This gathering offers some of the Australian author’s familiar themes and writing that is eccentric, thought-provoking, and maddening.
Despite the “Short Fiction” in the title, one of the pieces runs 106 pages, and two are also included in a 2005 collection of the author’s essays. Then again, Murnane (The Plains, 2017, etc.) often blurs fact and fiction. Among the collection’s almost conventional stories, “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” has hints of pedophilia and sadism as a teacher reckons with an aborted school project. “The Only Adam” describes a howling and mating ritual among eighth-graders. The title story/essay contains many of the essential Murnanesque elements. The image of two adjacent bodies of water in Melbourne sends the narrator riffing on mustaches, places, and family in an exercise similar to the “chain of thoughts” approach in Border Districts. Such rumination, along with autobiographical details, a love of books, an obsessive geographical precision, and a seeming deafness to word echoes, will characterize most of the remaining fiction: “As a child I could never be contented in a place unless I knew the names of the places surrounding that place.” The Tao of Murnane is sometimes amusing, as in “The Interior of Gaaldine,” in which a writer attending a literary event in Tasmania is asked for his thoughts on a 2,000-page manuscript that contains “a detailed chronicle of horse-racing” in an imaginary island nation. It can also be tiresome, with a style that sounds like a government report written by a bureaucrat with mild Asperger’s. The forced flatness is starkly evident when Murnane now and then slips in something like: “the saturnine men sipping their murky plum liqueurs while sunset reddened the Carpathian peaks above them.”
There are undoubtedly serious intentions here, and certainly some metafictional fun, but the style is too often dreary, the point elusive, the effect irksome and disappointing.