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