A few years ago Murnane had a moment, after being tipped for the Nobel in a splashy New York Times profile, and being a sucker for that kind of fuss, I bought loads of his stuff and got in deep. I don’t think he’d mind me saying it’s very hard work. And if you like that game, the whole Beckett-Bernhard-Knausgaard obsessive lone male routine, then he’ll be your cup of tea. I do, and he is. But a lot of it leaves you flailing and gasping for a drop of liquid on your tongue to leaven the punishment.
This one is an exception. It uses the relentless monotony of the style and voice to push towards an extraordinary moment of emotional release, one that also illuminates something essential and unexpectedly moving at the root of Murnane’s very weird style. (Pro tip: this story works much better if you read it aloud to yourself. I do, more often than I should admit, and I’m available for the audiobook, if anyone’s interested. In fact, it’s my very dear ambition to learn the whole thing off by heart as a party piece, and I’m not even joking; though if that backfires, you might well find me huddled in the corner of the pub in twenty years, giggling to myself and muttering “The chief character of the story was a man who was referred to throughout the story as the chief character of the story.” I suppose there are worse ways to go.)
First published in the journal World Literature Today, Summer 1993 and available via JSTOR here. Collected in Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020