Reading his self-appraisals in “Last Letter to a Reader” resembles a kind of overhearing, as when we listen to a figure on a stage reveal some contrary stance or enigmatic conviction. For a book meant to represent “a neat rounding-off” to his career, these are at times almost hermetically private documents. The reader can feel intrusive, as if invading private territory. But to follow Murnane into his own conflicted understanding of composition is a serious pleasure. “I was in my 40s before I learned that a certain sort of author may be able to write a work of fiction the meaning of which he himself cannot explicate,” he writes in his report on “Inland” (1988). Here, then, is the primary draw of the book: to read a writer who has thought deeply about his fiction try to decipher its meaning alongside its mechanics.

Murnane writes with scrupulous lucidity, though there is a chimeric quality to these 15 reports. “I decline to speculate about abstractions such as emotion or reason or memory,” he writes in the section on “Landscape With Landscape” (1985), neatly cauterizing many of the primary sources of fiction. His fastidious tics can be maddening, like the constant taxonomizing of his favorite sentences. (“That single sentence,” he writes in one report, “can be analyzed into 21 separate clauses: a main clause, of course, together with 10 adverbial clauses, five adjectival clauses and five noun clauses.”) Perhaps his most meaningful disclosure is that of the “pattern” — a word that appears several times in the book’s 140 pages — which might be described as Murnane’s ultimate formalist project, one fueled by the powerfully visual component of his writing.

“If my sort of writing is a sort of mapping of mind, then my atlas should depict nothing more stable than images and feelings,” he writes. This may sound like a traditional literary model — after all, what novel doesn’t make use of mental pictures? — but in fact Murnane’s fictions offer an intricate rebuke to the realist project. Whereas the realist novel uses imagery as an expedient way to capture the texture of life, Murnane’s brand of late modernism inverts the formula. The haunting image is often skimmed from a prosaic surface; indeed, its mysterious formation — by way of suburban memory or pastoral fantasy — is usually the very story itself. Writing, then, is indistinguishable from that great inward migration required by image-finding, the revelatory process by which Murnane locates “the detail that winks.” It is a beautiful and persuasive conception of fiction: patterns of meaning, painstakingly visualized but not decoded.

Murnane can be cantankerous and is often something of a pedant. (About his impeccably grammatical sentences, he’s nothing short of a peacock; in “Last Letter” he calls out Thomas Pynchon and Laszlo Krasznahorkai as writers who “do nothing more skillful than the stringing together of loosely linked phrases.”) His impressive inventory of personal eccentricities sometimes feels like a shield — or perhaps a life raft. He’s never worn sunglasses. He has no sense of smell. He has never flown in an airplane. He hates the sea. When speaking of his fictions, he doesn’t refer to characters, but rather “personages.” This studied persona — part Luddite, part aesthete, part schoolmarm — imprints itself as an odd, vigorous and ultimately winning presence in the reading mind.