by Gerald Murnane
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.
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