“This is capital L Literature, bursting with intent and ideas, but written as good Literature should be: pitching at street level, without affectation or arch, high-blown language. Barley Patch is a readily accessible test of the mind’s elasticity that should be recognized as a unique, timeless, and utterly satisfying work.”
In fiction, the first-person narrative has perhaps a troubled place. The presence of the “Voice of God” to speak from on high to us and to define and frame the story, seems to have become the regular means of providing the kind of fictional tale that serves our insatiable need to be told everything—now!—and to know all we can—now!
The first-person narrative of course, often requires some work from the reader and places the story rather more behind our own eyes, leaving it to us to sort through the character traits and personality ticks of the narrator/author. By virtue of asking more of the reader, the presence of many so many “I”s is often as uncomfortable for readers as it is difficult to pull off for authors.
When it works, the first-person story allows the reader to go on their own journey, clutching the novel’s own unleashed thought balloons and traversing its action pathways. In this way, the reader’s personal history and the related story of the narrator/author combine to unfold kernels of the truth in the shared human experience. Such is the agenda of Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch.
Ostensibly a book about writing, Barley Patch is actually a book about thinking and ultimately about living. In following the meandering, rather unreliable, paths of Mr. Murnane’s approach to writing (or is it someone else’s?) we are taken on a journey into our own past and into the layers of reality, fiction and the constant interpretation that crackles unendingly between them, in a way that ensures the book itself becomes less a one way highway than a winding road to a jointly devised destination.
Mr. Murnane delves into the writer’s world by exploring stories he himself has constructed. The characters from his own “life” (are they real or fictional?) that he picks up and discards, the stories he unfolds and usually drops to move onto the next biographical signal he receives, become signposts to his life, dots to be joined to give a sketch of a mind at work in the subconscious moments of life, hoping only to manufacture its past, to hold onto fleeting shards of its present and to inject life into its future.
Is it Mr. Murnane’s mind we follow or is the narrator/author, like Conrad’s Marlow, just another lens through which to refract the inner lives of yet other characters and perhaps the author? We are never told. The book is full of contradictions and red herrings: It is presumably a personal exercise not aimed for publication, yet here we are reading the book; he has apparently given up writing, yet here is his book and; fiction is supposedly no longer in the author’s creative quiver, yet he refers to what he has written constantly as fiction.
There are thematic lines that give a hint to the meaning, such as the author/narrator’s interest from a young age in buildings with many storeys. This is of course a metaphor for any life as we are all products the our mental architecture, throwing up often jerry-built or prefabricated (storeys or stories) to define the structures in which to live.
Such conceits are reflective of the author’s apparent goal. This is how the mind works, and indeed, the more creative the mind, the more “storeys” and the more chaotic the outcomes. You don’t need to be a neurosurgeon or a psychologist Mr. Murnane appears to suggest. To understand the mind, with all its twists and spirals, its lies and deceptions, its part starts and never-reaches, its ruses and its ramblings, you have to be an artist.
Barley Patch refers stylistically to Joyce in its random, stream-of-consciousness, and its open-endedness, to Calvino in its jumping over the footlights separating the writer, the written about and the audience and, to Borges in its incessant flipping of assumptions and its dissolving of the porous membrane between expectations of reality and fiction.
As with all these writers, Mr. Murnane can stray and the tightness can suffer as a result of trying to not disrupt the flowing stream. Even natural flows need direction lest they flood the landscape. Yet, it’s hard to say if it’s a criticism or the very point of the book. The reader may indeed feel themselves wandering off on their own mental sojourns even as they read. But, whether this is a focus issue or just great technique is perhaps an over-arching point to ponder in relation to all non-linear fiction such as this.
Ultimately, if there is one truth, Mr. Murnane seems to be telling us, it is that there is no real truth. Life is the sum of the fictions that each of us build up. As experiences pile up, after being run through our subjective intuitions, often semi-understood, ill-received, half-remembered and poorly-stored, a life is made. And that life itself becomes subject to the reactions and lurching efforts at comprehension of others we come into contact with. Thus, a society, a population, a world, a species.
According to the publisher’s blurb, Mr. Murnane has been a favorite for a Nobel Prize in Literature. After just eight novels, this might seem premature, but not unwarranted. Mr. Murnane’s voice should be recognized as a distinct, genre-bending addition to a literature world too often mired in sales traps and demographic eddies.
This is capital L Literature, bursting with intent and ideas, but written as good Literature should be: pitching at street level, without affectation or arch, high-blown language. Barley Patch is a readily accessible test of the mind’s elasticity that should be recognized as a unique, timeless, and utterly satisfying work.