Fiction – hardcover; Farrar Straus and Giroux; 134 pages; 2018.
For a slight book, Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts: A Fiction packs a very large punch. Well, not so much a punch, but a tickling of the grey matter, for this is a novel — supposedly Murnane’s last (he’s 79) — that makes you see the world in new ways and makes you reflect on concepts you may never have thought of before.
Billed as fiction, the story mirrors Murnane’s real life move from Melbourne to a provincial town on the border between Victoria and South Australia and the impact of that shift on his interior life.
Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.
Written stream-of-consciousness style and employing some of the devices of meta-fiction, Border Districts is the type of novel that could be labelled “experimental” — it certainly doesn’t comply with the normal conventions of the literary novel, blurring the lines between fiction, non-fiction and reportage. Indeed, the story is written as if it is a report and the (nameless) author of the report keeps reminding us of this fact.
The story is essentially about memory or, more accurately, the landscape of the mind. It explores how recall and imagery works, how sights and smells and music and words and even the way the light falls can trigger the mind to remember things from the past, taking the narrator on tangential journeys through back history, and how our experience shapes what we reminisce about.
It begins with the narrator noticing how the colour of the translucent glass in a local church window changes from day-to-day depending on the light (hence the pieces of coloured glass that adorn the American edition of the book), which reminds him of the glass in the chapel at the Catholic school he attended. From there his mind spirals into all kinds of memories — from his childhood education to his thoughts on Catholicism to his life in the capital city and his love of horse racing — before returning to where it started, trying to “recall the details of the windows of the chapel in the grounds of my secondary school”.
It is, to be perfectly frank (and please excuse the language), a bit of a mind fuck.
The writing is eloquent and full of astonishing detail and insight. Stylistically, each paragraph begins with short, taut sentences that later become elongated, stretched to breaking point and turning back on themselves. We are constantly reminded this is a book being written, with phrases such as “while I was writing the previous paragraph” dotted throughout the text and which, for this reader at least, soon began to wear very thin.
This is definitely not a book to race through despite its novella-like length. It took me more than a week because it was mentally exhausting to digest and I needed time to savour it in small chunks. Admittedly, I was relieved when I got to the end, but I did appreciate the way it made me reflect on things. This is the kind of writing that is focused on ideas and concepts rather than on plots and action and character, so you really need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it.
I have read Gerald Murnane before — I described The Plains, arguably his most famous novel, as “surreal” and thought his style was very Kafka-like — so it wasn’t a complete surprise to find this book cut from similar cloth. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award, the first time Murnane has been nominated in a career spanning almost 50 years. We will find out tomorrow (August 26) whether he has won it.
This is my 13th book for #20booksofsummer and my 5th for the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2018. I bought it in April (before the longlist announcement) because it had attracted a bit of publicity — probably because Murnane said it was the last book he would ever write and there was a rumour going round that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature — and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers reviewed it very favourably, which piqued my interest even further.