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