A Million Windows

Review of Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows

New York Times, June 17, 2016

The Australian novelist Gerald Murnane has become known for works of difficult genius, and his latest will only burnish that reputation. An exploration of the mind and of literary creation, it is a book of intricate construction and vast intellectual scope.

Moving between fiction, philosophy and literary theory, “A Million Windows” investigates and demonstrates the aesthetic of what Murnane calls “true fiction,” which faithfully records the narrator’s “invisible world” of the mind. This is distinct from artifice, where the writer consciously creates, and realism, where the reader is prompted to think of characters and places as actually existing. Rather, “true fiction” conceives of an invisible metaphysical plane that extends infinitely forward, backward, even sideways, into every possible temporal, topical and spatial dimension. In it are autonomous “fictional personages” (characters), whose existence the writer “learns of” rather than creates. A “considered narrator” selects and records a work from infinite possibilities. Every paragraph of the resulting text prompts endless possibilities in the reader’s own mind and — if the reader happens to be another “true fiction” writer — infinite possibilities for his or her work. Got it? Good.

Murnane presents this complex aesthetic in a text that performs the theory it advances. The organizing conceit is that a narrator is writing the book we are reading, located within “a house of two or, perhaps, three stories,” peopled by fictional writers. The house is, allegorically, a piece of the invisible world, and the narrator is both a personage in and our guide to it.

The book progresses through the narrator’s lectures on narratology and “true fiction,” his reports on the invisible world and discussions of the books the fictional authors are writing. These take place through layers of abstraction: a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer writing about writing, and so on. Nonlinear, with almost no character names or dialogue, the intermeshing narratives are organized instead by repeated images: a grassy landscape, a house of two or three stories, a sunlit window and versions of a dark-haired woman, whose tragedy forms the thread of a story. The recurrent imagery reflects Murnane’s ­belief that his fiction comes from elements that reverberate — often across decades — in his invisible world, demanding to be pursued and investigated. Thus “A Million Windows” produces a convincing approximation of the mind’s terrifying ­limitlessness.

Murnane’s prose embodies the book’s complexities. While grammatically immaculate, his sometimes page-long sentences are studded with subordinate clauses, legalistic definitions and refusals to take concrete positions on terms: “The first-person narrator who was last mentioned early in the paragraph preceding the previous paragraph reported that an earlier version of himself, so to call him, had been so affected by his having read about the last survivor, so to call him, that he, the earlier version, had planned to write a work of fiction.” The impolite description for Murnane’s prose is that of a 19th-century judge; a kinder tactic would be to acknowledge a debt to Henry James.

“A Million Windows” has left me in a quandary. I disagree, vehemently, with the narrator’s dismissal of plot, realism and dialogue. I believe that entertainment and accessibility can be worthy goals for art, and often find Murnane’s writing bloodless and willfully obscure. My copy of the novel is filled with foul-mouthed marginalia. But on second reading, I found myself marveling at Murnane’s intellectual power and originality, acknowledging respect for an artist so devoted to the precise execution of a demanding aesthetic. “A Million Windows” will find keen readers at literary theory seminars — but that, I suspect, will be it. Murnane, ­however, doesn’t write for a popular audience. So it shouldn’t bother him a bit.

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