Zadie Smith’s essay, “Man vs. Corpse,” in the New York Review of Books asks us to
Imagine being a corpse. Not the experience of being a corpse—clearly being a corpse is the end of all experience. I mean: imagine this drawing represents an absolute certainty about you, namely, that you will one day be a corpse. Perhaps this is very easy. You are a brutal rationalist, harboring no illusions about the nature of existence. I am, a friend once explained, a “sentimental humanist.” Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse, even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor.
“Corpsed” letters may be characterized by a certain kind of desperation that contradicts itself in the act of speech (or writing); by writing, narrators acknowledge the necessity of communication and the inscrutable feeling that s/he has failed in that act of communication. That failure signals the desperation, and so on. How to figure/perform a “corpsed” perspective, outside of reality? Gerald Murnane’s Inland makes a kind of utopia out of death, but not a death as the absence of life. Death as the space wherein all people are irrevocably connected. Death and loss as, perhaps, the only thing that can be shared between us without the mediation of language, with fiction paradoxically as the sole vehicle.
Another fiction by Murnane, Barley Patch (which I hope to get to soon), opens with a question: “Must I write?” In some ways, Inland is an answer to this question but, as Inland’s narrator continually (or compulsively) asserts, “from one or the other side of me.” For Inland’s narrator, the dissemination of the fantasy of individuality makes way for the reality of absence, that “there is another world but it is in this one.” Because
[he] learned that no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things. I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be (48).
It’s difficult to synopsize this book because the book is more than one thing. Szolnok is Transdanubia which is The Institute for Prairie Studies just like the Moonee Ponds is Ideal, South Dakota. Is it also fiction? For this reason, it cannot offer us a linear plot, or any structure that allow us to pigeonhole it into place. There is an atlas of place(s), and the difference in perspective of the space between the Moonee Ponds and Merri and Ideal, South Dakota is a matter of angle (“one or the other side of me”). So if the narrator does not “go” anywhere except for the words he has written on these pages (which are also clouds), which have passed through him like the unscented air from Ideal, South Dakota (which makes him believe everyone is dead and alive), Inland is already dead when we begin the text. It is its own circuit of relations. It acknowledges that the reader is nebulous, a fiction in itself that signals the desire to write.
These words rest lightly on my page, but this heaviness pressing on me is perhaps the weight of all the words I have still not written. And the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write.
Or the heaviness pressing on me could be the weight of all the days I have still not lived. My heaviness will urge me in a little while to get up from this table and to walk to the windows; but the same heaviness will urge me afterwards to sit down again at this table (1).
In the beginning of this world, we are already translated. The system of this book depends on the foreclosure of access to any notion of truth or meaning. Everything happens inland of and from Fiction (simultaneously outside and inside, for when Transdanubia becomes the streams in the American midwest, when it has attempted to go to the coast, it also returns to another interiority). Fiction is an atlas of memory, of physical places conjured up by the mind’s creation of the physical. Words are vehicles, clouds, and breaths. The narrator’s Magyar is his South Dakotan editor’s English (as well as the reader’s). Origins are to be discarded, since one thing is at least two things.
Inland‘s narrator aims, if he has any aim at all, to do the impossible in first-person narratives: craft a universally mutable and relational “I.” In the quote above, Murnane’s narrator switches to the second-person and addresses the “reader” with physical characters he describes of himself earlier in the book. The reader in Inland is also the writer, and as much of a character as the narrator’s imaginings of dreaming imaginations. Murnane teases us by employing mystery in two functions. 1) A “conventional” usage that, by regularly pulling the $100 bill on his fishing line, deepens our addiction to resolution, and 2) making the reader the writer and the writer the narrator and vice versa. The more the reader wants to resolve the mystery in Inland’s system, the more the writer-reader gets lost. Writer and Reader become Sisyphus. The mind is the boulder. Perhaps words are that hill.
I am far from having forgotten you, reader. You would be surprised if you knew how close you seem to me just now.
Reader, I may be far from the man you think I am. But who, in any case, do you think I am? I am a man, as you know: but ask yourself, reader, what you consider a man to be.
You can dream easily enough of the body of a man sitting at this table where all these pages have been strewn. The body is not yet old, but certainly it is no longer young, and the belly on the body protrudes a little, and the hair on the head of the body is turning grey at the edges. You can dream of yourself seeing that body, and I was going to write that you can dream of the words that the hand of the body writes on the pages in front of the belly of that body, but of course you do not have to dream, since you are reading this page at this moment.
Do you suppose then, reader, having dreamed and read, that you have learned what I am?
Let me tell you, reader, what I consider you to be.
Your body — whether or not the belly of it protrudes or the hair on the head of it is turning grey, and whether the hand in front of the belly is writing or at rest or busy at something else — your body is the least part of you. Your body is a sign of you, perhaps: a sign marking the place where the true part of you begins.
The true part of you is far too far-reaching and much too many-layered for you or me, reader, to read about or to write about. A map of the true part of you, reader, would show every place where you have been from your birthplace to the place where you sit now reading this page (63).
“The only signs I am sure of are signs in words. In the cemetery after the birds had drifted past, I looked for the nearest words” (168). The inland of fiction offers the illusion of creation. But making up those signs that lead both writer and reader through the pages that are also drifting clouds, through lives that drift on those clouds through the air that the narrator cannot smell but certainly breathes, is only a crutch. Those words do not belong only to the narrator; they are borrowed. They also belong to the reader (to Gunnarsen, to his childhood). Was the narrator only real when he is deceived into reality? Are we all doing that?
I am not sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you. I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me. You allowed me to believe for a long time that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor. Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend. Now, you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other (27).
Siri Hustvedt has a fantastic essay in the new issue of Harper’s titled “I Wept For Four Years And When I Stopped I Was Blind.” She writes about, among other things, the disappearance and reappearance of hysteria, but from “one or the other side of [psychoanalysis],” where ” [in] neuroscientific brain-imaging research (mostly MRI and PET scans), the implicit spatial metaphor that appears again and again is of two horizontal planes hanging in empty space: neural brain functions occupy the lower plane, and hovering about them are psychic or mind functions. Between them is a theoretical no-man’s land.” I think Murnane has written what Smith cannot write, because the former is not a “sentimental humanist.” Smith states that she is always drawn back to the “vigor” of the male figure holding the corpse. But if Murnane’s ontology begins with the body and proceeds forward by venturing into the mind-brain which is, Hustvedt reminds us, “an organ of the body,” Murnane’s primary literary project is to try to write Hustvedt’s “theoretical no-man’s land,” to try and grasp the infinite angles that proliferate other sides and thus angles. He has tried to write as a corpse of other corpses. What’s staged here is the physical sedation whilst reading, and the all-inclusive utopia of pages drifting into and through us. When we read, we are corpsed. When we’re corpsed, we don’t have to assert that “I” am here, and “you” are there. When we’re corpsed, we share all experiences identically, because we are “dead.”