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Do Not Ask For Names: Gerald Murnane and Noncommodified Fiction by Nicholas Birns In coming to terms with the

work of a writer, now matter how obscure or how singular, it is always worth looking at their critical reception. The first criticism of Gerald Murnane to appear in book form was in a 1988 book by the late Helen Daniel, in the last years of her life cherished editor of the Australian Book Review, called Liars. This book contained essays an Peter Carey, Elizabeth Jolley, David Ireland. Murray Bail, Peter Mathers, Nicholas Hasluck, and David Foster as well as Murnane. (Some of these are much more famous than others; they are all well worth reading). Classifying all eight writers as Liars, Daniel proffered their work as 'intellectually exciting and satisfying in a way conventional fiction is not and that, when compared to traditional writers, 'the Liars are more truthful, '. One was instantly conscious of the limitations of this point of view. While lauding experimentation in fiction, it retains the idea of the author as intentional agent, as standing behind and providing a unifying frame for the otherwise anarchic innovation of the work: thus the analyses of Nabokov and Borges that flourished from the 1950s to the 1970s, in which explication of the writers textual game-playing was supplemented by a very decided sense of who Nabokov and Borges were, as people, (i.e. reflective, humorous European, or, in both cases, Euro-American, gentlemen) and that though, as writers, they were 'Liars ', the _relationship between writer and text was one in which the writer expressed a personal truth. This kind of residual authorial control was exploded by the theories of French post-structuralism, which, in postulating a perpetual linguistic instability, set a high bar against images of authors personalities being used to inform their texts. Also, if post-structuralist meaning is unstable, then why are fictions that deliberately lie about the world privileged over works that think they are telling the truth about it? So, when reading Daniel, one immediately thought of a more poststructural analysis of Murnane, basically what was eventually provided by Imre Salusinszky in his excellent book on Murnane (Oxford University Press, 1993). Yet, simultaneously, one also imag ined the complete opposite: a Platonic account of Murnane s work, even an essentialist one, one which took his idealism and his search for the truth seriously, one which recognized that, whatever its dramatic swerves from transparent representation, the uvre of Gerald Murnane took its own truth on its own terms and would not eagerly or gratuitously surrender it. So Helen Daniel s work seems outflanked on both sides. But, in retrospect, the argument of Liars does have a certain, indeed a necessary relevance. When she was writing, there was still an observable difference between a commodified realism, . Postmodernism, fiction that involved self-reference and experimentation, was not prone to commercial marketing, whereas realist fiction that proposed a transparent representation of the world as it is was commercially viable and indeed was equivalent to commercial fiction, excluding science fiction and fantasy. So what might, following Daniel, be called the privilege of the lie existed in 1980 or so; if you wanted to read good fiction, fiction that was cutting-edge and aware of the most compelling questions that writers could assay in their work, you read consciously modern or postmodern fiction. This has changed. Now the books of fiction on international bestseller lists deploy

nonlinear narrative as much as linear storytelling, they shift time as much as they stay on one plane, they allude to previous texts as much as they attempt to give the illusion of a seamlessly rendered plane. It would be nice to think that this meant both authors and readers have gotten smarter. Alas, what is probably meant is that the idea of what will please the middlebrow reader, will make him or her feel they have ingested the illusion of culture, has been gentrified. Helen Daniel, for all the hyperbole of her praise of the Liar, was at least trying to keep the postmodern novel in a place where artistic integrity would be required of it. In a world flush with everything at the turn of the twenty-first century, artistic integrity is not in as much abundance as we might desire. Jeremiads about commercialism admittedly (and deservedly) have a short shelf life and an even shorter stay on the impatience of the reader. Yet sometimes they are warranted. This is particularly true in relation to contemporary Australian fiction. Australia is remote from the rest of the world. Its culture is still, despite Olympic exposure, little known. Its international marketers have elected to stress living writers rather than nineteenth-century classics such as Marcus Clarke s His Natural Life or Joseph Furphy s Such Is Life, Louisa Atkinson s Gertrude the Emigrant or Miles Franklin s My Brilliant Career . Therefore, the view of Australi ~an fiction that the rest of the world receives is overwhelmingly commercial. Discussions with colleagues who teach the contemporary literatures of France or Spain have convinced me that the situation in Australian literature is not terribly worse than that with the literature translated from French or Spanish, that what comes into English is also too commercial and middlebrow in emphasis. But English-speaking readers always have a Cervantes or a Rabelais, not to mention a Machado or a Valery, to fall back upon. We have no visible Australian classics. So we do not have that option. We are left with undeserving commercial writers, or, more lamentably, deserving writers of high artistic stature marketed and understood only in commercial terms. It is the contention of this essay that the work of Gerald Murnane is unusually well positioned to provide an alternative to this plight. Murnane s work has both a realistic phase (in the 1970s) and a postmodern, self-referential phase (in the 1980s and 1990s). In both those phases, Murnane contests the commodified and commercialized avatars of both realistic and postmodern fiction. And he does so through using the unglamorous verbal device of metonymy. Murnane s second novel, A Lifetime of Clouds, has from its publication been compared James Joyce s Portrait of a Young Man . Like Joyce s novel, it chronicles the inner life of an adolescent boy struggling to maintain his imagination in the midst of a dogmatic belief-system (in the case of A Lifetime on Clouds, this system is the conservative, militantly anti-Communist Irish-tinctured Catholicism of Melbourne in the 1950 s). Lifetime concerns a young boy, Adrian Sherd, clearly an authorial surrogate. The book is divided into two parts. The first concerns an 'America ' which the boy never visits but is only the object of dreams. Here, he indulges in erotic romps with American movie stars and in general lives out a fantasy of sexual delight totally unrealized in his own world. (This is just the first of many roles that the United States, a country Murnane has never visited and most likely will never visit, will play in his fiction). In the second part, the scene shifts, is as betokened by the closing lines of the first section, lines as emblematic as any passage in Murnane:

For too long he had been led astray by dreams of America. He was about to begin a new life in the real world of Australia. (Lifetime 74).

The important point to understand about this passage is, on one level, that it is meant seriously; the author s weight is behind the passage, a weight betokene d by the short sentences and uncommon lucidity that characterize Murnane s best writing. The 'Australian ' portion of the book will involve a felt reality, including really existing other people (however redeployed they are in Adrian s fantasy world) that rather 'American ' one did not. On the other hand, though, the distinction is not meant seriously, as both visions emanate equally from the Australia where the Sherd character is represented as living, and, more crucially, the 'real ' and the fantastic ' are equally imaginary in this book, equally the stuff of dreams. In the second half of Lifetime, Adrian falls in love with Denise McNamara, a local schoolgirl, someone he sees, or can see, every day. Yet his actual conversations with her are minimal; his congress with her is almost totally in his mind, where he formulates myriad scenarios ine see her married to another man but, as a priest under vows of celibacy, gives marital counseling to her husband! In fact, this last, in some ways most fanciful but certainly not wish-fulfilling scenario is the one on which the novel ends.

When confessions were finished, Father Sherd walked slowly along the path towards the presbytery. He looked up at the heavens. The glow from the city lights obscured the sky. It was Saturday night and thousands of young people were out enjoying themselves. He thought of the two he had tried to advise in confession. He trusted they would sleep a little more peacefully that night and not be troubled by impossible dreams. (157). The priest ending avoids that premature telegraphing to the reader of what the author wants them to think about the text that is a sine qua non of middlebrow fiction. The priest persona i s the most fantastic of all of Adrian s postures, even though, in the above passage, it is seen as a renunciation of dreams. The novel is not seen as delivering reality; the dream is as much of a subject as the real even if the novel itself is not a dream.The altruistic renunciation of 'Father ' Sherd rends the fabric of the autobiographical novel, even though the author does not intend that renunciation to be anything like paradigmatic on the literal level! We know that the person who is writing the book is not, or is no longer, a religious believer even as we read an ending in which the protagonist becomes a (good, responsible) priest. The relationship between manifest and ultimate meaning is very different in Murnane than in Joyce. Portrait of an Artist is about the author s own ego, but a book modeled or held comparable to it might be. We also might think that a book analogous to Portrait might lead people to say, as they do of Joyce s book, something like 'this novel seems to rebel against doctrinal Catholicism, but on a deeper level it reaffirms it. ' Murnane s novel is far less recuperable by doctrinal Catholicism than is Joyce s, even though Joyce s book savages priests, while Murnane s portrays their vocation as devoted and honorable. The idealism of the priest is not misplaced, even though in the dream-narrator s real life, whatever that may be, the idealism will not manifest itself in an ecclesiastical vessel.

In Inland, Murnane s narrator deliberately misunderstands 'Paraclete ', the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, for 'parakeet ', the tropical bird (not the supernal dove with which the Holy Spirit is so associated). This clear preference for the non-religious, or non-doctrinal, over its e 'believing ' counterpart does not at all preclude a distanced respect for the religious vocation. Yet Murnane s novel leaves doctrinal religion behind in a way that, at least according to most critics, Joyce s does not. A Lifetime on Clouds also refrains from a traditional motif of the novel of male adolescence, the achievement of sexual maturity through sexual experience, what Harold Bloom more elegiacally describes as 'the monsoon of final sexual alignment '. Examinations of the Bildungsroman, the novel of growing up, have concentrated on the growing up ' part; the roman aspect has been neglected. The emplotment of the novel along a basis of evolutionary maturation secures a notion of completed form as progress, as solution, as achieved finality--a formal certainty whose congealed nature lies behind many of the limitations the past several generati ons of novelists have felt with the social-realist mode. Lifetime, on the other hands, seems deliberately mature in ways, although it is an immaturity the novel sends up, an undeniably farcical immaturity, an immaturity that the reader laughs at as much as it laughs with. Yet rereadings of Lifetime show a narrative perspective deep behind the action that is conscientious, reflective, above all sane. And this perspective comes through to the reader all the more in that neither the events or the procedures of the text force it upon us. In putting the cart before the horse at the end, in being literally preposterous, Lifetime does not chronicle a finished development, a fixed becoming, a weighted annunciation. It steps aside from commodified realist fiction. There is an oddness to Murnane s canonicity, in that it is The Plains (1982) that is his most famous work: the only one currently in print in Australia and th _e only one ever published in the United States (both in lavish and attractive editions, by Text and George Braziller respectively). Yet it is fact not The Plains, with its aspirations towards transcendent symbolism, but Inland (1988), with its deferral of that symbolism into the uncannily real, that is the touchstone for Murnane s later work. From reading A Lifetime on Clouds, the reader sees that Inland is in many ways a recasting of the story of Adrian Sherd. Not a sequel, nor a repudiation, but a recasting. It would be misleading to see Inland as a deeper or more radical version of Lifetime; it is in a different mode. If the reader is attuned to postmodern procedures more than realistic ones the reader will find it richer. But the two novels are basically the same story in two different modes rather than a realistic narrative in the first refined into postmodernism in the second. Indeed, the Lifetime-Inland diptych, together, is a two-part novel, much as each part of it is divided into two parts. And the two-part division of Inland is modeled on that of Lifetime. In the first part, though, instead of an Australian fantasizing about American landscapes, we have a third term introduced: Hungary. A Hungarian nobleman living on the Magyar puszta writes for a journal headquartered on the plains of South Dakota, edited by a woman born in Hungary who becomes the Hungarian s occluded and mystified inamorata. A complicated three-way negotiation of geographical reference ensues, what the Canadian feminist writer Aritha van Herk (an author whose work is weirdly cognate with Murnane s) would call a 'geograficione '. Hungary or Dakota are less metaphors for Australia than metonymic versions of it. And what of metonymy? We know it means to substitute for a given term an entity

closely related to, but not identical, with it. But what might metonymy mean in literature? To supply a conveniently elementary definition, we turn to Thomas McLaughlin in Critical Terms for Literary Study (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, second edition), McLaughlin says that metonymy 'accomplishes the transfer of meaning on the basis of associations that develop out of specific contexts rather than from participation in a structure of meaning...(i)t does not call for the sharing of meaning that metaphor implies; instead, it relies on connections that build up over time and the associations of usage '..Explicit compariso _ns of metaphor and metonymy take their cue from the work of Roman Jakobson, which equate metaphor with continuity and metonymy with contiguity, metaphor with completion and metonymy with partiality. McLaughlin s discussion is particularly apposite to Murnane, as McLaughlin is attempting to define figurative language by reference to a William Blake poem--to which, he states, metonymy is of little relevance. Murnane is a writer in the Blakean vein, and his language, though far less overtly intense than Blake s, has some of its visionary and uncompromising quality. In fact, Blake is one of the writers Salusinszky names as especially important to Murnane. Yet Murnane, unlike Blake as here analyzed, relies on metonymy constantly This can be seen in the qu _ote from Paul Eluard which practically serves as a motto for the latter half of Inland: 'There is another world, but it is in this one. ' For a declaration that seems so categorical, there are yet at least four modes of response: 1) We can, as Blake might put it, 'see the world in a grain of sand '; there are ecstatic possibilities even in the friendliest confines. 2) There is another (more supernatural, more imaginative world) but we can only find it in this one and not in other ones (and thus, in Adrian Sherd s dichotomy, only in Australia, not in America). 3) There is another world, and it is in this book, this text, that we are reading--in literature (and not necessarily only in literature) we can find this other world. 4) There is ultimate meaning--but it c Yan only be found instantiated in immediate meaning. However this conundrum is resolved, the sense of transcendental possibility lingering amid the grounded mechanics of metonymic contiguity are pervasive. It is metonymy also that explains what for readers new to Murnane might be the most noticeable feature of his later fiction--the fact that his characters do not have names. In Inland, for instance, the first-person narrator never gives his name, and the 'girl-woman ' who is the postmodern equivalent of the realist Denise McNamara is referred to only as 'the girl from Bendigo Street. ' Given that character names are part of the convention of the novel form (and think how many of the generative instances of that form have proper names as titles) this procedure is highly disruptive of reader expectations; indeed more so than many more gi Zmmicky techniques for envisioned disruption. In Inland the narrator warns the reader against attempting to heal this disruption during one of his errant American travelogues By some means or another, reader, we have passed Climax and are we no longer in Colorado. Alert as you are, you would have noticed earlier the word coastal in a passage connected with the place where I once stood in a garden. Having found yourself on the

other side of Climax, and having read my word coastal, you expect to find yourself drifting towards the sea. And so you are, reader. Along with myself- you are drifting further away from the peaks around Climax--from the watershed of our huge land. But do not trouble yourself about the sea; do not ask for names of coasts or bays or such things. The land itself is so vast and so richly patterned with streams and tow ns and prairies that I will never have time for sea. Be content to know, reader, that our journey upstream from Ideal and over the watershed or, if you prefer, the Great Divide has brought us at last to a coastal district or, as I prefer to call it, a district on the edge of the land. (46-47) Ironically, there is actually no shortage of geographical names in this text. But there certainly is a shortage of personal names. People are not named directly; they are indicated, associated, metonymically, with a place of residence or a function in the narrative. And it is this interest in proximity and accretion, this inclinations to work from the edges and only indicate the center, to work from the surface and only indicate the depths, that is figured by the absence of proper names. We get the effect of its name, not its substance. But, pace the self-referentiality ascribed to Borges or Nabokov, we get the sense that there is some substance, something real, there, even if the narrator, or author, wishes to avoid it! We are back here to Helen Daniel and the privilege of the lie--although one would not to say, not really the lie, but an unpredictable truth. And this unpredictable truth is most easily grasped as metonymy. Metonymy avoids the kind of personal myth developed by hagiographers of Borges or Nabokov, while not pretending to the self-elevation of metaphor. The metaphor-metonymy distinction, like so many rhetorical distinctions, has sometimes been imbued with more potency than it warrants. In particular, metaphor has been seen as poetic, metonymy prosaic, metaphor idealistic, metonymy more realistic. Although this _is a plausible formulation, insistence upon it tends to make polemical what is after all a linguistic distinction. That Murnane deploys metonymy more than metaphor is no reason to support, or, as the Australians would say, 'barrack ' for, metonymy over metaphor. For Murnane, metonymy is no less imaginary than metaphor can be. (Associations of metonymy with empirical reality is not helped by the most common example of the figure, the way journalists use 'the White House ' when they mean 'the President '.) In a binary relation, the important feature of metonymy is that the second term does not wholly redeem the first, as the relationship is accretive, not qualitative. So, even though one one level, Denise, the real Australian schoolgirl, is a more palpa ble entity than Jayne, Susan, and Marilyn, the fantasized American actresses, although she surpasses them in the intensity with which she inspires devotion, she is not decisively more real. The Plains might be thought to be more metaphoric than metonymic. But, even there, the failure of the endless vistas to capture the imaginariness to which they aspire is itself a metonymic gesture. Like a musical piece in which a plangent melody is sustained by a steady backbeat, behind all of Murnane s pyrotechnics is a regularity, a reassuring stability of tone and perspective. Though we do not know the narrator s names, we know their sensibility, and although they may not always be reliable as to literal truth they are very steadfast in terms of the integrity of their imaginative worlds. An analogy could be made to the role that horse-racing plays both in Murnane s fiction (especially in Tamarisk Row, his first novel,

and Emerald Blue) and in real life for Murnane (Words and Silk, a documentary film made by Philip Tyndall about Murnane in 1987, ingeniously gains visual access to Murnane s rather non-visual imaginary worlds through using the horse-racing motif as an entry). In horse-racing there is always a jockey, a trainer, and an owner. The wagerer can always choose to bet win, place, or show. The horses come in a determinate variety of ages, colors, and genders. Yet all these variables are subject to a myriad variety of permutations allowing for endless creative conjecture. There is both a fairly immutable structure and a space for all sorts of wandering speculation. The staking of actual cash on the part of the wagerer renders horse racing, like literature, a mode of risk management. The danger of unpredictability is given scope, and counterbalanced, b y a stability, a norm, an outlined consistency. Horse racing provides a limit-situation, or, more aptly, proving ground on which to situate the visionary intensity of the imagination and let it run. It also provides a way to understand Murnane s work without having recourse to literary theory, which, if not a necessity, is certainly a desirable option. Murnane is not the academic s parody of a self-referential writer. He is a writer with a heart and a vision. He does not need to be constantly putting quotation marks around these words, precisely because he does not rely on familiar cultural ideas of what reality is. Murnane s texts are not turgid, dense, or hard to read on the surface level. His style has a purity, even a pertinacity, about it. Yet his work challenges the reader to rise up to its level. This is a particular issue in Australian literature where, because of the small populaiton of Austrlaian and the large number of people worldwide who read English, it can be assumed that many of the readers of a successful book will be located abroad. (This is true even of Murnane,. who has never left Australia and seldom even published outside of it--the critics who have written on Murnane have been American and European as much as they have been Australian). There is a temptation thereby for the Australian author to present Australia to the global reader, to bottle its essence (and there is a Murnane story entitled 'Sipping the Essence '), to, as Eliot s Prufrock might put it, fix Australia in a formulated phrase. (On this tendency, see Gregory Melleuish, The Packaging of Australia, University of New South Wales Press, 1998).Witness the standing model by which Australian literature is received in the international commercial press. There is a kind of regressive hylomorphism in categorizations of the Australian novel in the metropolitan West, remarks like 'X brings Australia into the world of the contemporary novel ' or 'The narrative verve of Y (a classic European writer) here resurfaces in this wonde rful gift from Down Under ' or so on. This tendency to laud the putting of new wine into old bottles leads to the second problem in the worldwide reception of Australian literature, the prevalence of 'symbolic realism ' or 'magic realism ' which rely on the amalgamation of global formulae and Australian content. How Murnane can brighten this picture may be seen by analogy in a quotation from the Literary History of the United States (Spiller et al, 4th edition, Macmillan, 1974), on Edgar Allan Poe (a writer in some ways oddly comparable to Murnane, most obviously in their shared preference for shorter forms and their interest in 'life and death ' matters): He stands as one of the few great innovators in American literature. Like Henry James and T. S. Eliot, he took his place, almost from the start, in international culture as original creative force in contrast to the more superficial international vogue of Cooper and Irving.

A writer of this sort must do things that nobody else does. A prime example of this lies in the climactic portion of Inland, where the narrator muses on his teenage love, the girl from Bendigo Street. Far from supplying a name for the 'girl-woman ', the text considerably complicates the situation by calling her 'the girl from Bendigo Street ' where there is also a 'girl from Bendigo ' in the novel. Bendigo is a medium-sized city (of about 90,000 people in 2000, of course fifty years after our setting here which would be in the early 1950s) about 150 kilometers northwest of Melbourne. Bendigo happens to be a city of particular importance to Murnane; he lived there as a young child, has written nonfiction articles on it, and has stated he wishes to die in Bendigo. Yet the girl from Bendigo is not of romantic interest to the narrator. If place-identity were to mimic soulideconveyance. But the less essential place is linked to the more essential person--a sign of the indirect, proximate, almost nonassertive nature of the narrator s pursuit of her. An analogous situation occurs in the title piece of the story-collection Emerald Blue (1995). The striking homology here is between the half-muffled attempt to communicate to the young woman something of the intense inner meaning of the narrator's mind, and the instability of the referent 'Dandenong '. 'Dandenong ' refers both to itself and 'Mount Dandenong ', a place which in common-sense terms should either identical with 'Dandenong ' or be closely associated or adjacent to it. Of course, common-sense expectations are foiled all the time in these terms of geographical signifiers. For instance, the most famous "Connecticut Av enue" in the United States is in Washington, DC, not anywhere near Connecticut. Or there is the case of 'Maitland Road ' in the greater Newcastle area in New South Wales not being anywhere near the Hunter Valley town of Maitland for most of its duration, although, unlike Connecticut Avenue, it will at least lead the traveler to Maitland, being in that sense what Shelley termed 'the trumpet of a prophecy '. But this example presents a kind of semi-arbitrary linkage, because in the capital city it might be expected to have all the states be on the map; the DandenongMount Dandenong confusion is more inspired, more mystical, where, as in Murnane's earlier conjunction of "the girl from Bendigo" and "the girl from Bendigo Street" in Inland, 'Dandenong ' contains a hint, an indication, a displaced promise of the more manifest glory of 'Mount Dandenong '. The metonymic proliferation of "Dandenongs" is an indication of the inadequacy of the name 'Dandenong ' to name either object. It is a signal t hat 'Dandenong ' has a surplus of significance. The meaning it represents for the narrator can never be wholly incarnate in one geographical object. Similarly, just as nothing he can ever tell any of the young women of his acquaintance will ever fully reveal the wellsprings of emotional meaning in back of everything he has to say to them. Juxtaposition may provide a clue; but it will never be a categorical key to meaning. The willingness to remain content with clues is what provides the sequel, if not the resolution, to the story of the 'girl from Bendigo Street '. Many years later, the narrator, now a mature adult man with, we presume, a realized and fulfilled life in the real world, decides to search for his lost love. He writes a woman whom he has never considered his girlfriend (we know this because he had 'talked easily to her in those days ' (123) but whose identity is rather complicated. Her current whereabouts come to the narrator s attention because he reads her father's obituary in the newspaper. He finds that the girl he once knew now has 'my own name ' as she had married a man 'who had the same surname as myself ' (124). In other words, if we hypothesize, just as a matter of

conjecture, that the narrator s surname is 'Murnane ' the woman with whom he had once talked easily is now also named 'Murnane '--although the second would be no relation to the first. Once again, as with the 'girl from Bendigo ', the name of the intermediary is weighted with more significance than her inherent value might seem to suggest. There is an eerie dialectic of same and other here, as her having the same surname in a way renders her more similar to the narrator, almost seeming a part of him. Conversely, if he had married this woman (as he never considered doing) she also would have had the same surname as his! Significance is bounced around, deflected, parlayed, even as the narrator continues his quest. He asks the woman with the same surname for the current whereabouts of two classmates from decades before: a boy who he cares nothing bout and a girl who is the subject of his utmost concern. As we might expect, the samesurnamed woman supplies the name of the first, and not the second. And with that the errand rests. The narrator goes no further. We are left with no solution; not even the lack of a solution. There is a set of references beyond which the narrator does not go, though they stand as clues. The narrative has given us not an epiphany, but a resonant procedure. Reaching no crest of revelation, it resides metonymically in a universe of lateral proximity. Murnane does not using form as a way to deliver content, in letting form and context complement each other laterally. Thus he avoids the hierarchy of new and old, wine and bottle. Even though his texts are rife with specific Australian names, he does not (a lesson vouchsafed by The Plains) attempt to metaphysically name Australia. He evades the formulae of the commodified postmodernist novel. Metonymy also may provide the __ frame for Murnane s willingness to distend endings. If there is no declarative redemption on a narrative, there can be no grand finale, just a lingering tenderness. And tenderness, as Roland Barthes says, is 'nothing but an infinite, insatiable metonymy '. Thus the tender dream-ending to Lifetime. Thus the metonymic horse-catalogue of 'The Interior of Gaaldine ' in Emerald Blue where a quest-narrative (and, it was once thought, Murnane s corpus of writing) simply sputters out into fragments and in-jokes rath _ger than reveal any kind of object, or even a determinate mystery. And thus the last words of a recently published story, 'As if it were a letter, ' in the Australian literary magazine Southerly . Set among a Catholic religious settlement in the 1950 s, the story ends with a reported anecdote of a Spanish singer who had impressed the women of the community with his charisma, an anecdote relayed by the now much-older narrator hearing a radio reenactment based on the original. The last three words are 'he was inspiring '. The sentiment ostensibly expressed by the words is sufficiently resounding and consoling to serve as a conclusion. Yet the phrase itself is not. It is very abrupt. It is in need of further elaboration. Also, the fact that it is reported speech ( 'my own summary of what I understood the female actors to be reporting from the females who claimed still to remember their feelings of fifty years before '), and that the narration of the story we are ourselves reading is entertainment of so much more ramified a nature (as A.E. Housman put it, 'better for the embittered hour ') than the merely immediate passion with which the Spanish singer performs, places the reader at a couple of removes from the inspiration. But there is still something there, some presence, some gift of vision. Though it may be put under severe scrutiny, it is not repudiated. Deep feeling and formal measure coexist, play off each other, fortify each other. This gives the reader pleasure--but only because it defies any expectations the reader is likely to bring to it. As both realist and postmodernist, Murnane remains noncommodified.