Barley Patch

By Gerald Murnane

A sort-of novel, sort-of autobiographical exploration, at once exploration of the writing process and excavation of persistent imagined images, from an author “regarded by many as Australia’s most innovative writer of fiction.” The form: something of an “oblique self-interrogation”; the result, a kind of memory palace.

It seems important that the book was written after a fourteen-year hiatus from fiction writing. At its heart is an exploration of one seemingly-simple question: “Must I write?” A simple question, but no simple solutions! As one reviewer puts it: “He is not hard to read. He is hard to think with.”

Rich in imagery, ranging “from Mandrake the Magician to the bachelor uncle kicked in the ’stones’ as a child, from the country cousin’s doll’s house to the mysterious woman who lets her hair down, from the soldier beetle who winks messages from God to the racehorces that run forever in the author’s mind, beyond the grasslands, to the place where the characters of fiction dwell before they come into existence in books.”

I don’t quite understand the context in which all these images arise, but don’t they sound wonderful? Apparently these images are ones that have fascinated Murnane, recurring throughout his life. They’re simple, almost “Platonic forms”, but evocative. Situated somewhere in the liminal space between fiction and autobiography, it takes moments and images, small “sacred vessels”, and uses them as pointers, repositories holding some hidden seed of truth.

As a side note: my goodness this book has inspired some incredibly long and detailed reviews! Seriously, I read through over 6,000 words across just a small sampling of Goodreads reviews for this one. I have to think this counts for something when it comes to my impressions; it’s always interesting when a book provokes such thorough, thoughtful, opinionated, creative responses.

One of the better reviews I read describes the “leap of faith” required when a writer embraces writing what they actually find fascinating, rather than what they think their readers may be interested in. Other reviews call this book “reminiscent of Borges” and “in the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec” — among my favorite writers, all.

Ultimately, it’s about Murnane’s process, his history and future as a writer. Maybe it’s a metanarrative, whatever that means. About questions unresolved; a search for the parameters of fiction.

Additional information:

  • ISBN: 978-1564786760
  • Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

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