BOOK

Barley Patch

by Gerald Murnane

Central Question: How are reading, writing, and remembering like looking through a window?
Author’s answer to the question “Why write?”: “I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for thirty and more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction”; Percentage of the books he’s read that author claims to have more or less forgotten: roughly 99.9; Representative example of author protesting too much: “I should remind the reader that every sentence hereabouts is part of a work of fiction”; Setting in which the action of the novel occurs: the mind

Whatever expectations prompt us to associate the literature of memory with soaring lyricism and epiphany—think of Proust and his cookie—Gerald Murnane undermines them. Here’s how he introduces the theme of looking through a window on page twenty-five of Barley Patch: “I had never been inside a house of more than one storey, although I had often daydreamed of watching unobserved from an upper window not only persons close by but also distant landscapes.” This anecdote, presented purposely as flat, fizzles without much point, and Murnane gives it to us as the kind of incidental detail we’ll soon forget—except that this sort of thing proceeds to occur repeatedly throughout the novel, each time collecting greater significance and mystery.

Murnane is fond of suggesting that he’s telling you something only because he chanced to recall it. His recurrent desire to look out the window of a two-story house is just the most prominent example: throughout the novel, he braids together seemingly random memories (“a fern protruding through a wall of bluestone,” “a strand of hair lying across the forehead of a female person,” “green bunches of fronds moving under water at unpredictable intervals”) until they splice themselves into significance. Murnane’s method is simplicity itself: he repeats and juxtaposes elements, constantly insinuating through proximity, emphasizing details by ostentatiously pretending they bear little importance. To watch them combine, conjuring substance from mere nearness, is to grasp how ideas become fixed in memory, shimmering with import only for ourselves.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

—Scott Esposito

Scott Esposito is the author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin), from Zero Books. He edits the Quarterly Conversation.


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