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.

Cover: October 2009
View Edition

From the front page

Net-zero detail

The Nationals are so proud of the concessions they have won for the regions that they are unwilling to share them

Still from ‘The French Dispatch’

The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

Image of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Jetstar CEO Gareth Evans standing in front of a Qantas plane. Image via Facebook

How you finish the race

The PM is looking to the finish line, in more ways than one

Image of Supermoon over Footscray. Image © Tim McCartney 2015

Lunar orbit

The strange paths taken by the mind when overwhelmed by fear


In This Issue

In retreat

Gentlemen’s clubs

Mash-up

A short history of the media future

The insider

Paul Kelly’s ‘The March of Patriots’

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Frank Sinatra & Bob Hawke


More in Arts & Letters

Photo: “Breakfast at Heide” (from left: Sidney Nolan, Max Harris, Sunday Reed and John Reed), circa 1945

Artful lodgers: The Heide Museum of Modern Art

The story of John and Sunday Reed’s influence on Sidney Nolan and other live-in protégés

Still from ‘The French Dispatch’

The life solipsistic: ‘The French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson’s film about a New Yorker–style magazine is simultaneously trivial and exhausting

Still from ‘Nitram’

An eye on the outlier: ‘Nitram’

Justin Kurzel’s biopic of the Port Arthur killer is a warning on suburban neglect and gun control

Detail from ‘Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood’ by Hilma af Klint (1907)

A shock of renewal: ‘Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings’

The transcendent works of the modernist who regarded herself not an artist but a medium


More in Noted

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Image of ‘Bewilderment’

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times

Image of Colson Whitehead's ‘Harlem Shuffle’

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead

The author of ‘The Underground Railroad’ offers a disappointingly straightforward neo-noir caper set in the early ’60s

Image of Charif Majdalani’s ‘Beirut 2020’

‘Beirut 2020’ by Charif Majdalani

The Lebanese writer’s elegiac journal captures the city’s devastating port explosion


Read on

Image of Supermoon over Footscray. Image © Tim McCartney 2015

Lunar orbit

The strange paths taken by the mind when overwhelmed by fear

Cover image for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

Hell’s kitchen: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘The Morning Star’

The ‘My Struggle’ author’s first novel in 17 years considers the mundanity of everyday acts amid apocalyptic events

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body