October 29, 2011
A Vertigo reader recently noticed that I reacted badly to Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains, which I read in the 2003 edition put out by the press of Western Michigan University. In the right hand column of my blog I post brief comments on the latest book I’ve finished, and a week or two ago I summed up my response to The Plains in one sentence:
Andrew Zawacki’s Foreword to this 1982 Australian novel extols this “elusive” novel as a kind of minor masterpiece, but I could never buy into Murnane’s eccentric vision, which nullified any formal achievement he might have accomplished.
“I would be interested to hear more about why this was the case,” the reader commented. “I have always found Murnane’s books to be brilliant, and consider The Plains one of his best.” My allergic reaction to The Plains was pretty severe, so I decided to take up the challenge by re-reading The Plains and doing a full post on the book.
I had never read anything by Murnane before, but a recommendation from someone I highly admire led me to order The Plains and dive in as soon as it arrived. Murnane’s book overflows with modernist and post-modernist devices that reward close reading and I was underlining furiously for the first few pages. At the outset, I found myself agreeing with Andrew Zawacki’s Foreword that this was a goldmine of a novel. But before very long, I realized that my literary detective function was working overtime (I was underlining most of the book), yet I cared less and less about turning the page. The Plains had turned into a hall of mirrors, an exercise that became maddening for me simply because the rewards were so minor. Murnane seems to deliberately make it clear that the actual narrative of The Plains is of little interest to him; what matters is the meta-narrative. But for me the meta-narrative never becomes richer or deeper. Instead, Murnane repeats the same themes in countless minor variations until the whole enterprise becomes precious and brittle.
The plot is simple. An erstwhile filmmaker takes up residence in a community somewhere out on “the plains” of Australia to do research for a film, which, we increasingly come to realize, will never be made. Once he reaches his destination, he never actually looks at the plains again, but contemplates his chosen topic obliquely through his encounters with the people he calls “the plainsmen.” The filmmaker’s “research” consumes years, even though the book is barely 100 pages long.
In a strange way, The Plains is a novel about knowledge. But even though the core of the book focuses on the filmmaker’s never ending research, this is not an epistemological undertaking. Murnane seems utterly uninterested in knowledge: he’s not interested in the nature of knowledge or even in the ambiguity or elusiveness of knowledge. Rather, The Plains is about the willful refusal of knowledge through deliberate emotional isolation. Despite various forms of socializing, the filmmaker and the plainsmen go to great lengths to impose great emotional distances between each other. Here’s an example. Late in the novel the filmmaker is taken in as a guest by a wealthy plainsman, where his stay is vaguely described as lasting some five or ten years. During this period he spends much of his time consulting in the mansion’s seemingly endless library, where he routinely encounters the wife of his host. The two exchange only occasional “polite words.” Eventually, the filmmaker becomes obsessed with the idea of trying to communicate with her – but only in ways that are destined to fail.
But I was not bothered for long by the likelihood of her never reading my words. If everything that passed between us existed only as a set of possibilities, my aim should have been to broaden the scope of her speculations about me. She ought to acquire not specific information but facts barely sufficient to distinguish me. In short, she should not read a word of mine, although she should know that I had written something she might have read.
The Plains is replete with similar situations, in which non-communication is the desired outcome.
Listening to the plainsmen, I had a bewildering sense that they wanted no common belief to fall back on: that each one of them became uncomfortable if another seemed to take as understood something he himself claimed for the plains as a whole. It was as though each plainsman chose to appear as a solitary inhabitant of a region that only he could explain.
…I saw that what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognize any common ground between themselves and others…A plainsman would not only claim to be ignorant of the ways of other regions but willingly appear to be misinformed about them. Most irritating of all to outsiders, he would affect to be without any distinguishing culture rather than allow his land and his ways to be judged part of some larger community of contagious tastes or fashions.
The plainsmen’s heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat…
This is not simply a case of The Plains being irritating or deliberately obscure, because I tend to thrive in those kinds of difficult, challenging books. In the end, all of Murnane’s literary devices and philosophical games came to feel quirky and arbitrary, and I simply didn’t care any more. Perhaps Murnane had won after all. I didn’t want to know anything more about his book, which was beginning to appear like a Rubik’s Cube of only one color. (Here’s a very new review of Murnane’s latest novel.)