision, he writes, seem “to quiver or be agitated until I have the illusion that I am being signaled to or winked at,” demanding attention be paid. When he calls himself “unobservant,” it is with religious humility.
“I have never traveled more than a day’s journey by road or trail from my birthplace,” the narrator writes. “Foreign countries exist for me as mental images, some of them vivid, and many of them having originated while I was reading works of fiction.”
Murnane was born in Victoria, Australia, in 1939 and has more or less stayed there. Nine years ago, Murnane received the Melbourne Prize for Literature, an Australian award worth approximately $46,000 that requires recipients to spend half their winnings on international travel. Instead, he accepted the prize by reciting the addresses where he had once lived, the streets and numbers committed to heart. His speech was widely interpreted as a gesture of love toward the local. Murnane is not provincial; he is steeped in personal geography, so absorbed with his own inner life as to be totally indifferent to the idea of travel.
In “Border Districts,” Murnane reminds us, reworking Kafka, that “a person might learn all that’s needed for salvation without leaving his or her own room.” The narrator reads his own memories as deeply as a monk studies scripture in his cell and imprints his inner life on the world around him. Space has rarely been so tenderly observed or so irrelevant.
Early in the novel, which Murnane has described as his last, the narrator describes how the men of Cromwell’s England smashed the colored glass from each cathedral they passed. As a boy, he would have seen this act as a triumph of unvarnished reality over vanity. In later life, he is not so sure. “A part of my seeing,” he surmises, is “my investing the glass with qualities not inherent in it . . . a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.” Murnane’s mischievous suggestion is there is no point in trying to see the world as it is. Your own mind sanctifies and stains the glass.
Jamie Fisher has recently completed a novel.
By Gerald Murnane
Farrar Straus Giroux. 144 pp. $22