October 2009

Arts & Letters

‘Barley Patch’ by Gerald Murnane

By Louis Nowra
Giramondo Publishing, 320pp; $27.95

There are times at the end of an author’s career when a book review is almost a redundant exercise. This holds equally true for bestselling writers – like Bryce Courtenay – or coterie authors whose fans will buy anything they publish no matter what the quality. Like many a Nabokov aficionado, I will buy his unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, when it comes out at the end of the year despite my apprehension that it won’t be anywhere near his previous standards. But that’s not the point; when you love an author beyond reason, you want to read everything they’ve written.

Gerald Murnane has attracted a small but devoted following for his handful of novels. Ever since his first book, Tamarisk Row, in 1974, he has forged his own particular brand of fiction. It’s a frequently chilly, airless world, with no narrative drive or interest in the psychology of its unnamed characters, but featuring an unsettling mixture of what seems to be both fiction and autobiography. The work has an insular and solipsistic intensity, as well as an anorak’s fascination with banal details that can be at times exhilarating and at others so claustrophobic and focused on minutiae as to become suffocating.

It was believed his 1995 novel, Emerald Blue, would be his last – and Murnane seems to have thought so too – but after a 14-year hiatus he has written Barley Patch. Now 70, he is reported to have stated it will be his last book. This final work is obsessed by a question that gnaws at him – why has he returned to writing after such a long gap?

There is no plot to Barley Patch and characters exist almost as abstractions. As usual, the world of Murnane’s narrator is absurdly slight and often dismal. He writes about half-remembered children’s books; tells meandering and desultory stories about a sexually compromised priest and a boring bachelor uncle; engages in long digressions about racehorses and the teaching of creative writing; and spends many pages on his pathetic failures with women.

His once taut prose style limps, and the eccentric use of the hyphen to join words (men-passengers, ghost-character, girl-writer, image-buttocks) is frequently irritating. He used to be able to burnish the commonplace but now the details seem repetitious and overly familiar. It’s a pale imitation of his earlier work. The book wilts long before the end like an exhausted athlete hoping just to finish the race.

Murnane never really answers his own nagging question about why he wrote Barley Patch, which is not a surprise to anyone who knows his fiction. It may not gain him new readers but it really doesn’t matter – this is a gift for the true believers.

Louis Nowra
Louis Nowra is an author, screenwriter and playwright. His books include Ice and The Twelfth of Never, and he is co-winner of the 2009 NSW Premier’s Script Writing Award for First Australians.

From the front page

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Dance with me, baby

Tasmanian devils

Jonathan auf der Heide’s ‘Van Diemen's Land’

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Socratic dialogues

Beautiful waste

The poetry of David McComb

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, ‘Dibirdibi country’ (2008

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simons, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?

Image of Daniel Johns. Image © Luke Eblen

Present indicative: Daniel Johns’ ‘FutureNever’

The former Silverchair frontman’s second solo album lacks cohesion, but affords him space to excavate his past