:: Article

Medium Making – Something About Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts

By Ryan Chang.

Review of Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane, Border Districts (Giramondo, 2017 and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)

According to Lukacs, the narrative writer “must move with the greatest deftness between past and present so that the reader may grasp the real causality of the epic events”. This, from his essay ‘Narrate or Describe?’, is in stark contrast to the purely ornamental function of description, that mode which contributes nothing to the narrative dimension of a story (and, in the scope of his essay, to narrative’s revolutionary potential). But on what grounds is revolution measured? And how is it confirmed? And what counts as real in narrative—is it delimited to the lives of the characters, or is it the relationship between the narrative-world and the real-space world?

Aashish Kaul’s interpretation of Gerard Genette rephrases the dilemma: “Narrative inserted into discourse is transformed into an element of discourse, whereas discourse inserted into narrative remains discourse, forming a sort of cyst that is easy to recognize and to locate.” For Lukacs, the deftness with which the narrative writer moves bears a direct relationship on how the past affects the present, elevating it into a meaningful bond. That is, it enables the evaluation of the past making the present. However, as Kaul points out, to describe, argue or explicitly discourse inside of a narrative would disrupt what many a how-to-write-fiction textbook describes as a “persistent dream”. To describe what that dream is in its stream, so to speak, would then destroy any sense of real causality. But in another way, such discourse reveals only what Lukac’s aesthetics have always presumed: that narration itself is a kind of description, a taxonomy in different clothes, and that “narrate or describe” employs the wrong conjunction. Should it not be narrate and describe?  

However, the narrate or describe dilemma has been perpetuated in academic circles for the last twenty years. Purely descriptive modes of literary analysis, which take full advantage of scientific-positivist models—textual data mining,  the work of Franco Moretti, “digital humanities” —have gained noticeable traction in academic criticism. Further, stalwarts of literary realism, namely one Ian McEwan, have championed an understanding of literature along the lines of evolutionary Darwinism. In his essay ‘Literature, Science, and Human Nature’, McEwan goes as far to argue that the study of the mating habits of chimps and bonobos reveals all the great themes of nineteenth-century realism, that literature itself is a kind of DNA. Such a claim may be true, especially if that claim presumes to see literature where it has not traditionally been seen before. But McEwan’s insight isn’t mere confirmation bias. It seems to want to elide the Cartesian duality while also maintaining it at once. The brain is a biological organ, and DNA and literature are both discursive means of expressing its existence. What I take issue with is that McEwan and his scientific travellers both concede to a primarily descriptive mode of language that slyly instructs the reader that the entirety of the world can be known, catalogued and identified.


Many questions emerge about Gerald Murnane in secondary writings about him, much of which attempts to explain just what he is up to in his fiction. How do we understand Murnane? What kind of writer is he? A modernist with a corset-tightened prose reminiscent of many a nineteenth-century English writer, such questions are only made more difficult to answer when the author himself bemoans critics who overly complicate his work. While this may be true, I think Murnane would be just as displeased with assessments of his work that are too simple. To be sure, Murnane describes his own understanding of meaningful literature thus: “Meaning, for me, is connection. A thing has meaning for me when it has a connection with another thing.” For any reader of Murnane, seasoned or not, knows the score: How many things? And in what directions do the connections go? How far away are the connections? How layered? How flimsy? Indeed, it is a simple definition, one that can be mapped and confirmed, though it may be a fool’s errand. One also needs to understand why the connections exist.

To concede to description would preclude the seeming arbitrary phenomena of images which appear to us, which countless “theories of minds” have attempted to describe and explain and provide Murnane’s several narrator(s) no satisfactory answer. The sophomoric dilemma of whether or not the brain is an organ and hence produces our emotions and thus deposes the role of narrative- and descriptive-linguistic frames is moot for Murnane. 

As a young man, I chose to consider the landscapes an actual part of my mind that I might never have discovered had I not heard the pieces of music. (For most of my life, I have only pretended to acknowledge the claims of so-called common sense. I could never accept, for example, that my mind is a creation, much less a function, of my brain.)

The mind exists as another image, and images are real; the narrator’s use of “actual” implies that other theories of mind (from Freud onwards to modern neurology), that the distinction between the referents of reality in competing vocabularies (scientific or literary) does not matter, because both systems depend on language to articulate those realities. In other words, the difficulty of Murnane’s texts should not lie in what they “mean”, what they explicitly reference, but why we keep speaking and writing at all. Writing fictions situate the vast “image networks” into a framework of real causality for him, even if the relationship between horse-racing colours and a face glimpsed from a sidelong glance seems oblique to us.

To argue that these are the real conditions of real causality in Murnanian narrative would be immodest, for what the texts presume is real or actual is perpetually liminal, always on or between the border of shifting definitions of what is imagined, and where imagination shades into actuality, if there is any shade at all. If we take seriously Ben Lerner’s assessment of Murnane’s aesthetics, that he is “interested in what part of consciousness—of sensation, of emotion—might be shareable and what part is irreducibly individual, a private territory”, we have to also understand Murnane’s writing primarily as neither visually or linguistically referential, but—at the risk of more confusion—as a specific optic onto what Murnane often terms the “invisible world”. To believe in the narrator’s world is to believe in an invisible reality of an invisible person whom only Murnane can experience, and whose existence may be liminally grasped.

What Murnane is most concerned with is language’s mediating force rather than its meaning-making potentialities, or that mediation itself might be the locus of meaning. Of the latter this is, like the narrator of his latest and possibly last novel, Border Districts, peripherally glimpsed.   


The late work of Gerald Murnane should be understood against a sentence he makes in ‘The Breathing Author’: “The aim of most of my fiction is that the reader should believe in the reality of the narrator of the fiction,” rather than “to have my reader take my writing as an account of a world whose existence the reader and I might agree on”. Murnane is not trafficing in a rhetoric of disbelief suspension, which presumes that the seeming-reality evoked in a literary text is fictional, a kind of shared irony among text, narrator and reader. Rather, if a reader “should believe in the reality of the narrator of the fiction”, such reality exists and thus contains real causality, rather than a real causality that exists within a fictional text and hence its only claim to reality would be potential. The sentence also distracts from an exemplary distinction that, perhaps, is cause for much of the challenge of Murnane’s text to a new reader. To whom does the first-pronoun refer—the implied author, narrator or the empirical, fleshy Murnane? Too, if Murnane’s ideal reader should “believe”, and not simply accept, then the text should also make that reader believe that a person(age), with all the same animus and excrement (do Murnane’s personages ever poop?) also exists within the fictional-reality. This is Murnane rephrasing one of Wayne C. Booth’s chief contentions in Rhetoric of Fiction, that all fictional texts aim to convince the reader that an author, who is conflated with yet delimited from the historical author in a specific way, has written the text.

Murnane’s work has touched upon the chief, implicit desire all readers bring to texts: we want the landscapes evoked to be real, to be as real as our own flesh and excrement. Only we have kept our eyes open too long, have stared too far into the shimmering, vibrating horizon of the plain, and have not let our sidelong glances signal to us a sight from the invisible world. However, to pay attention to our sidelong glances threatens to make the once invisible figures disappear into the ether. This is one of the primary exigencies of Murnane’s work. His narrators are at once reluctant yet all too eager to share with an implied reader the private events of an invisible field, communicated through finely wrought intimations of what it might be like to see our imagined other at the border on the landscape of our minds.

The murky delimitation between the visible and invisible worlds of Murnane is also well-trodden, as confirmed by the near-photographic identity between the anecdote in Will Heyward’s short piece about Border Districts in The Paris Review and one early scene in the novel. Heyward reports that, while on a walk with Murnane, they “stopped near a church off to the right, not far from the road, and soon it became clear that he could not turn to look at it—could not allow himself to see the church, at least not more than peripherally. … [Murnane’s] imagined church needed to remain more real than any actual church off the road to our right.” The point of comparison here is between the values and qualities of “real” and “actual”, but I think for Murnane this is incomprehensive. What delineates actuality in the visible and invisible worlds cannot really be made because the phenomenon of perception for Murnane, as Heyward subsequently illustrates in another anecdote, really exists; if not on the same plane (or plain), then in the same dimension as language.

Gerald Murnane

Murnane says that he writes sentences in the air “with his eyes” before on paper, so that “he can see it written in the air as [he’s] speaking it”. Such a sentence would be for Murnane visible, if only mentally, so to speak, and is one tool to help him “expand his knowledge of the invisible”, meaning that such images may be only glimpsed, as it were, by language as a visual and not a meaning-referential medium. But to claim that privately—that is, mentally—visible words undo the cloak of invisibility would be patently false and miss the point. As it is demonstrated in Border Districts, Murnane’s shy yet insistent aesthetics, as practiced by his implied author in the following description of an image, are not about revelation or understanding, but of staging the connections that make meaning:

The glass in this window is what I have always called stained glass and almost certainly comprises a representation of something—a pattern of leaves and stems and petals perhaps. I prefer not to draw attention to myself when I walk in the township, and I have not yet been bold enough to stop and stare at the porch window. I am unsure not only of what is depicted there but even of the colours of the different zones of glass, although I suppose they are red and green and yellow and blue or most of those. The outer door of the church is always closed when I pass, and the door from the porch to the church is surely also closed. Since the tinted window faces north-east, the near side of the glass is always in bright daylight while the far side is opposed only to the subdued light of the enclosed porch. Anyone looking from my well-lit vantage point can only guess at the colours of the glass and the details of what they depict.

What the arranged panels of glass depict and of what colours they are made are, within a more conventional novel, only supposed or assumed with a degree of certainty, and what would signal to a reader some kind of promise of final significance. The narrator is more interested in “the far side” that cannot be accessed from his “well-lit” position. The subsequent paragraph reports the narrator’s imaginings while reading a historical text about men in Commonwealth England who went around smashing stained glass, his suppositions that these men destroyed the “dull-seeming glass without knowing what [they] represented or even what were [their] colours as seen from the other side”. The narrator, too, is enticed by the promise of understanding to what such stained glass arrangements point, what they might hold for him, but the novel is made almost entirely of images like the partially glimpsed stained glass, the deliberately ignored signs on the road between districts, and the other several images out of and around which they spin and orbit each other.

In Heyward’s article, Murnane states that the “ultimate discovery would be to see everything”, and that if “you look at something long enough … it turns into something else. If you write about something for long enough, you’ll find that is connected to something else.” Turning to the historical Murnane for insight into his own work is something that he regularly advises us not to do, because the risk of conflating him with the many narrators and their implied authors is too great. But I can’t help the error, if only to help us see that Border Districts is about the exhibition, observation and the self-observation of those first two activities and how they make the book mean what it means. Medium making meaning by mediating itself, as it were.


To return to Lukacs. Real causality inside of a reality intimated in a fiction is localised to fictional language; in other words, Murnane has honed in on what rhetorical fiction presumes: that the world we desire when we read fiction is already here, that we are amidst and made of images—and only images. Further, that we ourselves might be imagined out of an author on the other side of a plain in some nearby country not yet visible to us. What is unique to Border Districts is the degree to which the narrator can continue connecting through observation and exhibiting those observations within the mode of fiction.

If meaning is made by and through the exhibition of connections, Murnane’s texts’ vantage points and positions are conjured through them, in the space crafted by implied author, text and (implied) reader, like radiant heat from a coiled stove. Murnane’s literary career turns, so to speak, after 1995, commencing with the question in Barley Patch: “Must I write?” And if the greatest discovery would be to “see everything”, it will not be achieved within the corpus of the implied author. The post-95 works are characterised by a specific kind of disappointment and frustration. Must a writer write? If the apotheosis of human discovery would be to “see everything”, but that kind of seeing eventually estranges the perceived, isn’t such an event of revelation foredoomed? Border Districts is a restrained elegy, and it means the creeping peripheral approach of mortal end and the imminence of immortal nothingness. The historical Murnane will disappear, and intimations of images on the far sides of plains and stained glasses will no longer be possible. Hence, the indirect confirmation of a fleshy vitality, located on the mental map of Murnane’s narrators, will disappear.

It’s no accident that the first sentence of Border Districts echoes the first sentence of The Plains. The narrator of the latter states that “[t]wenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open”. In the former, the narrator begins: “Two months ago when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.” The Plains most closely accords to the definition of narration discussed above, whereas Border Districts aims to describe its own narrative faculties inside of narrative that, as Kaul paraphrases, uses moments of description as strategic cysts in the narrative. Too, the narrator of Border Districts treats language the same way he treats images; the phrase “I resolved to guard my eyes” is uncannily similar, if not the equivalent, to the several colours and images of “sidelong glances” he makes while driving from the township to the capital city. Finally, no indication that a need to describe and explain is explicitly mentioned in The Plains; this is not yet the implied author of Murnane’s work who has read Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. The late work of Gerald Murnane may be characterised as an overall need to explain why fiction, among other media and forms, is the mode for which to narrate the acts of perception and subsequent organisation into vast image networks.

Real narrative causality takes the shape and form in Murnane’s fiction as the exhibition of a self’s observations of how connections are made in compound sentences, or, if not within a sentence, then certainly across a narrative text. The affection the breathing author of Border District has for Proust is abundantly clear. Both are preoccupied with phenomenological events of revelation as a means of securing meaning, events which cannot be willed into existence, but can be occasionally captured. If meaning is mediated through connection—i.e. the literary—then whatever lies past the distant horizon might well be another distant horizon, another imagined landscape that may belong to someone else, and that disappointment in perpetual discovery is perhaps the trace of, if not joy and rapture, pleasure and satisfaction.


Ryan Chang‘s writing has appeared in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, Black Sun Lit and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He tweets @avantbored.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 17th, 2018.