Greg Gerke reviews Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows
I don’t believe an author has any further control over her book once it has been published and sweeps before the public eye. It goes, almost always, quietly, to those arbiters of taste, and it settles onto bookshelves to be glanced at and ignored, maybe pitied. And while most authors would hope that their books will eventually stand in for their biography — which lessens as their bibliography swells, becoming what is left behind — the fate of the works themselves will always be a public matter. Yes, they are made of what Proust called “the secretions of one’s innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone, that one gives to the public”, but their pages belong to the bookstore, the library, future scholars, and the split-second slippery shores of social media.
Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows is something of an ambidextrous book. It doesn’t tell a story so much as it explores the memories and consciousness of its narrator through a series of interlocking images, images projected onto the surfaces of an enormous house with rooms like Borges’ Library of Babel. Although it is nominally a work of “fiction”, it’s partially autobiographical and it’s also something of a manual for a certain kind of writing that Gerald Murnane argues for — more via allegorical example than in the language of manifesto. It is the embodiment of the many frontiers in Murnane’s consciousness — the place he really writes about. After reading it at last, I find that Murnane is not so much the alien being I felt brushing past me when I encountered the book months ago and thought it too gamy. At first the long white shadow of its tomfoolery (“The previous sentence seemed, while I was composing it, a most apt ending for this, the sixth section of this work of fiction”) made me quail, so I went back to my stable of known quantities. Then the imperatives of the Murnanians became louder (all of them male, too — do women read Murnane (and enjoy it?)) and parsed The Plains (1982) for ballast: once returned, then, A Million Windows made an uncanny sense.
Even if it is not autobiographical, I am (as the reader) free to deem it so, especially when reading it this way increases my pleasure — a pleasure situated so deep in my quarry that even a James Frey kerfuffle neon-lighting the words “I made it up” will not dissuade me in my admiration. The details of Murnane’s again and again looking at dark-haired women are nearly irrelevant, because I sense the overall “contour” of Murnane’s thought in his sentences — this, from an idea Murnane himself cribbed from Sir Herbert Read for his essay ‘Why I Write What I Write’. For me and others, all writing is autobiographical — it has no choice in the matter — and, over time, how we write has become more interesting to me than any made-up tale. Wayne Booth’s concept of “the implied narrator,” from his Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) — a talisman for Murnane — is the prime creation I fixate on when I read. Put simply, the implied narrator is the image of the writer that the reader composes as he or she reads the text — but it can complexify beyond Booth’s original concept, as one can also call it the author’s “second self” or something like Proust’s “innermost self”: beings with more substance than any surface personae. “Our sense of the implied author includes not only the extractable meanings [of a book]”, Booth writes, “but also the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all of the characters”. But Murnane takes up the term and works it so deeply into the texture of his fiction that, as Emmett Stinson writes, it becomes “a generative concept that creates nested levels of fictional ontologies that are elided in paradoxical or irresolvable formations”. Murnane amplifies his methods mid-way through A Million Windows:
We sense that true fiction is more likely to include what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence but comes continually to mind ten or twenty years afterwards not on account of its having long ago provoked passion or pain but because of its appearing to be part of a pattern of meaning that extends over much of a lifetime.
This is one of the best descriptions of what writing is for many of the unforgettable authors (as well as the best encapsulation of Proust) and it is exclusionary — as it should be. Writing is a years- and decades-long odyssey — much like the work of a cellist facing the six suites of Bach, or of people studying and refining the short form of T’ai chi ch’üan, a routine of movements that might last anywhere from two to eight minutes but requires a lifetime’s training. For Murnane (and everyone else, even if they deny it) one’s writing is one’s memory, a process very consciously describable as: this made me think of that, which brought me to this, and so on. But certainly there are many choices in the matter.
Murnane’s autobiographical accounts accrete in ways one would not expect: “My published books may have been written not in order to remove images from my mind”, he writes, “but to arrange them more appropriately and to give certain images their rightful prominence”. In describing them, the phrase “deeply felt” is perhaps too gussied up — simply “felt” is better. A Million Windows is an account of Murnane’s fears, embarrassments, stuffiness, and promises to himself. There are free-flowing moments when it seems as if Alice Munro might be writing, but her metafictions (a term normally nowhere near her corpus) don’t threaten the fictional contract in the manner of Murnane’s. She is more adept (and conservative) about keeping the nineteenth century dream of fiction alive in the reader, as is V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World (1994), both of which blend the autobiographical into the fictional and reconstitute it into a narrator who is close to the author, but still dressed as someone else. Murnane, however, takes a different turnpike.
I was startled by a short, four-page section of A Million Windows. The passage begins in the narrator’s own experience of non-fiction, an old magazine article from The Australian Journal. It ends with a hint of epiphany, as the narrator explains how his reading life plays upon his real life, and resolves with an extrusion of insight — an elaboration of the “pattern of meaning” that takes such an undeniably intricate shape in this book, a summation too profound to be valedictory. The article is an anecdote of a one-time hobo with a stray dog. He feeds the dog but won’t take him on a train he catches, yet the dog runs after the train while the man, safely aboard, watches “the nearer eye of the dog while it tried to keep pace. The eye had seemed to be turned sideways and upwards, or so he thought, as though the dog had struggled, before it lost sight for ever of the only person who had fed it or had treated it less than harshly, to fix in mind an image of that person.” The retelling of the anecdote is bridged by references to the master figure haunting the book, Henry James, who plugged his ears to never hear an anecdote to its end. Then the narrator dives right into recall of a certain day, at age twenty-one, when he passed a yard with children playing in it. A young girl of maybe seven looked at him and, he says,
I seemed to learn from her face that she was kindly disposed towards me; that she might have trusted me if ever she had been obliged to do so; that if our circumstances were vastly different she would have welcomed me into her game. … I supposed that my eyes must have been turned sideways and downwards while I had passed the front yard where the children were playing, as though I had wanted to fix in mind an image of the first female-person who might have invited me into her pretend-world.
In a zeitgeist yearning for secrets, here is one so large it can’t possibly fit into a social media post. We get a sense of a large span of years, with hubris and desire running through the pipeline, culminating in the narrator’s worst, but closest, secret. At this point the reader is given a choice — and, fittingly, there is a line break signaling the end of the section. Does one revel at this information, as at a starry sky? Or does one go beyond discrimination to judge, to get the urge to caterwaul about such a cancelable confession? Murnane’s narrator is imposing the pattern of meaning on his confession — but if he didn’t do it, who else would? I hold my breath knowing that someday someone will seize this jewel and throw it into a sewer, but I can also stand free, knowing I have the sublime. Murnane has taken a section of his mind and delivered it to me and I hold it as a keepsake.
Those Murnanian lights, “what was overlooked or ignored or barely seen or felt at the time of its occurrence”, do reflect on my own work. I once wrote a novella off the expression of an ex-girlfriend’s face in a photograph taken years before I met her. The expression didn’t haunt me when I saw it — yet much later on, when I had happily fallen into the lap of another, something about it reached out to me, and not in any reasonable manner. I’d never seen the woman of the photograph again. I didn’t want to get back together with her and I didn’t want a different life, nor did I wish for a prior time. The picture had been taken during her college days, and the way people were positioned and outfitted, in a car, made it look like they were on some outdoor adventure, maybe a camping trip. Surely my reading of the image could speak to wanting more carefree days in my life at the time, but I’m doubtful. I had enough carefree days already and I just wanted to write. Possibly, or more than possibly, as in Murnane’s definition of “true fiction”, I was getting at what I felt at the time I first gazed at the photograph: while its import remained opaque, as I brooded on its indefinability, I was able to render something that needed to be expressed. But I won’t try to lecture on any overarching pattern of meaning — it’s too soon, and even to have written these sentences endangers my standing with the muse.
In Murnane’s book, the million windows is a play on James’ words in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady (1908): “The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million…” But Murnane elevates this aphorism into a hearty allegory by often referring to a group of people based inside this large structure, working on their fictions. For me, the visual equivalent of Murnane’s many-storied structure with a million windows is the magical manor house in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), a film partially based on James’ The Other House (1896). There, the house is a space where the two heroines drop in to watch the characters of James’ novel speak in their nineteenth century manner, albeit in French, and finally impinge on the characters’ interactions to save the girl who would be killed in the written work. The overriding contour in my mind is that I can and do, and did, replay the film in snippets while reading A Million Windows. I think about it, and Murnane, and my life, and all three marry in an instant: the newer stimuli piles onto the overwhelming bedrock of the main, in a process that Murnane dramatises time and again in the thirty-four sections of his book. The experience of art is time travel, and if we are going to be living with our histories for as long as we’re alive, it’s good to continually investigate where we’ve been, who we’ve pissed off, and why we can’t get certain things out of our skulls. A wise man said we’re here to learn, and a wise woman replied: “Get over yourself.” The chafing of the two statements might produce fake gold dust or a transmuted nobler metal, but it certainly produces more questioning and seeds for more fruitful hours.
Murnane’s program invites us to file a transparency of our own lives over our ceaseless reports of our time and space on the ground (his geology) and the conditions of our minds (ionosphere). Paul Valéry, in ‘Memoirs of a Poem’, wrote on the why of composition: “According to my theory, a man’s works were a means of modifying, by reaction, their author’s inner being; whereas in the opinion of most people they are an end in themselves — either because they result from a need for self-expression or because they are aimed at some exterior benefit: money, women, or fame.” Murnane would applaud Valéry’s forthrightness in this definition but maybe shy away from the second implication. Still, I think, as a person and in his guise as narrator, Murnane produces work that takes both forms at the same time.