Gerald Murnane’s Exquisite Failures

I hope to have some new posts up soon. In the meantime, here’s an essay I wrote about Australian author Gerald Murnane. It appeared in Music & Literature No. 3 many years ago, but never made it online. Thanks for reading!

Gerald Murnane’s Exquisite Failures

I saw nothing absurd in what I was doing—sitting at the heart of the scene I had dreamed of fifteen years before and yet dreaming further of another scene that would lead me at last into the real world. I had the pleasant suspicion that I was about to complete a neat pattern I had often admired as a subject of fiction. I might have been about to demonstrate that at the heart of every scene assumed to be real was at least one character imagining further scenes that would be closer still to reality. —Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape comprises six interlinked narratives that echo one another, evoking a sort of chorus or book of possible lives about an anonymous, would-be writer.

The collection’s title is one we might expect to find on a gallery wall beside a symbolic realist painting. It might spur us to imagine a layered representation of a panoramic scene, complete in one sense yet with any given image partially concealing several others. Murnane’s choice to title this book as if it were a landscape painting is no gimmick: its six narrators are writers in the suburbs of Melbourne who are all obsessed with an abstract notion they call “landscape”—a metonym for a certain purpose in their lives, a far-off yet “peculiarly real” place inside each writer—and who have a common desire to hold such a place in their minds. Protecting the meaning of this private landscape and its purity as an idea secretly alive within them, in order to capture some or another part of it in their fiction, is the narrators’ shared tragicomic vocation.

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Memories of books & past lives

recitation memories books

Early drafts of my story-reviews often start out very personal. A moment or two related to grief and family, which I first bend around a review of the book, then work to find a balance.

I’ve been writing these sorts of reviews since 2014 and as time goes on I like to check back to see how I handled finding this balance. I recently looked at my review and marginalia for Bae Suah’s novel, “Recitation,” translated by Deborah Smith. Continue reading

300-page gorilla


I recently shared the above photo of a tall stack of small books on Twitter. I enjoyed most of them and think my tastes lately have been running toward the sort of things writers do in a short book versus a long book.

There’s no use in trying to define short book or long book. Yes, there’s its size and page count but that hardly defines it as a book. Reading defines books. In terms of heft and the realities of production costs and potential film rights, in the U.S. so much of the market (we’re told) depends on the 300-page book that anyone who writes fiction is forced to grapple mentally with the meaning of this demanding animal for at least a little while as some kind of arbitrary standard.

The 300-page book’s magical powers are a mystery. If every writer could write one, they would, we are told. Meaning it’s foolish to take it lightly.

Every reader knows what their favorite big-name fantasy, romance, literary fiction, and crime authors will do in a 300-pager. The respective expectations are set. There are infinite possibilities within these templates and I enjoy them. Even if they’re an extra hundred or two hundred pages long, you still know you’re reading a 300-page book when you open it, and if you cross the 600-page mark, no worries. It’s still written in that enjoyable 300-page book prose and the extra 300 pages are probably good for the endurance.

Still, the absurd mystery of why 300-page-books are revered is bound up in money, but only for about 1 out of 10,000 novels. For my money, I can’t get away from liking the shorter books. Most of the very good long books usually could’ve been whittled down to 200 pages and really done something special. Or been pared down drastically into one good essay that cracked a fascist regime in half. Or a poem that led soldiers worldwide to abandon their posts. But these are not lucrative goals.

“Little books” are doing fine, of course, in terms of appearing often on Twitter and in blog posts. I hope their authors are, too. Here’s another photo of a few more.


The breath and the way


Credit: M. Jakubowski

As for this site, I have the urge to get back into the habit of posting regularly. (I’ve decided for better or worse not to edit too much.) Maybe a change is needed, would be fun, we’ll see, in my writing approach/approaches—this thought after reading some of Duras’s essays and articles and fragments that roil and startle with enough ego to power a new sun.

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Damp & splotchy


The splotchy thing above is a detail from a finger-painting my son did. He has no idea he created it. He just made it and brought it home from school before disappearing beneath a pile of Legos. I pinned the painting up by my desk at work and there it hung for many months until I noticed the intricate webbings inside the mess, and snapped a photo last week. Not sure why, and I’m probably overthinking it a bit, but it feels like I’m supposed to learn something from that somehow. Or not. I just like it.

Meanwhile, I was very happy in May to have two stories in The Brooklyn Rail. They are both very short stories, and appeared in print and online, so if you need a quick read, they’re on the same webpage. One is about death, and the title even says so: “Particles of Death.” The other is about love and is called “The Breath of Life.” I’m grateful to Donald Breckenridge for publishing them.

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Does reading translated novels put a twist on #readwomen2014?

I’m only reading books by women this year, and today I was wondering: How is this resolution affected by my other focus, reading translated novels?

Is it okay, that is, does it “count” as a book by a woman if the original author is a woman, but the translator is a man? And if I were to read a book translated by a woman, but the original author was a man, would that mean I’ve broken my resolution?

The answer to that for me is yes in both cases. Thus far, I’ve just been focused on the original author’s gender when choosing books by women to read. And I’m not really worried in any way, or looking for an “out” to try and read a book by a male author.

The question of this twist on my #readwomen2014 resolution is for me partly about the build-up to the reading experience. How a book is recommended: the channels it goes through to reach me, my interpretation of a book’s possibilities during the selection process, all the things I hear on Twitter, or from a publicist–these things all affect the experience before I begin to read.

Considering the translator’s gender could be another factor in the thinking that comes before we start reading a book. It’s also a way to read critically and look for bias. Though I’ve yet to concentrate on this while reading, wondering if the translator’s gender alone affects the overall quality of a translation. Though it must, in a way, when we really get down to matters of word choice and interpretations. Translators who work closely with the author can of course make sure they’re getting it as right as possible (as “right” as any translation can be), but author and translator can’t confer on every choice (or any choice, if the author is dead).

It’s interesting to consider what these things might mean to me as a reader. And there must be people out there who have fine-tuned their #readowomen2014 resolution to include, where translations are concerned, only books where both the author and the translator are women.

A few thoughts on #MyWritingProcess

Last week Kateywrites kindly invited me to take part in the ongoing discussions people are having about #mywritingprocess, answering four questions about themselves and their work. I’m still new to blogging and I’ve never written about this sort of thing before, but wanted to give it a shot. So here are my answers. Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out Katey’s writing at the link above!

1. What am I working on?

I’m at work on a novel called “The Designer,” based on this short story published last year by Corium Magazine. It’s about three friends who, at age 40, decide to leave San Francisco and move to Berlin using money they inherited after the death of their parents. It’s about love, expats, mirror-writing, art, grief, translation, and mysterious party guests.

In nonfiction, I’m working on an experimental review for the Irish literary magazine, gorse. Experimental how? It continues the narrative begun here at 3:AM Magazine last year. I’m also working on a review about Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My fiction tends to include fantastic or improbable elements in order to create an original story and try to put characters in situations that show human behavior in a new light. A perfect novel to me would be a blend of Tove Jansson, Virginia Woolf, and Amelie Nothomb.

In nonfiction, I’m devoted to the #readwomen2014 movement (which I discuss a little bit in this article for The Guardian). So I’m only reading and reviewing books by women in 2014. As a literary critic, I’ve been focused on translated literature for a while now, and I tend to like shorter, more experimental books or novellas. By choosing these kinds of books it definitely affects the tone and tenor of my criticism, as an attempt to look at sexism both in publishing and society.

3. Why do I write what I do?

This novel is definitely based in part on my interest in travel and art and displacement, which crosses over into personal territory as well: grief, anxiety, friendships, hope through creativity, and more. My reviews are part of an effort to celebrate translated literature, of which little is published in the U.S., and add something to the broader discussion about literary culture. This effort tends to keep me focused on small presses and independent presses. And focusing on books by women, deliberately ignoring the mass media coverage that tends to tout books by men, I hope to write about authors I might not otherwise discover.

4. How does my writing process work?

I like writing in the morning, but will use any free moment I can get. I do most first drafts and note-taking by hand. There’s something about putting ink on paper by hand that is still very magical for me. Then I type things up to read and edit on-screen, but will still print things out and scribble them up by hand as stories develop. I find taking a red pen to a printed document lets me distance myself from the work, reading things out loud, hearing how certain passage resonate within the whole idea of where a story or review is heading.

Since I have a toddler, work full-time, and edit a section of the translation journal, Asymptote, I rely on small bits of time to keep my short stories, reviews, and the novel moving ahead. I try (and usually succeed) not to get too anxious or upset when it feels like I don’t have large blocks of time to write like I used to. If I get a little window to work I’ll tinker with an outline or revise a couple pages of something, or re-read an important chapter in a book I’m reviewing. Those small things add up and overlap: research for a novel will illuminate things for me in my criticism, and revising part of a short story can give me a better appreciation of what I see other writers trying to accomplish. So I guess I like having multiple projects going on at once, though it does feel overwhelming at times. Taking a day off from writing is very nice, too. Just reading or getting away from words altogether. Being a father, husband, and taking care of an old rowhouse in West Philly provide plenty of chances to get away from all that!

Many thanks again to Katey for telling me about this and inviting me to participate! Here’s a link to her post about #mywritingprocess.