So, this is Gerald Murnane’s final book. Depending on how well you sit with his writing style, you may well find that cause for celebration. I’m not that critical, but I must admit that Murnane is an author whose work requires reading at the appropriate time. And while I didn’t hate Border Districts, I didn’t particularly love it, either.
Though it’s described as a fiction, the book reads as a memoir. The nameless narrator has journeyed to a small border town of his home state, ostensibly to live out his final years. Of course, Murnane’s life parallels this – he lives in such an area, and has never left his home state – so readers armed with that knowledge cannot help but read the book as something of an autobiography, even though that area of literary endeavour is shitcanned in the work.
Meticulously, Murnane’s ‘report’ rakes over memory and experience, poking and prodding at the past and examining it, each instant a marble in a bag, containing multitudes at its core. Childhood and adolecence, the drive to write and a love of the horses all figure, though increasingly it’s the sense of death and permanence that figure, even if death itself is only mentioned in relation to others. It’s the elephant in the room: though the book may not be about that final act itself, it certainly seems to be about the end of life; the running down of the clock.
The sense of mystery that’s key to his works is amplified here. There’s the insistence on not naming locales – we hear about places in “the Commonwealth”, and of eastern states, or of topographical features of a location rather than something so prosaic as an actual name – which serves to destabilise a sense of security in the narrative. But this is assisted by the presence of, if not religion, then the trappings thereof. Murnane spends a lot of time in the book discussing the totems of religion – holy cards, portraits of Mary, habits of brothers – and the whole affair is suffused in light seen through stained glass, whether Christian or civilian.
It’s difficult to describe what kind of a book Border Districts is, let alone figure who it is for, because the feeling conveyed is unbearably personal – you’re riding in the dickey seat of someone’s mind, eavesdropping on afternoon-sun recollections of decades past, even though there’s still a sense of guardedness, even at such close quarters. There’s a meandering aspect to the book – Chapters? Fuck chapters! I ramble! – that can make it tough going, but it works here.
I kept waiting for revelations beyond a dislike of Byron and a love of the races, but Murnane and his narrator steadfastly refuse to provide them. Beyond two lines of Shelley, there’s little on offer to let you into the core of the private world portrayed here, and that’s maybe the point: interpretation and memory are all we have, and the meaning you take is your own, incommunicable.