A look through A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane

A Million Windows asks a good deal of its readers, requiring us to piece together elements through patterns of connections rather than through a clear narrative line. runmonty

Gerald Murnane’s most recent novel, A Million Windows, might be read as a meditation on the relation between sound and silence.

At the heart of the novel, though only revealed at the end, is a secret that has been long held in silence expressed in the sounds of sentences that Murnane understands to be at the centre of meaningful fiction.

While the idea of sound is linked to topics concerned with the nature of fiction and the kind of fictional narration preferred by the narrator of the novel, the idea of silence is paired with the motif of the nervous breakdown. One breaks down into silence or because of silence. One addresses, resolves, or stops the breakdown by finding the right sentences.

The work asks a good deal of its readers, requiring us to piece together elements that are conveyed in sections that interact through patterns of connections rather than through a clear narrative line.

Patterns of connectedness

In the ninth section of A Million Windows, which treats the topic of “the subject matter of a work of true fiction”, Gerald Murnane’s narrator states: “What others might have called meaning he called connectedness”. Section nine considers the long series of female faces to which he has been drawn throughout his life: a series of dark-haired females around which fine patterns of connectedness coalesce.

There is a complex involvement in the patterns of connectedness between what the narrator calls “the visible” and others might call the real, and what he calls “the invisible”, which others might call the fictional realm. For example, in section 24 the writer falls in love with a real woman he meets at an Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Tasmania. This figure is also a Hungarian girl pursued by a rapist described in a work of non-fiction leaping to her death into a well among the plains on a remote farming estate as well as a character in novel not unlike Gerald Murnane’s novel Inland.

The shape of fiction after silence

A Million Windows has an unusual structure, like much of the work Murnane has composed since he returned from a silence that extended for almost 14 years between 1995 and 2009. A kind of breakdown, at least of artistic method, at least of that motivation that forces a writer to write, was involved, and Murnane discusses this directly in his essay “The Breathing Author” (printed in the non-fiction collection, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs). Here he claims that having found meaning through the right sentences there is nothing now for fiction but silence.

Yet he has now returned to fiction with A Million Windows, a novel that follows Barley Patch (2009) and A History of Books (2012), in making use of a new fragmented form.

We are left with a question then. Was the silence the result of a resolution of meaning, or was it a symptom of some other kind of crisis? Is the sign of silence a sign of full meaning or a sign of complete breakdown?

Topics, motifs, and images

The feeling that dominates in reading Murnane is that meaning or connectedness is built from within. Here there are topics, motifs, and images.

The topics generally concern the writing process. These topics turn obsessively around the ideas of reliability and unreliability, of truth and falsity, of the direct and the indirect. Yet these theoretical relations quickly themselves become the substance of fiction with the writing process staging a story of unrequited signification.

The motifs concern the family and especially the mother, the series of dark-haired women the narrator protagonist admires, and the process of writing fiction.

Yet there are other, more troubling motifs: drunkenness both indoors among the writers and outdoors, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, and above all the nervous breakdown.

The images include a room where one writes, a corridor and common room where one meets and even carouses with one’s fellows, a house of two or three stories which houses them all and the windows looking out over a garden maze and plains.

There is also a castle inhabited by all the characters that are said to have occurred in the perhaps unmade work of a well known but unnamed Swedish filmmaker. An answering image is clearly drawn from the work of Hal Porter’s autobiography The Watcher On the Cast-Iron Balcony, because while neither Porter nor the title of his book are named the phrase which describes light hitting “sunless distant windows like spots of golden oil” is directly drawn from this work by this writer.

Silence at the heart of the narrative

If Gerald Murnane’s Tamarisk Row is a novel in large part about the son’s relations to the father, then A Million Windows concerns the son’s “difficult” relations with his mother.

A secret is hidden behind this difficult relationship, one which contributes to the nervous breakdown or series of nervous breakdowns of the son. He seeks a way of stopping the breakdowns either through fiction (finding the book that will stop the breakdown) or through relations with women (finding the woman who will stop the breakdown).

The topic of the unreliable narrator is linked to the motif of the mother and the motif of the nervous breakdown and a double voicing that involves both saying and not saying something, both sound and silence.

Early in the book the narrator tells us that his mother, who somehow discovers his infatuation with his first dark-haired girl when he is eight and spreads the news of this to other women she knows, is not to be trusted.

Later, having experienced or somehow avoided a series of nervous breakdowns, the protagonist visits a psychiatrist. Recognising that the psychiatrist is predisposed to an Oedipal understanding of the underpinnings of his problems the protagonist adopts a strategy whereby he acts as an unreliable narrator, composing an insincere letter to his mother that seeks to clear the air with her and get to the heart of the problems that stem from his difficult relations with her.

The mother composes a plausible, but he feels, equally unreliable response that serves to convince the psychiatrist that a resolution to the problems has been achieved.

Life illuminating fiction

At last, in the penultimate section, two interrelated stories are narrated.

In the first the protagonist is visited by a half-brother of whose existence he has previously been unaware. The half-brother wants to discover why his mother, who is the same mother as that of the protagonist narrator, abandoned him to care as a new-born.

Murnane has built a detailed archive related to his life and work and claims that this will reveal much that he leaves otherwise opaque in his fiction. In 2013 he published extracts of listings related to these archives in Music & Literature. The description of the contents of one file in the archives states:

notes and letters reporting in detail Gerald Murnane’s discovering during his sixty-ninth year that he was born out of wedlock and that he has an older half-brother who might well have been conceived as a result of GM’s mother’s having been raped during her seventeenth year by her 55-year old stepfather.

A new image emerges towards the end of the novel: the image of a house in the midst of a forest in which the abuse takes place. An isolated house in which a young girl is abandoned by her own mother to the fate of rape at the hands of her stepfather.

The house of writing looking out through sumless windows over plains now takes on a new sense.

It seeks a truth that wants to see to the horizon. It is a truth that had hardly been aware before of forests now erased from the map and the awfulness of deeds remaining in what is invisible but endures in the mind, because at last sounds of sentences have formed to confront what had once merely been an engulfing silence.