Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is in the form of an extended monologue with lengthy paragraphs uninterrupted by page breaks or chapter headings. There is no plot or story. Instead we are served a map of the narrator’s mind with its meanderings, reflections, detours, memories, digressions, and opinions. It is akin to stream of consciousness in that one seemingly random thought or image triggers a memory that sets the narrator down a winding path, the relevance of which may or may not be readily apparent to the reader. But we follow the narrator because his prose is hypnotic, his thoughts luminous, and because we are curious to see where he will take us next.
The narrator is an elderly gentleman, a grandfather, who has moved from a capital city to a quiet township near the border. He tells us he has done this to experience the freedom to record his “. . . image-history, which includes, of course, my speculations about such image-events.” And that is precisely what he does. He writes a report in which he records the images that have preoccupied his mind from childhood into old age and he considers if and how his reflections on those images have changed in the interim. If all this sounds somewhat bizarre, that is because it is.
The central image preoccupying his mind and one that recurs is of stained or colored glass windows. His focus is intense as he studies the colors, the shapes, and the fluctuating impact of light as it filters through the colored panes. He sees himself as “a student of colours and shades and hues and tints.” He is intent on looking at things sideways since “a glance or a sideways look often reveals more than a direct gaze . . .”
The narrator is painfully self-conscious, analytical, and deliberate in his writing, as in, for example, “I strayed a little in the previous two sentences” or, more typically, “While I was writing the previous two paragraphs . . .” He writes in the past tense and has a propensity to use the conditional construction in his sentences: “If only I had had . . . I would have had . . .” etc. He launches into elaborate scenarios where he imagines things that might have been. For example, while visiting a friend, he weaves an elaborate tale in which he envisions a marriage between his friend’s spinster aunt and her sweetheart returned from the war. He constructs their home in his imagination and even compares his childhood and schooling with that of the imaginary daughter adopted by the aunt and her sweetheart.
All this makes for curious reading. One wonders what he’s up to. And then a sentence toward the end of the book brings the entire work into focus. The narrator has taken a photograph of a colored glass window in his friend’s home. As he examines the photograph, he makes the following statement:
“ . . . a part of my seeing was investing the glass with qualities not inherent in it—qualities probably not apparent to any other observer and certainly not detectable by any sort of camera; that what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass.”
In other words, Murnane does with images what many of us do with books. We can read the same book many times over and experience it differently with each reading depending on our life experiences at the time. If we are astute and deliberate readers, we can recall which passages in the book left an impact on us, when, how, and why. This exercise reveals as much about the reader as it does about the book. We might do it with the written word; Murnane does it with images. He imbues what he sees with meaning. His images of landscapes and colored glass are significant because they reveal the eye of the beholder, then and now.
Murnane has charted the landscape of his mind throughout the decades by using image-events as triggers. He explores the development of his mental state by gauging his reaction to visual stimuli. He has been doing this all along in the novel, but it is not until the end that the whole enterprise comes into clear focus.
An unusual novel in terms of structure, content, and theme. Highly recommended for those who enjoy reflective, digressive writing.