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

October 2009