“The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million.” - Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady
Gerald Murnane, one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary authors, delves into the subject of fiction writing in his latest work, A Million Windows. His thoughts are organized into 34 unnamed and unnumbered chapters populated by memory fragments and “image-persons,” including dark-haired women and girls, sunlight reflecting on a windowpane like “spots of golden oil,” and a house with “two, or perhaps three, storeys” in the midst of some grassland. This house, which is intermittently described in great detail but never viewed as a whole, provides the primary touchstone for the other images and narrative fragments in the novel, which form concentric circles around the house and one another by promise of connection with the larger structure. The resulting patterns that they form are dazzling and overwhelming in their complexity, expanding through both time and space.
If we envision the temporal dimension of the novel as a horizontal timeline, as we often casually do when we refer to the past as being behind us and the future as being ahead of us, Murnane reminds us that there is an additional vertical component to consider in the form of levels of narration. He simultaneously locates certain narratives in the minds of the “image-persons,” the minds of the authors writing about such persons, and his own mind as he traverses the ever-present and the distant past. These shifts in focus produce a deliberately destabilizing effect for the reader, but do not muddle Murnane’s conception of the true nature and purpose of fiction, precisely because his meaning swells in the space of “faint lines” between his images. He finds meaning and connectedness to be synonymous: What others might have called meaning he called connectedness, and he trusted that he would one day see (revelation being for him always a visual matter) among the multitudes of details that he thought of as his life or as his experience faint lines seeming to link what he had never previously thought of as being linked and the emergence of a rudimentary pattern, which word had always been one of his favorites.
The element of elusiveness or obscurity is essential. Murnane accords a deep respect to fictional personages because they capture the moods and patterns that shadow us throughout our lives, and thus cannot be predictably contained. He compels authors to realize that this lack of control can be advantageous, empowering them to “learn from [their] own subject matter...in somewhat the same way that [their] readers are presumed to learn from [their] writing.” It is no coincidence that so many works of fiction are semi-autobiographical. Murnane imagines that fictional personages exist even when writers are not reporting the details of their lives, and we can never expect what sense, memory, or experience will alert us to their existence. Considering the relationship between meaning and connectedness, it is unsurprising that “the details of what we call our lives go sometimes to form patterns of meaning not unlike those to be found in our preferred sort of fiction.”
Murnane despises evasiveness when it comes to writers “using expressions such as beautifully written or moving or powerful in order to hide their ignorance of the craft of fiction,” though A Million Windows is all of these things. It testifies that the “real world,” or the “visible world” as Murnane calls it, is overrated. Many authors and narrators exhaust themselves attempting to describe the visible world with complete accuracy, while A Million Windows is comfortable with the uncertainty of visualizing abstractions in great detail. The feelings that this process evokes and the persistent hints of underlying connectedness are various, vibrant, and sincere. In his review of the novel in Music & Literature, Will Heyward writes that Murnane “dissects his writing and his memory in the way a Christian doctor might have a human corpse centuries ago: earnestly, hopelessly, in search of the soul.” The absence of a specific map or diagram may be unsettling to consider at first, but it ultimately opens both the visible and the invisible worlds to the possibility of something infinite and grand. ...more
Expect the unexpected. That is my advice to anyone planning to read The Knack of Doing. With his inventive short stories, Davies is constantly throwing his reader for a loop, and in the most delightful way. Each story features a uniquely eccentric character, yet somehow the thirteen fit seamlessly together as a whole.
Each story has a plot completely distinct from the rest: “Forkhead Box” tells of an executioner who breeds mice in his spare time. “Sad White People” gives us Chris and Chris, who are in love but meet a tragic end. “The Sinces” simply and perfectly captures the aftermath of an ended relationship. “Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta,” in a very meta fashion, takes aim at Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction writing advice and asks what exactly it means to write fiction. Davies’s work examines many aspects of human life and work, prompting a reader to look a little more closely at themselves and their own day-to-day life—that which may seem ordinary or mundane may not be at all.
Not only is his subject matter intriguing, Davies continues to surprise with the distinct structure of his stories. While many are typical—as much as one could label Davies’s work as typical—prose, many take on a more interesting form: that of a list, a letter, or some other kind of internal monologue. “Ten Letters” is formatted as of a father writing to his children. “The Dandy’s Garrote” is one long sentence that was once offered up for a book jacket blurb. “The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved)” is formatted, as the title would suggest, in a series of answered riddles to chronicle a day in the life of May, who works as a dominatrix. All different, and all compelling.
What really ties Davies’s stories together is his unwavering quick wit and careful mastery of language. Throughout The Knack of Doing the pace is measured and the tone is comfortably light even when the content gets a little dismal. Davies does not take himself too seriously, and that’s the key to why his writing is so effective. The stories in The Knack of Doing are a little bit strange, but that is what makes them so captivating: they’re all believable, and it’s as if as if I’m reading about the quirky neighbor across the hall. Davies’s fiction manages to blur the line between real and imaginary.
Davies writes to capture human consciousness and does so beautifully. He has created snapshots of the serious and the lighthearted, asked questions both mundane and profound, and left us with a work of art to endure....more