'Barley Patch' a Harrowing, Self-Referential Exploration of Creativity

'Barley Patch' by Gerald Murnane (Dalkey Archive Press)

“Barley Patch,” a new novel by Gerald Murnane, takes the landscape of the mind, with its fragmentary images and memories tightly woven, as its setting. “Must I write?” the novel asks at it opens, followed by “Why had I written?” These jarring questions establish Murnane’s objective: to interrogate his own intellect and creativity through a bifurcated narrative of question and answer. Murnane oscillates between delicate imagery, fictional characters, and shards of memory. But these vertices of narrative, unlike those in other works of fiction, are not bound together to construct an arc upon which the reader can walk. Instead, he is hurled into the intricate depths of the author’s own creative genius, which ultimately forces the reader to confront his own literary crisis: Why must I read?

In the opening page Murnane quotes from a letter written by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a struggling poet: “This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?” Murnane, some 15 years previously, had asked himself that very question one night. He had had no answer, and thus he stopped writing. In a novel, however, which intentionally disguises fiction as fact and fact as fiction, the validity of this crisis comes into question. Murnane anticipates this and attempts to construct an answer to whether he must write, all while defending the legitimacy of his artistic crisis. The result is a striking paradox of categorized narrative and simplistic poeticism that loosely charts Murnane’s life and fiction writing.

“Barley Patch” is a novel of ghosts: ghost-characters, ghost-landscapes, ghost-images. Murnane’s descriptions intentionally distort his attempts at character construction and scene creation. A figure may be described in intricate detail in one specific pose, but left unnamed, or only described from one perspective. Even more confusingly, it is often unclear which character is being described or doing a particular action. Thus characters and landscapes are mere shadows in the text, seen only dimly and never in their entirety. Much like shadows, they are mere signifiers of something greater that looms just outside our view.

This ghostly landscape transfigures the text into a device designed to mirror Murnane’s own inner landscape. In describing his first experiences of reading fiction as a child, he writes, “I felt as though I myself moved among the characters.” Murnane explains how, whilst reading, he never aligned his perspective in the fictional panorama with a primary character or the narrator. Rather, he would position himself into the text itself, moving and walking freely amongst the characters. “I could watch openly while my favorite female character rode on horseback,” he reminisces, “to the far side of some landscape described in the text and even further.” This experience of reading morphs one’s own self into a ghost or shadow figure—one who is not entirely present but nonetheless moves within the text’s world.

Despite its focus on the author’s interior, conflict does arise in “Barley Patch.” The structure of the novel is formulated as a question-and-answer dialogue, with one part of Murnane’s consciousness interrogating the other. Due to this conceit, the text can lapse into complex categorization of detail, as Murnane narrates his intent for each image even as he describes it. The narrative can be somewhat clumsy and exceedingly complex. Although frustrating, it is clear that this is Murnane’s bid to negate the construction of a believable plane of reality. The awkward syntax and hierarchical categorization of images and people constantly jars the reader out of the absorption that Murnane values so highly in his own enjoyment of fiction.

In striking contrast to these passages are those moments that hone in on simplistic imagery: “a strand of hair lying diagonally across the forehead of a young female person who looked out across an ocean or who lay with closed eyes beneath a lake.” Murnane’s images are bare and extremely visual. His mode of description does not disguise the image, but lays it naked for inspection. Certain images, such as the girl staring out across the ocean or a fern frond immersed in the waves, recur throughout the text, revealing a cyclical nature that would not have been evident from the structure alone. The narrative revolves in an intricate cycle [REP], never moving closer to answering its primary question.

Imagination is central to Murnane’s intellectual crisis. One of the novel’s recurrent images is that of a two-story house from which Murnane might view the surrounding landscape: “I mostly saw myself-the-adult as a reader or a writer in a house of two-storeys overlooking rural landscapes.” The house serves as a metaphor for Murnane’s conception of the imagination. The mind surveys the world from the second-story window, accumulating and absorbing all details of the external world. However, because there are areas in the landscape one cannot see, we must imagine what lies beyond our view based on the landscape we can see.

This, then, is the nature of fiction writing: using details and shards from the external world and piecing them together within the mind to construct something else, “details worthy to be included in the scenery that I needed to have always at the back of my mind and outlines of persons worthy to live among that scenery.” But Murnane is unable to reconcile this appropriation of real images and stories with his ideas about imagination and fiction writing. It becomes apparent that this is why he stopped writing. The novel, itself a complex weave of fact and fiction, tries to divine a way of producing fiction set within an imaginative plane different from reality.

Yet the novel fails to achieve this goal. Instead, its main accomplishment is its transcendence of image. ”Barley Patch” concludes with Murnane seeing a young woman on a bus and cataloguing her image within his mind for use at a later date. The book’s conclusion prefers the authority of image over that of word. Word acts as a shadow, the mere precursor to something far bigger that looms just behind it. The novel movingly and successfully resolves its own paradoxes. For, as the narrative modes are reconciled, so too Murnane reconciles his critique of the imagination with the shadow-like power of image. The answer to the question “Must I write?” is a resounding yes.

—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at shopkinson@college.harvard.edu.