The dust jacket of the first edition of The Plains describes it as ‘a lament for an Australian literature that has never been written’. Thirty years later this strange, disquieting, curious little book continues to stand almost alone in the library of alternative Australian fiction. But make no mistake: this is no archaeological artefact. The Plains is a masterpiece, and, word for word, sentence for sentence, one of the best novels ever written in this country. Like all great allegories, its premise is simple. A filmmaker, researching a script to be called The Interior, journeys to the flat plains of the inland where in a remote town he spends his days in the pub trying to learn what he can about the so-called plainsmen and their peculiar way of life. Because it is peculiar. Like the many other petitioners who have made the journey (‘I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia’) in the hope of finding a patron among the wealthy landowners there, our narrator must work hard to understand their culture – detailed, arcane and to the outsider utterly foreign – if he is to find favour with them.
It is right that a peculiar literary work should have a peculiar publishing history. Murnane had originally written a work of about 60,000 words, The Only Adam, with the opening and closing sections set in a place ‘that might have stood in relation to the setting of the rest of the book as a mirage stands in relationship to the landscape that gives rise to it’. Bruce Gillespie, the publisher at Norstrilia, a small press specialising in sci-fi and speculative fiction (Murnane: ‘I would have thought that all fiction is speculative’), suggested that if The Only Adam failed to find a publisher he would like to include ‘the plains sections’ in an anthology he was planning. The longer work never did find a home, and Murnane decided to explore his mirage further. ‘It seemed to me,’ he told me recently, ‘that I could write more than I had already written about my mysterious plains.’ In 1982 Gillespie published this 30,000-word manuscript in a handsome hardback.
When I first read The Plains, in my late 20s, I noted in my diary that it was ‘miles beyond most other Australian writing I’ve read’. I had already given White a fair go, and Stead, I had read most of Lawson and stumbled my way through that other great curio, Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life. I’d read some early Carey and Bail, and was keeping up where I could with the little magazines and journals. But The Plains was something else. Here was a stepping-off into an alternative world as exhilarating as anything proposed by Swift, Kafka, Borges or Calvino, written in a prose to rival the European greats I had already fallen in love with.
More importantly, in the subtle cultural investigations going on deep within the book, Murnane seemed to be forging his own way not just towards an alternative Australian literature but an alternative way of imagining the country. With an eye both to the European and South American avant-garde, combined with hefty doses of Proust and Kerouac – most evident in his extraordinary debut novel, Tamarisk Row – he was out on his own making something eccentric, free-floating and completely new. Because let’s not forget, aside from its startling originality, The Plains is also a very funny book. In the early pages especially, Murnane maps our national anxieties – the paranoia about who we are and what we might be, the idea that culture is always somehow elsewhere – with a withering sense of humour. Where explorers like Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (quoted in the epigraph) saw this continent’s inland as a blank slate, The Plains dares us to see it otherwise. Yes, the interior, that vast, empty space we coast dwellers habitually turn our backs on, is forbidding but it is by no means bereft. While we’ve been gazing across the ocean something peculiar has been going on behind our backs. The imaginative leap of The Plains is to reverse the comfortable order of the idea of culture being ‘over there’ and to see instead Australia’s interior as a richly storied other world. The people who dwell out on the plains are not cringing hicks. They’re experimentalists. They’re cutting edge. They’re everything we coast dwellers are not.
In the dialogue of the landowners, in the narrator’s musings in the pub and then as he wanders the vast library of his patron, in the way he watches his patron’s daughter and wife (‘still beautiful according to the conventions of the plains’) moving among the estate’s gardens and lawns, we see a world shimmering with speculation and wonder. The plains’ history is so rich and its arts and sciences so sophisticated they challenge anything old Europe has to offer and the plainsmen themselves – deep-thinking, serious and culturally alert – ‘confront even the most obdurate or the most ingenuous work utterly receptive and willing’. No, this is not the inland of lonely truck stops and whistling wires and fat guys fishing the last potato cake out of the bain-marie. Out on Murnane’s plains you get everything: the great perplexity of human existence, the itch of human flesh, the tug on the heart, the dreamy imagining of togetherness, the comedy of trying. Here is the narrator planning his courtship of his patron’s wife:
As soon as I had finished my preliminary notes for The Interior, and before I began work on the film script itself, I would write a short work – probably a collection of essays – which would settle things between the woman and myself. I would have it published privately under one of the seldom-used imprints that my patron reserves for his clients’ work-in-progress or marginalia. And I would so arrange the ostensible subject-matter of the work that the librarians here would insert a copy among the shelves where she spends her afternoons.
I foresaw this much of my scheme happening as I had planned it. The only uncertain item was the last – I had no way of ensuring that the woman would open my book during her lifetime…
This is the first paragraph of a letter I wrote to Gerald Murnane in 2002:
Dear Gerald, This is a letter I have been meaning to write for a very long time. I first read The Plains in 1985 and it had a profound effect on me. At the time I was a 27-year-old writer wondering if there was any new Australian literature I was ever going to like, let alone get inspiration from. Your book gave me great faith in continuing to pursue the writing I had been doing – writing, it’s true, that never looked like getting published but was nonetheless, I think, true to itself and its creator…
I was at the time a 44-year-old writer about to have his first book published. We are, all of us, at some point, I think, looking for some line of steerage, something to set our course by, some little marker buoy out there somewhere that tells us we’re not completely lost. This is what The Plains was for me. This tiny little book, written in my city by a person 20 years my senior, living in a suburb just a stone’s throw away, somehow made everything right. By that time I’d read and loved Hamsun, Walser, Kafka, Gombrowicz, Beckett and others but there was no one in Australia who spoke to me in the same way.
The Plains became for me an iconic book, a black diamond, a Rosetta Stone. It was about the feat of imagination – how many Australian books dared go where this one went? – but it was also about the marks on the paper. Few living writers anywhere are as ambitious with the prose form as Gerald Murnane. He fills his works with sentences so boldly constructed and so beautifully finished that any writer serious about their craft would be well advised to spend some time with them: the subtle unreeling of the narrative, the phrases creeping one by one towards a distantly observed idea, the hand-on-mouth humour, the firm and steady gaze. You might not know where Murnane is taking you, but you can’t help being taken.
The countless volumes of this library are close-set with so much speculative prose, so many chapters after chapters appear in parentheses, such glosses and footnotes surround the thin trickles of actual text that I fear to discover in some unexceptional essay by a plainsman of no great reputation a tentative paragraph describing a man not unlike myself speculating endlessly about the plains but never setting foot on them…
Gerald and I have continued to exchange letters over the years. We have still never met. It is, in the old sense, a prosaic relationship. Late last year in place of a letter he sent me a photo of a straight road cutting a line through the Wimmera plains towards Mount Arapiles in the distance. His note to me was written on the back. He was, he said, ‘in excellent health and spirits’, had a new work on the go and would soon have his tenth book published. I looked at that photo for a long time – the straight road, the low horizon, the big blue sky – and saw in it a story that had now come full circle. Gerald Murnane, author of The Plains, was writing to me from them. What then is this thing we might call an alternative Australian literature and what would it look like? The last word might come from one of the earliest passages in The Plains. Compelled one day in the pub to tell the plainsmen his own story before they will let him listen to theirs, the narrator says: ‘I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood.’
I invite all plainsmen and women to read, laugh at, enjoy and be inspired by this extraordinary book.