Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane

Image of Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane
Release Date: 
April 3, 2018
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“I have always preferred to disguise my feelings from others.”—almost every character in almost every short story by Gerald Murnane.

From the collected short fiction of Gerald Murnane, a reader might get the impression Australia is filled with priests, monks, and shy, sexually repressed Catholics employed as farmers, middle school teachers, or bureaucratic dullards. Many of the stories are similar but not identical; however, the characters express common obsessive fixations.

The characters in Gerald Murnane’s short stories are, for the most part, unnamed. They are antisocial eccentrics, obsessive and stuck in a rut, offering their thoughts in streams of consciousness that progress at a glacially slow pace. If something changes in the story, the change, no matter how small holds import because it is rare when anything happens at all. And when something does change, the meaning of the change is often ambiguous.

The characters in Murnane’s story express themselves with flat affect. Emotion, when not repressed, is very, very muted. The presence of women in these stories, whether as mothers, aunts, wives or lovers, is rare, and when women are present, they are kept in the background. The overall effect on the reader of a Murnane short story is gloom and unease sprinkled here and there with the irony that can be found in desperate and absurd circumstances.

Most of Murnane’s short stories are reminiscences of an unnamed narrator’s Catholic sexually-repressed upbringing in rural Australia, growing up to be employed as a middle-school schoolteacher or a petty bureaucrat. Outside of work the narrator is a book-hoarder who dreams of becoming a monk, or poet or a writer of fiction. In some stories, the narrator is an old man, a writer of fiction, reminiscing about the past – how his father was a mystery, or his son was a mystery. Into this depressing mix will be an occasional transgressive story of underage sexuality or a Proustian-style reminiscence of a particular time-and-place.

A significant number of the stories in this collection are emotionally constricted, sexually transgressive, or just plain strange, while few fit the conventional sense of storytelling. From the start of any Murnane story, the reader will not immediately know where the story is going. Is the unnamed narrator Murnane writing a memoir, or is he telling a made-up tale of a writer similar to himself? Is the story a morality play, or are these random events intending to convey a mood?

In one story Murnane explains that he intentionally does not give his characters names. He states that as his characters are works of fiction, not giving them names signals to the reader that they are works of fiction. He doesn’t seem to realize that by not giving them names, the reader assumes the character is Murnane himself.

In many of these stories Murnane does appear to be writing about himself or at least about a character who by being an author is similar to himself—to the point where if a story is by Murnane writing as Murnane, well, this understandably becomes confusing.

For example, Murnane (or a character who is an author similar to Murnane) writes of receiving letters addressed to himself by readers who have confused the author with his characters. What remains unstated in the story is whether the author who makes this admission is Murnane, or an unnamed character who just so happens to be an author like Murnane.

Murnane’s fictional author, who might or might not be the same fictional author used across stories, will often assert that imagination is greater than knowledge, that the life of the mind more rich than real life. Along with this comes the repeated-with-variation story of a child or adolescent, imagining life as an adult, becoming an adult, then preferring the life of a child imagining the life of an adult over the life the child has has grown into.

Along with this kind of thing is the repeated retelling of the rural life of the child in Australia. The narrator, whether child, adolescent, or adult, is inexperienced and untraveled, and imagines a future living far away—but not too far away. The narrator realizes he will be out of place in the sophisticated corrupt world that exists outside of his rural home, and he is afraid of the knowledge that experience in the world would bring, but curious all the same.

Through the stories, this character also ironically repeatedly shows that a life of imagination without knowledge grows to become constricted and warped. That is, if someone is mentally and emotionally chained by limited experience for too long, once the chains are removed, that person will act as if the chains were still in place. That character is stunted into eccentricity and creepiness.

Many stories contain the mystery of the narrator’s inability to understand others, and the inability to cross the divide into understanding others. For example, across multiple stories, the character’s father’s life prior to the character’s birth is a mystery, and just as, when the character becomes an adult and has a son, his son is a mystery to him.

Murnane’s use of language can be surgically precise—to where he uses precision to create and remove ambiguity. For example, here is a quote from near the end of a rambling story, narrated by a 15-year-old boy walking over farmland with his uncle. The boy sees a car parked on the shoulder of the road, “All in one moment I saw the rear door of the shabby car hanging open, I divined why it had been allowed to hang open and why I saw no heads and shoulders above the level of the seats, and I understood that my uncle had not only seen what I had seen but had seen that I had seen it.”

Though Murnane’s use of language can be infinitely precise, his intentionally may be vague. In many of the stories the reader has to figure out, is Murnane writing about right now, or about the past from a perspective in the past, or about the past from the perspective in the present. Murnane will provide hints by offering a year or the character’s age, followed by the passage of time, and provide another year or age. But if the reader tries to calculate the final date from the start, or the first date from the end, the numbers do not always add up.

As for nailing down towns or townships in Australia, Murnane will provide a tremendous amount of detail of homes and towns, and provide orientation, directing the reader to the North, East, South, or West, but the relationships are lengthy and confusing. The number of lefts and rights one needs to orient oneself to the destination also doesn’t always add up.

The world outside of Australia is a different matter to Murnane. In the first of a two very similar stories, the narrator imagines the culture of Romania, a country he’s never visited with the freedom of imagination that comes from not knowing or not caring about the truth, he imagines, “the people of pre-war Romania were credited with a fondness for sexual perversion.” He repeats the conceit of making things up in the second story, his imagination sparked by an unfamiliar name on a postage stamp, Helvetia, whereupon the narrator states he prefers using his imagination about Helvetia to making the effort to visit a library to look it up.

As many of stories are similar in their oddness, it seems of little importance to call them out by name. However, several deserve special attention, and these will be identified by name.

The “Land Deal” considers the land deal Australian Aborigines made in 1835, in consequence similar to the trade by the Lenape for Manhattan in New York. Written from the perspective of the Aborigines, the Aborigines imagine real events as if they were a dream. What makes this story unique is that it is told in linear form, something Murnane avoids for almost all of his stories. 

The title story of the collection, “Stream System,” is a series of repetitions with variation. The feeling is as if Murnane were intentionally trying to match the form of the children’s song, “The Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” This story builds up over many pages, but doesn’t really get anywhere—not unlike a song or poem that is meant to be appreciated for tone more than sense.

The narrative, so much as one could call whatever “Stream System” is a narrative, abruptly switches to a reminiscence by the narrator who as a child, lived on the grounds of a mental institution where his father supervised patients employed as rat killers. The story concludes with an author’s note indicating “Stream System” is meant to be read out loud. Kafka, too, believed his stories to be funny.

Murnane sometimes writes In a style reminiscent of Borges. The story, “Stone Quarry” takes place at a writer’s workshop in Maine called Waldo (One might imagine “Waldo” is a play on “Yaddo”—a real writer’s workshop). The Waldo foundation has placed rules on the participants who are, under penalty of expulsion, prevented from looking or talking to each other; even sighing is a reportable offense.

The only form of communication allowed is through the stories the participants write. These stories are read at a gathering each night. They are read out loud by the writers while the participants do not look at each other. The writers made anonymous by use of pseudonyms that change each day. And all of the stories written at Waldo will be burned in a bonfire at the end of the workshop.

The author in this story first admits that “Stone Quarry” might be a work of fiction as he has never set foot in North America. He then admits “Stone Quarry” might have been written for Waldo by a woman in attendance, and the story smuggled out. Murnane, or perhaps the writer invented by Murnane who invents the writer, states, “The man I am writing about now is a character in a piece of fiction but the woman who wrote the piece of fiction is a living woman . . .”

Another story reminiscent of Borges is “Finger Web.” The author in this story begins, “This is a story about a man who visited Sydney only once in his lifetime in 1964. When I was asked to write this story, I was in the middle of writing quite a different story about a man who visited Sydney, only once in his life, in 1957.”  The narrative in “Finger Web” wraps itself around itself quite laboriously over many pages, and gets absolutely nowhere.

The short story “First Love” is a launching point for an Australian travel memoir—presumably by Murnane and not a character like Murnane, but is no different from other Murnane fictions in that he provides a great deal of repetition with minor variation, on the topics of light, color, textures, literature, memory, movies, Murnane’s father, racing silks, and Catholicism. What is different in “First Love” is Murnane’s language rises above his typical story by use of curious sentences that are whole and complete but convey only incomplete ideas and provide incomplete explanations, as if Murnane were intentionally and particularly writing sets of random and incomplete thoughts followed by more and different sets of random and incomplete thoughts.

That is not to say that Murnane’s random incomplete thoughts aren’t deep. For example, Murnane considers a request from a letter he received from a fan. “The man who wrote the letter was born in the hills near Hurstbridge, Victoria. This is the district that I call Harp Gully in a work of fiction, the narrator of that work of fiction looked forward to spending the last part of his life at the Harp Gully. The man who now lives in Tasmania has written a work of fiction of his own in a place called Harp Gully. Before he wrote his fiction, he asked me if I would allow him to use the name Harp Gully, but I told him no one should claim to own the name of any place in a true work of fiction.” Consider the last sentence: “I told him no one should claim to own the name of any place in a true work of fiction.” Note again, “true work of fiction.” This idea, the idea of a true work of fiction, keeps this reviewer in awe.

“First Love” is another story that ends with an author’s note. In this note Murnane states that “First Love” was inspired by Nabokov’s novel, First Love. Murnane provides a synopsis of Nabokov’s story followed by his explanation of how the two works are related.

The story “The White Castle of Uppington” details the ideas going through an author’s mind preparing to write. The author reflects back to being a young man in the 1950s, a sexually repressed Catholic office worker, the son of a farmer, who wants to rebel. The young man rebels by choosing an uncommon color for his shirt, and wearing that shirt to work. The young man reads Kerouac and goes on the prowl to find like-minded bohemian Australians in the North East district of Melbourne.

This young man’s dream of becoming an author is put on hold while he raises a family. A change in government allows him to go back to college for free. The once young and bohemian but now middle-aged bureaucrat goes back to school, where he offers a memoir of his education. The author notes his first writing instructor told his class that writing fiction to be an illness to be gotten over as quickly as possible. There’s more to “The White Castle of Uppington,” but as with Murnane’s other similar short stories, not much happens.

“In Far Fields,” a teacher of fiction explains how writing fiction should be taught. The problem is, this teacher offers a personal method that would not be helpful to anyone. This story is in two parts, the first part is as described; the second part is a reminiscence on the education of an ex-teacher who is a now a fiction writer, as a young man. This is yet another variation of Murnane’s stories on the theme of the education of a fiction writer as a young man. In this story, the variation is the author offers a list of literary influences, and a critique on the Times Literary Supplement. There is more and untypically to Murnane, this story remains interesting to the end, and this reviewer considers “In Far Fields” to be a story that stands out in the collection.

“Emerald Blue” by its page count approaches the length of a novella. Its style is stream of consciousness and progresses in an emotionless tone at a glacially slow pace. The narrator’s tone has a deadened, flat affect, which to this reader as very disturbing. The story concerns a self-taught man who has read many books about art but has never “voluntarily” stepped foot into an art gallery. He is obsessed with paintings of landscapes that have water filled ruts.

The narrator has an uncle and presents the reader with his uncles’ beliefs, which are similar to the character of the “drunk uncle” in Saturday Night Live. “In this uncle’s view, the first human beings had been created by God only a few thousand years before the birth of Jesus. The people that others call Caucasian, the uncle called pre-Adamites. The pre-Adamites were a race of creatures who may or may not have been human and were not among the people redeemed by the “Son of God made man.” This uncle also believes the Aborigines were relatives of the Gypsies, and when the Catholic Portuguese discovered Australia, the Aborigines had populated Australia only a few hundred years before. As slow paced and disturbing as “Emerald Blue” may be, it is an exceptional story.

One more story that stands out in this collection is “The Interior of Gaaldine.” The narrator is an Australian author who is invited to Tasmania to give a speech. Afraid of flying, he takes a ferry. Afraid of being seasick in public, he packs his own meals to eat in his cabin. To get over his fear of travel, he drinks throughout the journey. In his cabin, he writes, “I remember myself lying back on my bed at some time towards midnight and drinking the last of my sixth stubby and promising myself that I would never again feel obliged to read the pages or the chapter of any book in the order decided by the author or editor . . .”

On land, the narrator/author is unsure of hotel check-in rules and panics when, on arriving a few hours early, he is not immediately allowed into his room. Many trips to the “package store” (liquor store) ensue between checking in and entering his room.

His first visitor in Tasmania is a fan who asks for help getting a manuscript published. The author’s first thought is how to politely say “no,” yet he does read it. The manuscript is described by the narrator as a 2000-page “door-stop” that concerns the life of a fictional author similar to the author/narrator of this story but who lives in Tasmania in a world where Australia does not exist.

The fictional Tasmanian author of “The Interior of Gaaldine” has a gambling scheme based on decoding random texts, one of which belongs to the Australian author who appears as a fictional character in the manuscript. The fan, who might in fact be the author of this manuscript, next asks the Australian author/narrator to change his future stories in such a way as to allow the fictional author in the fictional Tasmania to increase his winnings.

“Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs” is a Proustian reminiscence that, thankfully, is narrated by the real Gerald Murnane and not an unnamed fictional author who is confusingly similar to Murnane. In this memoir, the reader will learn that many of the events in Murnane’s fiction hold close to events held by the memory of the “real” Murnane.

Murnane’s tone however, remains a tone of flat affect, and the narration is streams of consciousness that meander back and forth across decades. Murnane at one point compares himself to Proust. The difference says Murnane is that he, Murnane, is but a poor farm worker and school teacher and Proust is a wealthy idler, a lesser man. Murnane goes on to expresses resentment over what he sees as wealthy idler behavior in privileged Australians.

In “As it were a letter,” a fan writes a letter to the author (again, an author who may or may not be Murnane). The letter is so interesting to the author that he includes the fan as a minor character in a story. The author then tells the reader that the fan who wrote the letter is fictional. What follows next are the author’s notes on the fictional fan who is also an author of fiction, the result is a story that is, “a complete piece of fiction within the whole of this piece of fiction.”

To sum up, Murnane writes in a variety of styles, sometimes varying styles within the same short story: a mixing of Proust-like memoir with Kafka-like foreboding and Borges-like recursion. The problem is almost all of Murnane’s stores are narrated in a flat, unemotional affect, while for many of the stories, Murnane’s technique overwhelms and becomes the story more than the story in and of itself. This collection was exhausting. A little Murnane goes a long way.