Out of monkish solitude, Murnane arranges thoughts into storylines.
Last March, a The New York Times Magazine cover story asked a question which likely had never occurred to its cosmopolitan subscribers: “Is the Next Nobel Laureate Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?” A journalist found Gerald Murnane in the southeastern part of the continent, five hours drive from Melbourne. A coterie of literati has praised him but few outside his homeland have recognized his work.
Stream System may change that. This collection gathers three decades of stories. Nine novels, three books of short fiction, another of essays and finally a memoir have appeared, so newcomers will appreciate the convenience of this hefty anthology being published for an international audience. What Stream System does not elucidate, but draws upon in “The Interior of Gaaldine,” is Murnane’s dense substratum.
Murnane has kept detailed archives of his dreams, reflections and intellectual forays for half a century. Beginning in 1985, elaborating a boyhood invention, he expanded this into a board game and mnemonic exercise. This comprises a massive, meticulous Antipodean Archive. Two fictional countries compete in horse races. Over 1500 trainers alone indicate its scope and depth. Memorizing the jockey’s racing colors and the feats of their steeds, Murnane occupies his evenings, as he nears 80 years old.
He proclaims that his latest novel (also issued in tandem by the same publisher abroad), Border Districts, will be his last. If Murnane keeps his word, what audiences will have to remember him by may perplex them. Comparisons to Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett pepper publicity sheets and blurbs from the top writers today. If one enjoys their style, one may be better acclimated for Murnane’s metafiction. For the hesitant, Stream System offers no assistance. There’s neither an introduction nor notes beyond a terse list of acknowledgments for the original versions of the 21 stories included.
Inclusions circle around the same tangents: Catholicism, women, horse racing, 1970s domesticity in the suburbs, the landscapes across Australia and those within the author’s brain. Critics have acknowledged “Precious Bane” as a synecdoche. This may be the best place to begin, a fifth of the way into the anthology. It opens in a secondhand bookshop as the narrator fusses over which titles deserve rescue from oblivion by his purchase. That “unjustly neglected” novel by Mary Webb provides this story’s title.
This event is framed and expanded upon. Set in 1980, the speaker, who unsurprisingly resembles Murnane, decides that his writing fails to meet the trendy post-modern demands of the day. He imagines in 2020 how a browser may regard the stock on sale in that shop. Will the protagonist’s own efforts be shelved, or saved from neglect?
This drifts—as the mind does on paper for all of Murnane’s oeuvre—into a sophisticated analogy. Imagine a monk enclosed in a Carthusian cell. This metaphor stands for the writer’s mind. Part of it is cloistered, but another part resembles the function of lay brothers, who move beyond the strictest enclosure of all Catholic monasteries to interact, however hesitantly or briefly, with the world outside the walls. Thus the narrator’s mindset dwells within mental constrictions and reflects on them as such, but it accepts the necessity to leave its safety behind, to enable its own verbal articulation.
“Precious Bane” peers in further. A panoramic glimpse portends the fate of literacy and its guardians, as warriors mass to assault the monastery, to whirl back to destroy it. The tale ends as the character ponders how the story came about, out of a whirling repetition of “story, monastery, circuit, story, monastery, circuit receding endlessly.”
By such meditative endeavors, the stories in Stream System, as the collection’s titular selection conveys, conjure up the passage of time and space through Murnane’s nameless characters, who stand in for himself, who represent himself, who are and are not himself. He faces the predicament of how brightly fiction can enlighten an interior landscape flowing within yet expressed outside the confines of the mind. Out of monkish solitude, Murnane arranges thoughts into storylines. Whether this expresses confidence or resignation, obsession or freedom, is left up to his reader.