A combination of several things, but most notably J. M. Coetzee’s recent article on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books, made me realize that it was high time to revisit Murnane’s work. In particular, because I found Inland to be a very repetitive work which was better fleshed out in the rather complementary Barley Patch, I thought that a more generous immersion into this enigmatic (and often elusive) writer’s work would do me well.
The Plains is considered by many critics to be Murnane’s finest work, and, in many ways, I wish that my journey through his oeuvre had commenced here. The Plains is a metaphysical meditation on our relation to landscapes, how they form our individual, familial, and cultural identities—and yet also how they complicate these identities. Like the narrators of Barley Patch and Inland, the narrator here is trying to fathom creatively the dynamic, interrelated pieces of the plains and yet continually finds his attempts at analyzing fall short of the medium of art.
From “outer Australia,” the narrator journeys to “inner Australia” in order to research the region of the plains for a projected film he plans to make entitled The Interior, a “film that would reveal the plains to the world.” As an outsider, he wavers between letting the plainsmen know of his true identity or else letting them think that he comes from the borderland close to “the interior.” It helps, as he gets to know the plainsmen and the history of the plains themselves, that he is an artist. Indeed, the world of the plains that Murnane creates here is one that is deeply rooted in and also one that is highly respectful of the arts—particularly poetry: “writing was generally considered by the plainsmen the worthiest of all crafts and the one most nearly able to resolve the thousand uncertainties that hung about almost every mile of the plains.”
That this portrayal of “inner Australia” is better-versed than its “outer” counterparts, and also that the narrator is able to locate philosophical truths that resonate across borders and cultural spaces, is one that Murnane maps skillfully on to larger questions about artistic creation (“I’ll go in search of the places that lay just beyond the painted horizons; the places that the artists knew they were only able to hint at”); the importance of living as opposed to learning; the many possibilities and routes our lives can, and perhaps do, take (“the moment when a young woman saw as he might never appear again a man who saw her as she might never appear again”); traveling as revealing and yet also isolating (“each man in his heart is a traveller in a boundless landscape”); how life resembles one’s own landscape (“They saw the world itself as one more in an endless series of plains”; “I was trying to discover my own kind of landscape”); how we spend our lives “shaping from uneventful days in a flat landscape the substance of myth”; and the perpetual sense of dislocation that we feel whether we are in our homeland or in other lands—the landscape “always invisible even though one crossed and re-crossed it daily,” “a land beyond the known land.”
The Plains showcases all of Murnane’s omnipresent themes and concerns while remaining a wonderfully lucid and self-contained narrative in its own right. Murnane might well be said to be one of those writers whose different books all speak to one another in an overarching piece, as if each of his books were a piece of a puzzle that contain ruminations on similar questions but in slightly different keys. If anything, The Plains made me think about Murnane’s other work in a wholly different light, and I thank Coetzee for making me see that this revisitation of Murnane’s work was a journey well worth taking.