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.
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.