Books

Ock­ham win­ner Catherine Chidgey lays her­self bare in her ex­per­i­men­tal new work.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By NI­CHOLAS REID

By Catherine Chidgey, Richard Flana­gan and Al­li­son Pear­son; about the songs and sounds of New Zealand’s Great War and the un­told story of its air­men, and life inside and out­side the cult com­mu­nity of Glo­ri­avale; and a fic­tion roundup

The ti­tle of Catherine Chidgey’s new book, her “found novel”, comes from Marcel Proust. Ap­par­ently Proust said nov­el­ists cheat by speed­ing up “the beat of the pen­du­lum” and dis­pose of months in a few sen­tences. Real life is lived mo­ment by mo­ment, day by day, in a steady ­pen­du­lum beat, not in a novelist’s gal­lop.

In 2016, from­Jan­uary 1 to ­De­cem­ber 31, Chidgey took daily notes on things she had heard. The text is di­vided into 12 months and each month is di­vided into the ap­pro­pri­ate number of days.

This is not a di­ary. Chidgey pro­vides no de­scrip­tions, no con­tex­tu­al­i­sa­tion and no ­at­tri­bu­tions of who is say­ing what to whom. In­stead, we are pre­sented with noth­ing but con­ver­sa­tions, emails, tele­vi­sion sound bites, chat­ter from so­cial me­dia, ­ad­ver­tise­ments, sat­nav in­struc­tions, bits of lec­tures from Chidgey’s writ­ing class and more con­ver­sa­tions. It’s up to us to work out who is speak­ing and in what cir­cum­stances.

It took me most of the first 100 pages of this 494-page text to un­der­stand that I was in or near Chidgey’s house­hold in Ngāru­awāhia. Much of the ­con­ver­sa­tion is be­tween Catherine, her part­ner

Alan, their in­fant daugh­ter Alice and ­Catherine’s mother Pat, who has moved out of her old house and into a ­nurs­ing home and is ap­par­ently in the early stages of de­men­tia.

Some­times her sis­ter’s fam­ily make an ap­pear­ance. Some­times there are ex­changes with fel­low writ­ers. There are things over­heard in shop­ping cen­tres.

We have eight solid pages of a ­sales­man’s pitch for a car­pet-sham­pooer. There are many anx­ious parental ex­changes about whether their child is reach­ing the right de­vel­op­men­tal stage for her age.

There are the sad bits (“I googled a lost love’s name and found an obit­u­ary”). There are the sur­real bits, such as the pseudo-mys­tic in­ter­net come-ons ­ex­hort­ing Chidgey to change her life. There are the dead funny bits: the au­thor’s an­noy­ance with her ­less-co-op­er­a­tive writ­ing-class stu­dents, for in­stance.

Chidgey is anx­ious about how her then-new novel ( The Wish Child ) will be re­ceived. She dreams about get­ting bad re­views. She wor­ries that she’s given away too much of her­self in an in­ter­view with the Lis­tener. She ­com­ments: “The knives will be out be­cause I’ve been silent for so long. Peo­ple will just be wait­ing for me to fall flat on my face.”

Of course, she needn’t have ­wor­ried. Most re­view­ers ­recog­nised The Wish Child for the great thing it is.

Much of this is sort of en­dear­ing, es­pe­cially the long, clos­ing sec­tion where she and Alan are work­ing out how to cel­e­brate New Year’s Eve. But there is a down side, with mo­ments when we be­come voyeurs. Con­sider the al­most com­plete tran­script of what Chidgey’s gy­nae­col­o­gist said when she went for a smear test.

Af­ter this, the au­thor re­marks, “I’m hav­ing ma­jor doubts about in­clud­ing that” – and then pro­ceeds to give even more in­ti­mate de­tails. By book’s end,

we cer­tainly know all about the au­thor’s in­fer­til­ity, long or­deal with at­tempted IVF and even­tual de­ci­sion to have a child by a sur­ro­gate mother (who is named and fre­quently men­tioned).

There is the ex­tremely self-con­scious as­pect, too. Some­body asks, “How’s your record­ing project go­ing? Your quot­ing – your snapshot-of-life project?” She replies that her pub­lisher thinks it’s “cut­ting edge”, and much later elab­o­rates, “Fer­gus [Bar­row­man] was com­par­ing me to ­in­ter­na­tional ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ers I’ve never heard of.”

But, she opines, “I think if it is ­pub­lished, it won’t have a ter­ri­bly wide ap­peal” and she con­sid­ers its prime ­au­di­ence will be “ladies who lunch”, who go to lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and read new books only be­cause they’re afraid of miss­ing “the next hot thing”.

And what about the eth­i­cal as­pect? It’s quite clear that Chidgey recorded many phone ­con­ver­sa­tions. Were these all recorded with the speak­ers’ knowl­edge? Prob­a­bly. ­The ­ac­knowl­edge­ments thank “ev­ery­one who let me record (and shape) their words”. But what lurks in those words “and shape”? How much has the au­thor al­tered, amended and abridged what was said? So we’re not ­get­ting raw, unedited real life af­ter all?

For­get Proust. Think of Arthur ­Rim­baud’s wise com­ment on au­tho­rial pres­ence: “Je est un autre – I is some­body else.”

Even if she as­pires to present her ­ev­ery­day re­al­ity, as soon as the au­thor puts her fin­gers to her word pro­ces­sor, she cre­ates a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity by ar­range­ment, omis­sion and “shap­ing”.

“I” is not I.

When I was about half­way through this book, I ex­plained the con­cept of it to a friend. “It sounds rather self-­in­dul­gent,” he said, and added such words as ­“nar­cis­sis­tic”. I doubt that he will be the last per­son to ap­ply such terms to The Beat of the Pen­du­lum. For my­self, I was sur­prised to find how much I be­came ab­sorbed in it; how much I en­joyed recog­nis­ing which voice was speak­ing; how it drew me in by its im­plicit chal­lenge to work out the cir­cum­stances of each ut­ter­ance; and how much I iden­ti­fied with peo­ple whose fam­ily cir­cum­stances are very dif­fer­ent from my own.

I got to like these peo­ple. But I am sure that it will drive many read­ers up the wall.

THE BEAT OF THE PEN­DU­LUM, by Catherine Chidgey (Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity Press, $35)

“Fer­gus [Bar­row­man] was com­par­ing me to in­ter­na­tional ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ers I’ve never heard of.”

Catherine Chidgey: there is an ex­tremely self­con­scious as­pect to The Beat of the Pen­du­lum.

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