A ‘found novel’ con­structed out of emails, conversations, ra­dio shows and ads over­loads the reader

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - Stuart Kelly

In his “hum­ble re­mon­strance” to Henry James, Robert Louis Steven­son set out his aes­thetic agenda. “Life is mon­strous, in­fi­nite, il­log­i­cal, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in com­par­i­son, is neat, fi­nite, self-con­tained, ra­tio­nal, flow­ing and emas­cu­late. Life im­poses by brute en­ergy, like inar­tic­u­late thun­der; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of ex­pe­ri­ence, like an air ar­ti­fi­cially made by a dis­creet mu­si­cian.” That quote buzzed in my head as I was read­ing this re­mark­able, if not al­ways en­joy­able, “found novel” by the prize-win­ning New Zealand au­thor Cather­ine Chidgey.

The book com­prises var­i­ous glimpses and snip­pets, over­heard or recorded each day, of vary­ing length, from apho­rism to whole chap­ter: conversations, sat­nav in­struc­tions, aca­demic ap­praisals, pop-up ads, spam emails, Chidgey’s ex­changes with her pub­lisher, and most of all her in­ter­ac­tions with her mother, who has started to de­velop de­men­tia. The book’s hid­den but difficult ques­tion con­cerns the sur­ro­gacy of the au­thor’s child, a sub­ject that be­comes in­creas­ingly rel­e­vant in Chidgey’s re­la­tion­ship to the sur­ro­gate mother and to her own mother. So this is also a found novel in that it is vaguely pla­gia­rised from re­al­ity.

“The most com­mon piece of graf­fiti is ‘I was here’, isn’t it. And I think that is what cre­ative writ­ing is too – if we could stay off our phones in class please?”, she writes, as a kind of metaphor for the whole book. It is also a re­place­ment di­ary, in that each sec­tion is given by Cather­ine Chidgey, Light­ning, £12.99 over to one day of the year (with one ex­cep­tion: 7 March is a blank space, which might mean ev­ery­thing or noth­ing). There are some days, how­ever, when it feels as though Chidgey couldn’t be both­ered with her own project.

This kind of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion has prece­dents: the penul­ti­mate chap­ter of Joyce’s Ulysses, with those in­ter­minable de­scrip­tions of Dublin wa­ter­works; or Félix Fénéon’s par­ody news­pa­per sto­ries, Nov­els in Three Lines. If Joyce rep­re­sents the in­tru­sion of the real and Fénéon how eas­ily we can make “fake news”, then Chidgey oc­cu­pies an un­easy ground in be­tween. The stylis­tic prob­lem is a sense of not know­ing why one is be­ing told all this. “It’s cold in here. I might have to close the win­dow. I just opened it a minute ago. Say hi Nana. Yes, I’ve got my rings on. Yes. How are you all? Fraz­zled. You’re not fraz­zling Mummy and Daddy are you? I’ve got to do some­thing with that top that He­len sent me.”

There is a good book in here, and I rather wish Chidgey had writ­ten it in­stead of pub­lish­ing some kind of “notes to­wards a novel”. There is a de­gree of bad faith in the ex­tent to which she tries to ward off her crit­ics by get­ting her re­but­tal in first. At one point a voice says: “I feel sick when I think about re­views, and I keep com­pos­ing neg­a­tive re­views in my head.” At an­other, we find: “It’s not re­ally a story. Do you think you can get away with the lack of it?” Or this in­dul­gence: “I gave a chunk of it to my pub­lisher to read and he didn’t say this is a big chaotic mess. He thinks it’s cut­ting edge. I think if it’s pub­lished it won’t have ter­ri­bly wide ap­peal … You want to be avant garde but not very.” Nor did I care to read cre­ative writ­ing lec­tures or her mem­o­ries of them: since the book shim­mers be­tween voices, you can’t tell if she is teach­ing her own class or sit­ting in with a fel­low lec­turer.

There is an im­por­tant eth­i­cal di­men­sion that the book tries to ad­dress, and flinches from each time. We are told re­peat­edly when some­one is be­ing recorded; we are not told when some­one is merely over­heard. In one sec­tion the dig­nity of a square bracket is given when the con­ver­sa­tion is remembered rather than recorded. The de­scrip­tions of her mother’s ill­ness are han­dled with both grace and a sense of pre-emp­tive com­mem­o­ra­tion. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween grand­mother and grand­child, one fog­ging in mem­ory, one com­ing into mem­ory, is done with ad­mirable and touch­ing truth – note: truth; not fic­tion. As for the rest, it’s been said that other peo­ple’s dreams are bor­ing. So, it would seem, are their days. Chidgey’s book fea­tures sat­navs, street signs and spam emails

Stuart Kelly’s The Min­is­ter and the Mur­derer is pub­lished by Granta. To buy The Beat of the Pen­du­lum for £11.43, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

The Beat of the Pen­du­lum

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