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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Barley Patch

Gerald Murnane

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To purchase Barley Patch

Title: Barley Patch
Author: Gerald Murnane
Genre: Fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 255 pages
Availability: Barley Patch - US
Barley Patch - UK
Barley Patch - Canada
Barley Patch - India

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Our Assessment:

A+ : fascinating meditation on fiction, reading, and writing, beautifully executed

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 24/10/2009 Geordie Williamson
The Harvard Crimson . 4/10/2011 Sarah L. Hopkinson
The Monthly C 10/2009 Louis Nowra
The National . 28/10/2011 Matthew Jakubowski
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/12/2012 J.M.Coetzee
Svenska Dagbladet . 5/5/2012 Fabian Kastner

  From the Reviews:
  • "The result, which falls somewhere between philosophical essay and prose-poem, and which forms a sort of symbolic mirror or key to the autobiographical fictions Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, is the kind of uncategorisable document that can be compared only with similar hybrids" - Geordie Williamson, The Australian

  • "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." - Sarah L. Hopkinson, The Harvard Crimson

  • "His once taut prose style limps, and the eccentric use of the hyphen to join words (men-passengers, ghost-character, girl-writer, image-buttocks) is frequently irritating. He used to be able to burnish the commonplace but now the details seem repetitious and overly familiar. Itís a pale imitation of his earlier work. The book wilts long before the end like an exhausted athlete hoping just to finish the race." - Louis Nowra, The Monthly

  • "The trouble is that the book's style and substance are clinical and vague, respectively. Clear ideas and sentences do appear every so often and things pick up very well in the book's second part. But the gems are hidden under layers of muddied prose, without organised chapters, and reads too often like the literary fine print of a lawyer honour-bound to write only Proustian rigmarole (.....) Though Barley Patch is stodgy and forms a punctilious chronicle, it does make a serious advance in fiction's ability to offer a metaphorical tour through the "palace" which Murnane directly alludes to late in the book." - Matthew Jakubowski, The National

  • "Grasping just how the other world relates to this one is the main obstacle to understanding what Murnane is doing, or believes himself to be doing, in his fiction. (...) (W)hile there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of. If there is some central, originary shaping force behind the fictions of the mind, it can barely be called a force: its essence seems to be a watchful passivity." - J.M.Coetzee, The New York Review of Books

  • "Det vore elakt att jämföra med grannens semesterbilder, men problemet är detsamma: bilderna är alltför privata för att engagera någon som inte delat upplevelsen. Murnane är medveten om problemet, och det är resonerandet kring det som trots allt gör boken läsvärd, ja riktigt akut intressant. Murnane drar in läsaren i sin egen skaparkris, får oss att ifrågasätta värdet av att läsa böcker överhuvudtaget, precis som han själv ifrågasätter värdet av att skriva dem." - Fabian Kastner, Svenska Dagbladet

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Barley Patch would seem, at first glance, to be a work of non-fiction, Murnane beginning by throwing out the question: "Must I write ? and then expounding on why, in 1991, after thirty years of writing fiction, he gave up doing so. Yet throughout he explicitly refers to this work -- to Barley Patch -- as a work of fiction, and he makes sure readers remember that:

     I should remind the reader that every sentence hereabouts is part of a work of fiction.
       He admits, too, that: "This is necessarily a complex piece of fiction". Certainly, it is not a 'novel' or 'story' in what might be considered the traditional sense -- but then Murnane also notes very early on that while his publishers have presented his works as (and readers have generally considered them to be): "either novels or short stories", this:
began in time to make me feel uncomfortable, and I took to using only the word fiction as the name for what I wrote.
       (The message apparently only got so far: the Dalkey Archive Press edition of this book (2011) still insists on labeling it: "A NOVEL" -- albeit only in small print on the back cover, next to the price.)
       Murnane insistence on his writing -- and specifically this piece of writing -- being considered and called 'fiction' is central to his thesis and project. True, his insistence that this, in particular, is fiction is certainly counterintuitive: the narrative seems to consist mainly of autobiographical material and commentary, and the natural instinct is to read Barley Patch as memoir, and as a gloss on his earlier fiction. To do so, however, would be a mistake -- and not just because of his repeated reminders that he considers this work 'fiction'.
       In fact, Barley Patch tries to get at the very root of what 'fiction' is, and does so by focusing first on reading and then on writing. Significantly, for Murnane reading and writing are not two different sides of it -- reading is not merely passive consumption, and writing active creation -- but rather both central and inextricably connected.
       Barley Patch does chronicle Murnane's transition from being (mainly) a reader to being (mainly) a writer (and, eventually, supposedly a non-writer), and early on in the book he describes his varied childhood reading experiences. Even before this, however, he warns readers that he has long avoided words like imagination, admitting:
Long before I stopped writing, I had come to understand that I had never created any character or imagined any plot. My preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination.
       Yet he shows himself to be a very creative person, both as reader and writer. However, his way of reading (and, clearly, writing) is not textbook (or classroom): as he notes, for example, he finds descriptive passages do not serve the purpose they seem to be designed for -- indeed, he has little use for them (or at least not the use authors would seem to have in mind):
I can recall my having discovered as early as in 1952, while I was reading Little Women, by Louisa M. Alcott, that the female characters-in-my-mind, so to call them, were completely different in appearance from the characters-in-the-text, so to call them.
       Similarly, he describes reading The Glass Spear by Sidney Hobson Courtier and admits that, in getting carried away by one of the characters, "I often disregarded the facts of the novel, so to call them". Clearly, Murnane is wrong to say he has no imagination (in the traditional sense) -- he (re)imagines characters' appearance or even changes the plots despite what amounts to written instructions to the contrary, which suggests quite a vivid imagination -- but this, too, is central to his understanding of fiction and writing.
       Murnane comes to the conclusion that:
Any personage referred to in my fiction has its existence only in my mind and finds its way into my fiction only so that I might learn why it occupies in my mind the position that it occupies there.
       Such personages include his self; soon later, he recounts another part of his life from a different vantage point, his alter ego here the "chief character", and Murnane acknowledging that:
     Very early in his life, the chief character became accustomed to thinking of his mind as a place. It was, of course, not a single place but a place containing other places: a far-reaching and varied landscape.
       It is what might more commonly be referred to as imagination, but Murnane carefully avoids considering it that -- indeed, he deliberately refuses to do so. Yet his 'chief character' -- i.e. he -- both immerses himself in it and feels comfortable manipulating it:
     He was no mere observer of mental scenery. He was not long in learning that he could alter certain details and have them stay as he preferred them to be.
       So also it was with how he described reading: an author's words, describing with great specificity, nevertheless remain malleable: he can make of them what he will. (So too, by extension, all of reality .....) And so, for example, he suggests it can boil down to:
I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for thirty or more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction.
       Indeed, he seems to have withdrawn both into reading and into writing (and both activities are clearly presented as withdrawals -- excuses, in part, for not participating in many aspects of 'life') in order to get at what is in his mind, to make the connection between entirely interior, almost Berkeleyan idealism, and the world-at-large. So, too, the very existence of Barley Patch, a return to fiction after fourteen years of not writing it, answers what proves to be the entirely rhetorical question that it opens with: "Must I write ?" Yet 'writing', in its getting-into-his-own-mind sense that Murnane uses it also encompasses reading -- and surely, too, allows for silence.
       It is also worth noting that Murnane admits very early on that: "Some of what I had written had been published, but most of it had been stored as manuscripts or typescripts in my filing cabinets and will be there still when I die", suggesting he was far more prolific than is commonly thought (or that his published output suggests), and that he distinguishes between publishing -- writing-for-public-consumption -- and simply writing, and that he perhaps did not 'not write' for quite as long as that fourteen year span he claims. (The terms he uses -- 'manuscripts' and 'typescripts' -- also suggests works that have been completed, i.e. more than just notes and jottings.)
       His emphasis on published work is also of significance because of the effect it had on his relationships with family members, who saw his early works as betrayals. In Barley Patch he also presents a great deal of autobiographical material, and information about family members: clearly, however, Murnane sees this -- like everything -- as 'fiction' -- something very different from more traditional 'fictionalized accounts' (which, however, is how his family appears to have taken them).
       For Murnane there is a fundamental disconnect between the mind-world -- manifested in fiction, read and written -- and the 'real' world. Fiction -- writing and reading it -- is not about bridging that disconnect, but rather about exploring the mind-world. The real world is something else entirely.
       A cathartic moment of sorts comes when Murnane visits a dying uncle, and they studiously avoid any mention of Murnane's fiction (which had led the uncle to break completely with Murnane years earlier). Their conversation only lasts an hour but this:
might have been the first time for as long as I could remember when I had kept out of my mind all thoughts of books of fiction that I had written or of books of fiction that I hoped to write in future and perhaps, too, of books of fiction that other persons had written and that I had read.
I might have said afterwards that I had survived for an hour without fiction or that I had experienced life for a little the life I would have led if I had never had recourse to fiction.
       Yet, as the existence of Barley Patch, and of this passage in Barley Patch -- a reworking of experience as fiction -- demonstrate, Murnane can not escape fiction. Experience -- just 'living' (even at its most extreme, confronting death) -- is not sufficient; Murnane must address it via fiction.
       In Barley Patch Murnane tries to convey his mind-world, and what fiction means to him. It is a beautifully executed work: long sections appear autobiographical, but in their presentation are also building-blocks in the theoretical structure he is constructing here. Often he comments on what he has written, determined to remind readers that they are reading a constructed text ("I reported at the end of the fifth paragraph before the previous paragraph"), and he works fictions that he describes as unfinished or potential into this (finished, actual) one.
       In this book Murnane appears to follow closely the idea of writing-what-you-know, but that is deceptive: what he is after is not getting at description -- at conveying photographically or cinematically a scene for readers to vividly have in front of them -- but in conveying knowing. Hence also his emphasis on describing how his own reading of others' fiction often diverges from the texts themselves.
       One can only hope that this book is assigned in every creative writing class out there: here is a near-perfect example of what fiction can do, and what can be done with fiction. (Apparently, however, it must be read with care, or at least a certain open-mindedness; many of the reviewers seem to see and interpret it as essentially non-fiction, and that doesn't get you anywhere.)
       Simply brilliant.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 September 2012

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Barley Patch: Reviews: Gerald Murnane: Other books by Gerald Murnane under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Gerald Murnane was born in 1939.

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© 2012-2023 the complete review

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