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This passage is from The Children's Bach by Helen Garner

The sisters glanced at each other over Dexter’s head. Elizabeth laid one hand over her heart and raised the other in a gesture of tremendous romantic suffering. ‘Invoking nature!’ she mouthed. But Vicki would not laugh. She stood in the middle of the room, not knowing what to do with her hands, and looked uncertainly at Dexter. Her face was blurred. She’s drunk, thought Elizabeth. And so am I. She lowered her arm and set five places on the cloth. Dexter was sitting quite still between the children, looking down at the curl of steam that rose from the round hole in the pizza box. He was listening to the music.

Elizabeth lifted the lid off the pizza. Everyone sat forward. They ate in their fingers. If there is a spectre at this feast, thought Elizabeth, I’m it. She saw that though she had been able to bring a momentary order to this room, putting things in piles and clearing a space for action, she had not cleaned it, or made it into what they were all waiting for. Its surfaces were dull with the absence of meaning. The house itself was waiting.

The meaning of the sentence in bold is unclear to me. Can we interpret it like this:

As everything in this house was meaningless, for example their actions, their talks and ... the surfaces of the room seems dull and dismal?

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  • Every sentence that appears in every book does not necessarily have a sharp and clear meaning. Some passages are written off the top of an author's head, so to speak. Imprecise, vaguely emotive, they pass on their fuzzy meanings for readers to interpret in their own way, just as Viser Hashemi has here. Jul 31 at 14:35
  • I would read it as everything was dusty and unpolished (because she's just talked about having not cleaned it), so surfaces are literally dull, but also metaphorically dull because nobody is using it properly by living in it and looking after it in the way it should be. Jul 31 at 22:52
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As has been previously noted on this tag, this particular author frequently uses unique phrases which have no set meaning in English. This means that it is pretty much up to the reader to take what they can from it. Often these phrasings seem to be as much about lending something to the mood of the passage rather than delivering essential information.

What I take from this phrase is a combination of a sense of ennui which wraps Elizabeth (but not the others at the table), coupled with a lack of care for what happens next. If the other people and the future meant more to her, she might have polished more.

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