Though his books are deftly crafted, he’s not very interested in plot. Instead he wants to show the world as it seems (“seems” is a very Murnane word); how our minds and memories mediate it... Border Districts... presents itself not as a novel but as a “report” written by an old man after he has moved from the capital of the district to a small town in the interior “so that I could spend most of my time alone and so that I could live according to several rules that I have long wanted to live by”. Mainly this involves trying to excavate and interpret the “mental scenes” and “thought images” that make up the narrator’s memories. He is a bit like Beckett’s Krapp, or Borges’s Funes, but actually it sounds as if the bones of the story are pretty autobiographical... In the end his books aren’t really about the characters they describe, but about the mind behind those characters: the singular, fascinating consciousness that gives them life.
...it’s a meanderingly precise, lugubriously comic and at times transcendent rendering of the workings of thought. Seemingly inconsequential but apparently formative memories and sense-impressions — some involving horseracing, of course, and Catholicism, and lots more coloured glass — are tracked to their source weeks or sometimes decades before. As the novel progresses, these chains of thought become more abstruse, more contorted and more self-referential, threatening at last to eat their own tail.
As its title suggests, Border Districts belongs on this map’s fringes, and as such isn’t for beginners. The interconnection between Murnane’s works can make reading him an addictive experience, because the more you read, the more puzzle pieces you acquire. Border Districts can stand alone, but it benefits from some knowledge of the body of work it is, apparently, concluding. Better to start with Tamarisk Row, and proceed chronologically... Murnane’s books are expeditions that encompass a territory unlike any other.
Murnane’s book... aren’t about anything in the way that most fiction is about events and action among characters whose motivations interest the reader. Rather, the few thousand pages that Murnane has produced since his 1975 debut, “Tamarisk Row,” are a record of what he has seen when he tried to look at the place that is his own mind, and the effort of a lifetime that it has been for him to explore the inner reaches of this place through writing about it...While I read “Border Districts,” I saw in my mind an image of a sentence in Tarjei Vesaas’ novel “The Birds,” which tells of Mattis, a purehearted naïf, and his relationship with his sister, Hege. At one point, feeling that Hege is speaking to him as if he were a lesser person, Mattis demands something remarkable of his sister: “Talk to me like you talk to other people.” Since I first read Mattis’s injunction, I’ve considered it a demand that should be made of every writer: Develop a voice so clear, so unaffected, that it’s a voice for everyone, unencumbered by the intrusions of any foreign or adopted artfulness. The image of this demand stayed before my eyes as I read because Murnane’s is one of the clearest examples of such a voice I’ve ever encountered.