Reading, Boning, and Gerald Murnane 0 Comments

Reading, Boning, and Gerald Murnane

In her 1997 memoir/novel I Love Dick, Chris Kraus suggests that “reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfil—getting larger cause you’re entering another person’s language, cadence, heart and mind.” How do you feel about this? Without its context, the remark can come off as self-realisation writ large: simply because Chris Kraus is capable of reaching a nirvana-like plateau of author/reader kinship when she picks up a book, doesn’t mean the rest of us are. In fact, it’s likely that more people achieve this state of “getting larger” (no pun intended) through devastating, blood vessel-bursting supersex than by sloughing through the latest Franzen-esque suburban epic. But anyone who has ever felt changed by a book will glean a kernel of truth in her words. Because just as sex can conjure a near-mythical time capsule where two (or three) consciousnesses can interact on a plane they might not otherwise reach, really serious and attentive reading can force you to leap out of your own skull-shaped universe and into the mind of another. I don’t mean this in a reading is cool! kind of way either—fiction really does offer a sense of connection that no other medium can.

Obviously, this doesn’t happen very often. Mostly because it requires: a) a very good book you’re capable of connecting with, b) intense and undivided concentration, and c) total solitude and isolation from buzzing distractions like iPhones and Macbook screens. These are increasingly rare birds. And if you only have two out of three, chances are the effect won’t happen, or will at least be diminished. So often we’ll read a book we know is good and just say “ah, it’s not the right time”, probably because we’re on a peak hour train swaddled by schoolkids or being eyed off by some guy with a peaked cap and a bag full of spray-paint. But no matter how difficult it may be to achieve nowadays, the experience is worth it. The end result may be differ greatly from the ideal end result of boinking, but it is worth pursuing in a similar way.

The last time I had this experience was with Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row, an excellent novel about growing up in a repressive Catholic household in 1950s Melbourne. I had been on a bit of a Murnane binge at the time, devouring three of his other books in the weeks prior. But Tamarisk Row, his first novel, hit me on a different level. Its thematic concerns were compelling (I’m not sure nascent sexuality has ever been rendered with more skill), but I was more captivated by Murnane’s unparalleled ability to weave imagery and visual patterns around one another, creating not necessarily a plot but what he often refers to as a “network”. Even now when I think the words “Tamarisk Row” I see fleeting images of a boy tumbling down the back hall and out into the yard to build his miniature racecourse. I see, in a strange hodgepodge of imagined landscapes and remembered childhood locales, Clement Killington watching the flocks of unseen birds beating through his hometown of Bassett. After reading that book, I felt somehow expanded, like I had subsumed a whole range of experience that once belonged exclusively to another.

I met Murnane a few weeks later at a talk he gave on his novel A Lifetime on Clouds. Sitting two metres away from somebody to whom I had dedicated hours and hours of my reading came as a shock to me. It was strange to realise that his texts don’t just exist in a vacuum; somebody wrote them, and somebody knows them much better than I do. During the talk, Murnane went off on several tangents, making perfunctory reference to questions before going ahead and saying what he wanted to say. When the notion of plot arose, he seemed particularly excited, launching out of his seat to address the crowd. For Murnane, writing fiction has nothing to do with arranging events in a satisfying and sequential order; rather, it is the attempt to establish a connection between things in the world. It is discovering how images exist in a network of other images. The analogy that he made was that his books do not exist as a straight line. They don’t go from point A to point B. Instead, they form a kind of snowflake structure, displaying intricate patterns and shapes as a whole, and radiating meaning from their centre. And after all, when we really connect with an author, this is how we experience their work. We see past the illusoriness of plot, and absorb the text in a way we might absorb music.

I’ve been lucky to have this experience a considerable number of times, maybe because I dedicate a lot of time to reading, or maybe because I’m a sap who likes to have feelings. Besides most of Gerald Murnane’s work, it happened to me with Moby-Dick, Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, the first two volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Borges’ Collected Fictions, and Proust’s Swann’s Way. When I closed the covers of those books, I (to stretch the metaphor again) rolled off, groaned masculinely, and lit a cigarette. Something in them made me feel as if I’d truly come to know a person in a way I couldn’t have through everyday conversation. I felt like a version of The Blob in the 50s science fiction B-movie, oozing through their pages and absorbing their personages in an attempt to satisfy my hunger.

I don’t remember where I heard it, but one of the best responses to the accusation that “you only read Shakespeare so you can say you’ve read it” is that “I read Shakespeare to have a brain that has read Shakespeare”. I’m sure there are some people out there that read Shakespeare to say they’ve read him, but I’ve never met one. When you read attentively, the rewards are plentiful. Your immediate experience is stretched. It sparks curiosity. It’s also fun as shit.

Sean Watson (20) is a poetry editor for Voiceworks. In 2014, he will be an editor of Farrago magazine.

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