It’s difficult to write about Pocket Bookclub’s recent read, The Plains by Gerald Murnane. This book requires some patience to read and interrogate. It generated considerable discussion at our meeting, a lot of it about magic mushrooms.
I will begin with the man. Murnane was born in 1939 in Victoria and has never flown anywhere. He lives a very quiet life and a small country town and hangs out at the local Men’s Shed. He has been touted as in contention to be Australia’s next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The New York Times described him as the ‘greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of’.
Sue chose his book The Plains because his name kept coming up in lists of great Australian writers. To read The Plains is to leave the ordinary, to leave any pretence of a plot, or characters, or dialogue.
Murnane rejects writing conventional fiction or what he calls film script. That is describing a scene with dialogue and actions and thoughts and feelings. He writes was he calls true fiction – not a report of the truth – but the ‘report of the contents of a mind.’ The authors’ mind. His mind.
Herein lies the challenge writing about The Plains, it is difficult to describe what it is about. Even people who love this book seem to have difficulty saying what it is about.
It is about an unnamed man who travels to the featureless interior of Australia. Here, wealthy landowners idle away time on intellectual and aesthetic pursuits. The filmmaker hangs about in the pub waiting for his chance to make a case for his film and find a patron. He secures a patron and spends a decade in his patron’s library not making a film.
It’s strange, it’s obtuse, it’s easy to skim pages because you begin to feel life is too short to be confused. At the same time, you feel if only you could give the prose time there is some ‘thing’ some ‘idea’ in the words that will speak to you.
The plainsman’s heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon for thirty years to an unexceptional house with neat lawns and listless shrubs and sat late into the night deciding on the route of a journey that he might have followed for thirty years only to arrive at the place where he sat – or the man who would never take even the one road that led away from his isolated farmhouse for fear that he would not recognise the place if he saw it from the distant vantage points that others used.The Plains, Gerald Murnane
I wrote a short review of The Plains on Instagram and concluded with the idea that I/we were not smart enough to understand this book. An astute follower pointed out that perhaps the book had not communicated effectively. It got me thinking about how complicated ideas such as those I assume are in The Plains can be communicated with erudite simplicity. But this is a different kind of writing it requires a different kind of reading.
We had a good laugh talking about The Plains. We joked that the book was a chore, that is was torture, that we needed hallucinogenics to understand the symbolism. Deep in the pages, we recognise irony, intelligence and possibly important ideas. What we want to know is, if it is such a work of genius, why were we bored.
This book is for serious serious serious readers. We are serious readers, just not serious enough.