A Private History of the World
Stream System by Gerald Murnane
Fiction has the ability to transform our lives. Any bibliophile can tell you all the ways in which he has been personally affected by the books he loves. But as Helen Garner puts it in Woman in a Green Mantle, he is unlikely to remember the actual words he read:
I’ve been asking around: I knew I couldn’t be the only person capable of forgetting the contents of a novel only minutes after having closed it. I’ve found that people bluff when they talk about books. They pretend to remember things that they don’t remember at all. Intense anxiety and guilt cluster round the state of having read. Press the memory of a book, and it goes blurry.
All that remains is the book’s impression, its effect on the mind. It is this mysterious phenomenon which Gerald Murnane wields against us in Stream System, a compilation of his short fiction.
I found out about Murnane from a New York Times piece, Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? Like the narrators in his stories, he is somewhat reclusive, charmingly eccentric, and deceptively complex.
His stories follow odd tangents which revolve around the same motifs: horse-racing, plains, maps, books, Catholicism, sexual frustrations. While you could place their events chronologically, that isn’t really how they unfold. At first they seem tedious and elliptical, without a plot, almost pointless. But lurking in them are hints for how we might approach Stream System—and fiction—as a whole.
In Boy Blue, the narrator recalls when his mother read him the poem Little Boy Blue when he was a child:
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and staunch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
And his musket molds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.
"Now, don't you go till I come," he said,
"And don't you make any noise!"
So, toddling off to his trundle-bed,
He dreamed of the pretty toys;
And, as he was dreaming, an angel song
Awakened our Little Boy Blue
Oh! the years are many, the years are long,
But the little toy friends are true!
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face;
And they wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.
As he hears the words of the poem, the boy imagines a toy dog and a toy soldier sitting in a lonely room, wondering what happened to Boy Blue, and he starts to cry:
The father as a boy pretended that the room in his mind was a room in the place called the real world so that he could further pretend that a person who lived in the place just mentioned would come into the room at some time in the future and would explain to the dog and the soldier mentioned previously why they had to wait and to wonder for so long and so that he could further pretend that he would never again begin to weep while his mother read the poem and would never again pretend to be comforted after his mother had read to the end of the poem and had then looked at his face and had then told him that the dog and the soldier and the room where they were waiting were only details in a story. (330)
This final run-on sentence—which mimics the breathless cadence of an upset child—expresses the futile wish of fiction. Even though a story is just a story, we like to imagine it taking place in a world like our own, because when we read it, we are seeking in it what we are already seeking in our own lives.
Fiction isn’t just make believe, though, or it would have no effect on us. Fiction not only reflects, but shapes the reality we inhabit. In this way, reading is like recalling a memory. Something happens, and we have a response or a feeling about it. Eventually that response, which might appear in our head as an image, begins to distort our understanding of the truth of what happened—or, in Helen Garner’s case, it distorts our recall of the actual events and words in the story we claim to remember.
This is the key to understanding Murnane's writing. He is interested, above all, in the mental landscape of the reader as it interacts with fiction.
His stories are like maps of such mental landscapes. The narrator reports those impressions which stood out to him for no reason other than their own felt significance. He does this in a careful, affectless, matter-of-fact tone. None of his characters have names; they are simply referred to as “the main character of this story” or “the main character’s father” or “the previously mentioned man” or “the woman mentioned in the second sentence of this story,” emphasising the connections between them and the narrator’s memory.
When the narrator reports something, he will then report how reporting it made him feel, before leaping to another event he associates with that thing. The effect is to blur the boundaries between event and response, putting them both on equal footing—first class phenomena.
So a story will reference its own sentences, encouraging you to stop, go back to that sentence, and remind yourself of the impression you had when you first read it. This way of reading mimics how the narrator obsessively trawls through the facts of his life, linking them by means of common associations.
Objects made up of numerous interconnected parts appear over and over in Murnane’s fiction: systems, houses, monastic passageways, forests, maps, archives, honeycomb. You can think of Murnane’s stories as being another one of these objects. Rather than describe some events which happened in a fictional world in a slice of time, they are constellations of experience, impressions and feelings linked by nothing more than a central motif.
In Emerald Blue the motif is a dark-blue forest on the horizon of a pale-green plain. It evokes the scenery of Victoria, where the narrator grew up. It also reminds him of the Gippsland forest, which he supposes is but the remnant of some more vast, primordial forest which once stretched across the entire continent.
Long before the narrator was born, there was a massive fire in the Gippsland forest. For a long time, he assumed this event had some apocalyptic significance to its inhabitants. Yet when he asks his parents, neither of them seem to recall it in any great detail.
Nor does anyone but the narrator recall the holidays the family used to take in the forest. His father, a horseracing fanatic with a gambling problem, would take them to a shack with no comforts and few amenities. For no particular reason, he would spend the holidays clearing trees and chopping wood, as if to silently prove to his own father in turn that he was more than just a gambling addict.
The narrator’s mother was also born in the forest, in a small town on a newly cleared block. This chance association fires up the narrator’s imagination: he doesn't know how his parents met—and they are dead now—but he can conclude something about how it happened based on their mutual connection to the Gippsland forest.
Reading these stories, one gets the impression that time is at a stand-still. The narrator’s memories pour forth in non-chronological order; indeed, what is described in the story has already happened, and the narrator is merely connecting the dots in the present day.
But despite his attempts to reorder his past into a timeless archive, a static object that contains his entire reality, time does move forward. We are reminded of this when the narrator explains how a memory or an image was lost due to the irruption of the real world. We are also reminded of this when, despite the narrator’s emotionless, evasive tone, we get a sense of the lingering pain of death and rejection.
A parallel plot-thread in Emerald Blue concerns the narrator’s ineptitude with women. Throughout his life he sees an image of a woman in his head, whom he calls the wife-in-his-mind. Her exact face is indistinct and changes as he falls in love with different people. Every time the crush goes nowhere, or it ends in rejection or humiliation, and the narrator resigns himself to his loneliness. At times he seems to want nothing more from the opposite sex than the platonic love he has for the wife-in-his-mind.
His sexual desire is frustrated by the guilt of a Catholic upbringing. As a child he masturbates in the bush outside his house while imagining the girls in his neighbourhood rebuking him. As he gets older, their imagined rebukes become more playful and provocative. He comes to associate the prickle of gorse on his skin with their taunts.
This association is not just the elevation of his rejection to a sexual fetish, it is an attempted religious flagellation, like what the monks of the middle ages would do to purify themselves. Indeed, the narrator admires those Carthusian monks who live their life in silence, and longs for his own solitude, by means of which he might strengthen the precious images which flicker in his mind. To that end he refuses to watch movies, has never been on a plane, and doesn’t travel much beyond where he was born, lest those experiences clutter his mind:
Whenever he was invited to a house that he had not previously visited, he would see in his mind at once the house as it looked from the front gate, the interior of the main room, the view of the back garden from the kitchen window. Then he would visit the house, and the other house would have followed Helvetia into oblivion. (335)
He outlines his solitude as a necessary part of his artistic vision. But it is also a coping mechanism. When the narrator feels rejected or unloved, he withdraws into his mental games, reaffirming his love for the wife-in-his-mind, and imagining his unpublished writings as being reserved for an audience of gentlemen scholars in a made-up nation. In his deepest solitude, the mental landscape grows more vivid and alluring than reality.
This idea of a vibrant inner life which gains significance from its obscurity is also explored in The Plains. “How might a man reorder his conduct,” asks the filmmaker, “if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others?”
In enhancing his own memories to a mental landscape, the narrator takes inspiration from his uncle. A lifelong bachelor, his uncle’s eclectic, fundamentalist views comprise what the narrator calls a private history of the world.
Their relationship is explored in Cotters Come No More. The narrator’s father has been dead for four years and he is struggling with feelings of loss and abandonment. Though he is close to his uncle, he stubbornly resists seeing him as a father figure, even though it’s what he needs—and perhaps what his uncle needs too.
They embark on the kind of outdoor adventure boys find wonderful. His uncle leads him across grassy paddocks, stopping on a hilltop to tune his radio and point out the name of a horse in a racing magazine. Then the narrator is “just able to hear, above the crackle of static and the buzzing of insects in the grass, the call of a race more than a hundred miles away with the horse that my uncle had brought to my notice in the thick of the finish.” (100)
The narrator adopts his uncle’s idea of a private history for the project of his own mental landscape, but despite his attempts to withdraw into it, the real world moves forward without him. Reality overwrites fantasy, which he tries to respond to—unsuccessfully—by withdrawing even further into his mind.
Like the boy who cries imagining the toy soldier and the toy horse waiting for Boy Blue, fiction seems more real to the narrator than reality. But though fiction is not real, it can still guide and structure and soothe our mind. For the narrator, it is a means of reliving, and thereby overcoming, his losses.
Sometimes the full impact of a death is only felt years after the fact. That we feel a person’s absence despite this distance speaks to their significance. With time, we begin to feel their absence as a lingering melancholy—saudade—in which our happy memories are inseparable from the loss.
In Pink Lining the photo of a pink sunset on a card reminds the boy of his favourite aunt. She was a pious woman who fastidiously attended to the purification of her sins. She was also paralysed from the waist down. The boy fondly recalls coming into her room and sitting beside her to have long chats for hours and hours.
As with all his stories, Murnane is careful about what he puts in our heads. He wants to build a clear, static image in our minds, so when the parts in it move, they carry great significance. The exact image is this: the aunt is lying down in her bed, leaning on her right-side to alleviate the pain, while the boy sits next to her.
Then one day the boy goes to see his aunt. The door is uncharacteristically shut. He enters the room anyway. She is not lying down in her familiar pose. We know from the disturbance of the image that something is wrong: her death—which is not explicitly told in the story—is a given.
The boy catches a glimpse at her strange, broken body as she leans over an enamel dish. He sees her areolas—the same colour as the pink sunset—surrounding “the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow.” (310) Despite her age, the aunt’s upper body is impossibly young and undeveloped. This incongruency could be a monstrous deformity; it could also be a girlish purity.
The narrator is shocked and unsure of what he is seeing. Only later does he make the connection with angels: “He understood that angels lived in the district of heaven. He understood also that the angels were spiritual beings who were without bodies and were, therefore, neither male nor female.” (317)
His aunt is not long for this world. But how can he be sure that, in spite of her piety, she will actually make it to heaven? How does he know that salvation will come for the faithful? Is this just another image in his mind, like the toy dog and the toy solider waiting in the room for Boy Blue?
Because Murnane is such a patient writer, taking the time to build up these correspondences in one big image, when the narrator finally declares to his father that he does not believe in the teachings of the Catholic church, we know—without a single word being written—that he is afraid. These aren’t just words escaping his mouth. He is tearing a hole in the fabric of everything he knows to be real so he might have a chance of escaping it, despite not knowing what lies beyond.
Can a man disappear into his own private history? Can he renounce the world, and in doing so, spend the rest of his life in his own reality, his own private history of the world?
In Murnane’s stories the narrator uses fiction to broach his traumas: the humiliations of childhood, the fear of death, the feeling of being unloved, his unreachable dreams. The world is unfair and it can annihilate us. Fiction is a way out of these pains. It helps us navigate them, not by fixating on the content of an experience, but in offering us a chance to reshape the mental landscape our thoughts and feelings inhabit.
Place, not time, is the organising principle in Murnane’s writing. This idea also pops up in The Plains: the filmmaker, having failed to grasp the essence of the plains, settles into a personal comprehension of it, based on his own irreducible connection to it.
Like the filmmaker, I sometimes found myself bewildered. It wasn’t until halfway through Stream System that something clicked. In a 550 page book, I wouldn’t fault anyone for stopping before that point.
Murnane can write. Certain passages prove that. But he doesn’t do flashy or pretty writing. He prefers the slow accumulation and repetition of specific images. His stories often end in one final re-assertion of the motif which ties it all together. In Emerald Blue, this is the same description of the dark blue trees and the pale green plains we’ve read for the last hundred pages, only now it is charged with decades of loss and memory.
Thankfully, many of Murnane’s stories include lengthy reflections on writing and reading. Once you’ve read enough of them, you’ll have the methods you need to figure out what he is doing. Getting to that point can be challenging though.
Sometimes, as the narrator tells his story, you feel like you are on the cusp of a breakthrough. Yet, at the point where you think you might understand his private revelations, the details suddenly blur into the background just as quickly as they came into focus.
Stream System doesn’t impress you with exuberant or mellifluous writing, but grows in power as you reflect on its stories. What remains in your mind are those images which seem timeless in their own felt significance: the father chopping wood as a self-imposed penance; the boy scratching himself on gorse as he masturbates; the angelic body of his disabled aunt; and his uncle, stopping on the hilltop to tune his radio just in time as a horse race is called more than a hundred miles away.