No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

9 thoughts on “No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane”

  1. “But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.”
    As always, Joe, you have zeroed in on the crucial elements of the text!
    I count myself as one of Murnane’s undiscerning readers, he just has to bear with me, I fear, because I always seem to find in his books something that I thought I understood to be an error made by ‘an undiscerning reader’. ‘Border Districts’ is labelled ‘fiction’ on the back cover blurb, and I thought I was being careful not to confuse the narrator with the author and then, there it is, his condemnation of my efforts to comprehend what he is doing with the text!
    Still, I love his writing just the same…

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    1. This is one book I absolutely wanted to write about without looking at anyone else’s review. My reading is quite personal. I was fascinated by Murnane’s narrator was examining his own thinking and remembering process. I read this as fiction, even if the narrator’s reflection converge with Murnane’s. Through the voice of this alter-ego he is playing with the writing/reading process and insists most vehemently that he is not writing fiction when he is most clearly telling an imaginary tale. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to read a book like this.

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    1. This is a much less narrative and opaque novel than The Plains. I suspect that as someone who has written memoir, the entire exploration of the way mental images and recollections come to us and remain will be of great interest. I did read the NYT article. As well, a couple of my good friends in Australia attended the strange literary conference in Murnane’s hometown where he tended bar and listened in. One of them published this piece about the experience on the Paris Review blog: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/01/26/scenes-gerald-murnanes-golf-club/

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  2. This definitely sounds like a book that might be read very differently depending on one’s age, and I imagine I would have reacted to it very differently when young than I would now. I’ve never read Murnane, but I notice the attention he’s getting and I can see why from your piece. And I loved your point that you are “inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know”. The older I get, the less I think there are any certainties, either in the world around us or in what we ourselves think or feel.

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    1. I’m still relatively new to Murnane though I did bring a few titles back from Australia and I was aware of him for a long time. This is not the book I’d start with probably, but it certainly made me think and has a special resonance at this point in my life.

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    1. I only started reading him last year after picking up a few of his books when I was in Australia. He is finally getting wider attention now at age 79. The Plains, probably one of his best known titles, is strange and wonderful. A good place to start.

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