Friday 30 October 2020


 >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 


The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey    {Reviewed by THOMAS}

      What are you looking at?
       Nothing. I’m not looking at anything.
       Up there in the corner? 
       No, I’m concentrating. Trying to.
       What on?
       I’m writing a review of this book by Catherine Chidgey book.
       You’re writing a review on a Wednesday? But your deadline's Friday. You've never written a review before Friday before. I like the cover.
       It’s by Fiona Pardington. The photograph.
       What is it?
       A moth’s wing, or a butterfly’s. It’s probably some reference to Nabokov. He was a lepidopterist. I don’t know what reference, though. Nabokov not being a writer I particularly appreciate. 
       Why is it called The Beat of the Pendulum?
       That’s a reference to Proust. Something he wrote about writing novels. It’s in the epigraph. The writer as the manipulator of the reader’s experience of time. The writer as able to make the reader experience time as such, by speeding it up. Or by slowing it down, I suppose. Proust might be mistaken on this, though. 
       I am more interested in the differential of the reader’s and the characters’ experience of time. The writer’s inclusion or exclusion of detail controls the reader’s awareness and makes the book move at a varying pace, that’s what detail is for, really that is all it's for, slowing down, speeding up, leaping over swathes of time that would have been experienced by the characters, if they weren’t fictional, a kind of hypothetical time, so to call it, but inaccessible to the reader because those moments are one step deeper into fiction than the text reaches. 
       Sounds more like a concertina than a pendulum. 
       Yes. The book should be called The Squeeze of the Concertina. I’m not sure readers are necessarily aware, consciously, of the difference between text time and narrative time, notwithstanding Proust, though they might well be.
       What has this got to do with the book? It’s just a transcript of all the conversations the author overheard or that she was involved in. Is it even a novel? 
       Just? Have you read this book? 
       No. But [N.] read it. Or read some of it. Or a review. Or talked to someone who had read it.
       Or some of it. Or a review. 
       And said? 
       That it was self-indulgent. 
       I don’t agree with that. At least, it is less self-indulgent than most novels. I mean, what kind of person, other than a novelist, would be so presumptuous as to expect others to spend hours of their time witnessing their make-believe? 
       But people like doing that. 
       That’s beside the point.
       And the point is? 
       The point is that this book turns the tables on the author, subjects her to the very kinds of scrutiny that most novels are constructed to deflect, if I can damn all writers with one blow, or at least the kinds of writers that write the kind of make-believe that the ‘people’ you referred to earlier like to indulge in. 
       There are other kinds? 
       So in a way this novel is a kind of literary gutting inflicted upon the author by the rigours of the constraint she has chosen, Knausgaard without the interiority. 
       It’s like Knausgaard?
       No. It’s more a kind of extension of the Nouveau roman project outlined by Robbe-Grillet: a turning-away from the tired novelistic props of plot, character, meaning, a verbal ‘inner life’, inside-out, and all that.
       Robbe-Grillet wanted a novel made only of objects, surfaces, objective description. This book doesn’t have any of those.
       Hmm. Yes. This book has cast off all those. Perhaps it’s even more rigorous. There are only words, spoken by people about whom we know nothing but what the words tell us, or imply. We are immersed in language, it is our medium, or the medium of one strand of our awareness. Our sensory awareness and our verbal awareness are very different things.
       Are you giving a lecture here?
       I suppose this book, by removing both the referents for language and the matrix of interpretation, or context, the conceptual plinths that weigh down novels, is testing to what extent speech is any good at conveying anything by itself. 
       Conceptual plinths? 
       There aren’t any. The book reminds me, a little, of Nathalie Sarraute, The Planetarium perhaps, where the novel is comprised only of voices. In this book the reader does the same sort of work to ‘build’ the novel around the words.
       Is that fun?
       Fun? Well, actually, yes, this book is enjoyable to read. I thought I would read a bit, get the idea, and then take some pretty large running stitches through it, so to speak, but, even though nothing much happens in the way of plot, it is just an ordinary life, after all, the book is hugely enjoyable, and frequently very funny, you want to read every bit, because it so perfectly captures the way people say things, the way thought and language stutter on through time. The book is takes place entirely in the present moment, a present moment regulated by language. By the beat of the sentence. What is said is unimportant. Relatively unimportant.
       It doesn’t matter what happens?
       Why should anyone care about that? Apart from the characters, so to call them.
       She spent a year spying on people and writing down whatever they said, whether she was in the conversation, probably quite private conversations, or things she overheard people saying? How could she do that?
       How could she not do that? A novelist is always spying on other people, not to overhear what people say but how they say it, not to find out information but to find out how people approach or are affected by or transfer information.
       You don’t think a novelist is predatory of plot, then? Or scavenging for plot?
       You can’t hear or see plot. There’s no such thing, objectively. So I suppose you can’t steal one, only impose one. The realist novel, or the so-called realist novel, as a form, makes the most outrageous of its fantasies, its fallacies, in the area of plot. I think that’s unjustified.
       But people like plot.
       Yes, I suppose plot has little to do with objective reality.
       So to call it. Yes. In fact, coming back to what you said before about objectivity. Dialogue is the only objective form of writing. Description is prone to error, to the interposition of the viewer to the viewed, and no-one would pretend that interiority was anything but an unreliable guide to the actual…
       No-one as in not even you?
       …which is its richness, I suppose. But no-one would dispute the saying of what is said.
       No-one as in not even you?
       Verbatim is actuality, or, I mean, resembles actuality, at least structurally. Verbatim creates an indubitable immediacy for the reader, which is very seductive, and clocks time against speech.
       Why write conversation?
       Conversation is propulsion. It is rocket fuel for a stuck writer, for any writer. It gets the writer out of the way of the text and lets the characters take responsibility for its progression. Conversation gives at least the illusion of objectivity. Conversation draws the reader into the illusion of ‘real time’.
       Even if it’s not.
       No. Irrelevant, though.
       But this novel, The Beat of the Pendulum, purports to be a record of things actually said, in the real world.
       Yes, I believe it.
       How is that a novel?
       All novels are a kind of edited actuality, some more swingeingly edited than others. Otherwise they wouldn’t be believable.
       She’s edited this?
       Well, obviously there’s been some sort of selecting process going on, some choosing. A year’s worth of “I’m putting on some washing. Is there anything you want to add to the load”/”There are some socks on the floor in the bedroom, if you wouldn’t mind.” might get a bit tedious.
       But is not out of keeping with the project.
       Well, no. I suppose not. But then it wouldn’t be a novel. Literature is potentised by exclusion rather than by inclusion. What makes this book a novel is the rigour of its form. It is an experiment in form. A laboratory experiment, if you like.
       You said this book is funny. I don’t remember The Wish Child being funny, and her new book, Remote Sympathy, doesn't seem remotely funny. Where does the humour come from?
       Scientific rigour is indistinguishable from humour.
       The world is a relentless funfair?
       If you look at it dispassionately. And a relentless tragedy. There are some rather memorable and enjoyable passages, revelatory, even, you could say.
       Such as?
       There is a long passage, maybe a dozen pages, which just records the sales pitch of a sales assistant showing Catherine and her husband a carpet shampooing machine. The use, or misuse, of language is just so well observed, it’s hilarious and tragic. Likewise the patter used by Fiona Pardington when taking Chidgey’s portrait, or there’s the compound pretension and insecurity of the conversations in the creative writing classes Chidgey tutors, or the attempt to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to an inattentive child. Humour often comes from the simultaneous impact of multiple contexts upon language.
       I thought humour comes from noticing the world as it actually is. That’s why humour is often cruel.
       Or all the medical appointments, or the woman overheard in a waiting room talking about her jewellery. “I’m a silver person but my three daughters are gold people,” or something like that. Chidgey reveals the distortions, the structural flaws and inconsistent texture of the verbal topographies we wander through.
       Hark at him.
       And the way words act as hooks or burrs that accrete details to entities in ways sufficiently idiosyncratic to make them specific.
       So you get to know the characters in this book? Even though nobody’s named.
       No, not really. At least, not closely. Surprisingly, perhaps. But then an overdefined personality, or ‘character’ is a definite flaw that fiction, even—sometimes—good fiction, but certainly—always—bad fiction, is prone to fall into. What we call identity is really just a grab-bag or accretion of impressions and tendencies, and multiple voices, including incompatible impressions and contradictory tendencies and conflicting voices. We are much less ourselves than we pretend we are.
       Speak for yourself.
       Attachment to what we, for convenience, call persons, is something imposed upon actuality and is not something inherent in it. Chidgey’s book is not involving in the way we sometimes expect novels to be involving, there’s no story, or any of those other appurtenances, but there is both a fascination and a shared poignancy that comes with this cumulative evidence of the feeling that actual life is slipping away, with each beat of the pendulum, its loss measured out in words.
       Each squeeze of the concertina.
       The moments whose residue is on these pages will never return. The words both immortalise them and mark their evanescence. It’s both an anxiety and a release from anxiety.
       So our anxiety about our vulnerability magnifies our vulnerability?
       That’s a fairly accurate observation. That’s what we use words for.
       Ha. The book is arranged on a day-by-day basis through the year.
       You’re supposed to read only what’s on today’s date, then, for a year.
       Haha. That would be a bit religious. Yes, you could.
       That would be an experiment in reading.
       It’s been done.
       But not in a novel.
       I don’t know.
       What are you doing?
       I’m putting my computer away.
       You’re not going to write the review?
       All this talking has used up the time I was going to write it in.
       You can always write it on Friday. Deadline day.
       I suppose. I was hoping to at least make a start.
       Don’t say that.
       It’s ironic, isn’t it, our situation, two fictional characters engaged in a fictional conversation about an objective novel comprising only actual, ‘real-life’, material.
       What are you saying?
       We’re both fictional, authorial conceits if you like. Mind you, you are rather more fictional than I am. Someone might mistake me for an actual person.
       But you’re not?
       Not on the evidence of our conversation.

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