Wayne Macauley, he of the Most Underrated Book Award fame, wrote in his introduction to my edition of Gerald Murnane‘s The plains that “you might not know where Murnane is taking you but you can’t help being taken”. That’s a perfect description of my experience of reading this now classic novella. It was like confronting a chimera – the lower case one, not the upper case – or, perhaps, a mirage. The more I read and felt I was getting close, the more it seemed to slip from my grasp, but it was worth the ride.
The plains was first published in 1982, which is, really, a generation ago. Australia had a conservative government. We still suffered from cultural cringe and also still felt that the outback defined us. All this may help explain the novel, but then again, it may not. However, as paradoxes and contradictions are part of the novel’s style, I make no apologies for that statement.
I’m not going to try to describe the plot, because it barely has one. It also has no named characters. However, it does have a loose sort of story, which revolves around the narrator who, at the start of the novel, is a young man who journeys to “the plains” in order to make a film. It doesn’t really spoil the non-existent plot to say he never does make the film. He does, however, acquire a patron – one of the wealthy landowners – who supports him in his endeavour over the next couple of decades. It is probably one of Murnane’s little ironies that our filmmaker spends more time writing. He says near the end:
For these men were confident that the more I strove to depict even one distinctive landscape – one arrangement of light and surfaces to suggest a moment on some plain I was sure of – the more I would lose myself in the manifold ways of words with no known plains behind them.
Hang onto that idea of sureness or certainty.
The book has a mythic feel to it, partly because of the lack of character names and the vagueness regarding place – we are somewhere in “Inner Australia” – and partly because of the philosophical, though by no means dry, tone. In fact, rather than being dry, the novel is rather humorous, if you are open to it. Some of this humour comes from a sense of the absurd that accompanies the novel, some from actual scenes, and some from the often paradoxical mind-bending ideas explored.
So, what is the novel about? Well, there’s the challenge, but I’ll start with the epigraph which comes from Australian explorer Thomas Mitchell‘s Three expeditions into the interior of eastern Australia, “We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilised man …”. Bound up in this epigraph are three notions – “interior”, “country” and “civilised”. These, in their multiple meanings, underpin the novel.
Take “interior”. Our narrator’s film is to be called The Interior. It is about “the interior” of the country, the plains, but it is also about the interior, the self, and how we define ourselves. While there are no named characters, there are people on the plains and there’s a sense of sophisticated thinking going on. Some plainspeople want to define the plains – their country, the interior – while others prefer to see them almost as undefinable, or “boundless”, as extending beyond what they can see or know. The plainspeople are “civilised” in the sense that they have their own artists, writers, philosophers, but it is hard for we readers to grasp just what this “civilisation” does for them. Is it a positive force? Does it make life better? “Civilised”, of course, has multiple meanings and as we read the novel we wonder just what sort of civilisation has ensconced itself on the plains.
These concepts frame the big picture but, as I was reading, I was confronted by idea after idea. My notes are peppered with jottings such as “tyranny of distance” and boundless landscapes; cultural cringe; exploration and yearning; portrait of the artist; time; history and its arbitrariness; illusion versus reality. These, and the myriad other ideas thrown up at us, are all worthy of discussion but if I engaged with them all my post would end up being longer than the novella, so I’ll just look at the issue of history, illusion and reality.
Towards the end of the novel we learn that our narrator’s patron likes to create “scenes”, something like living tableaux in which he assembles “men and women from the throng of guests in poses and attitudes of his own choosing and then taking photographs”. What is fascinating about this is the narrator’s ruminations on the later use of these “tedious tableaux” which have been created by a man who, in fact, admits he does not like “the art of photography”, doesn’t believe that photographs can represent the “visible world”. The landowner contrives the photos, placing people in groupings, asking them to look in certain directions. Our narrator says
There was no gross falsification of the events of the day. But all the collections of prints seemed meant to confuse, if not the few people who asked to ‘look at themselves’ afterwards, then perhaps the people who might come across the photographs years later, in their search for the earliest evidence that certain lives would proceed as they had in fact proceeded.
In other words, while the photos might document things that happened they don’t really represent the reality of the day, who spent time with whom, who was interested in whom and what. They might in fact give rise to a sense of certainty about life on the plains that is tenuous at best.
Much of the novel explores the idea of certainty and the sense that it is, perhaps, founded upon something very unstable. Murnane’s plainspeople tend to be more interested in possibilities rather than certainties. For them possibilities, once made concrete, are no longer of interest. It is in this vein that our narrator’s landowner suggests that darkness – which, when you think about it, represents infinite possibility – is the only reality.
The plains could be seen as the perfect novel for readers, because you can, within reason, pretty much make of it what you will. If this appeals to you, I recommend you read it. If it doesn’t, Murnane may not be the writer for you.
Lisa at ANZLitLovers, a Murnane fan, has reviewed The plains
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 (orig. published 1982)