The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, 2017), $35
Three months into writing her novel, Catherine Chidgey gave a ‘chunk’ of it to her publisher to read:
… and he didn’t say this is a big chaotic mess. He thinks it’s cutting-edge. I think if it is published it won’t have terribly wide appeal, unless the ladies who lunch – who are the ones who go to book festivals and buy books and have book groups – unless they decide it’s the next hot thing, and they have to read it so they can also be cutting-edge.
This comment on the ordinary reader by the lady-who-writes, with its comical mixture of honesty, calculation and almost-disdain, highlights the question at the heart of her project. Can she get away with it, with the help of smoke, mirrors and fashion, or will the readers rebel?
Even if you avoid fashion and trends, it’s hard to escape the latest news: the novel is dead – again. It’s recently been noted in Britain that literary fiction is in crisis. Author Tim Lott, writing in the Guardian, said he wasn’t in the least surprised. In his view the problem is simple. Too many novelists have abandoned what readers want: a story. Plot is now to be found on TV, and the novel has collapsed in an orgy of authorial self-regard.
Man–Booker winner Richard Flanagan has confronted this issue in his new fiction First Person. The story includes a comic encounter with a young, hot, New York writer who declares the novel dead as a mode of narrative. Aged twenty-nine, with her third volume of memoirs in the New York Times bestseller list, she declares, ‘Autobiography. It’s what everyone writes now. Knausgaard, Lerner, Cusk, Carrere.’ She speaks of likes and followers, writes ‘literary selfies’ and ‘hates stories’. First Person, Flanagan has said, is a comment on the ‘cult of memoir’ and an answer to the notion of our ‘very solipsistic age’, that only autobiography can represent reality. This, he believes, is ‘a nonsense’.
If, loosely speaking, writers like Knausgaard are the vanguard and Flanagan is the reactionary, where does this put Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum? Is it cutting-edge, as her publisher says? In the age of the selfie, can you be even more selfie than the rest? The answer, it seems, is probably yes. Beyond being fashionably autobiographical, this almost 500-page book about herself is a selfie recording screeds of what you could call verbal ‘postings’; that is, conversations and musings aloud of people in Chidgey’s life: her friends, her sister, her partner, her mother and her extended family. When the text isn’t dialogue it’s a transcription of the things Chidgey has read and heard: snatches of conversation, extracts from the internet and TV, signs, advertisements. It is a record of words expressed rather than ideas thought; in this, it is entirely external.
The innovative element that places the book (or ‘found novel’ as it’s described) firmly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, is the fact that many of those who feature are apparently aware they’re participating in Chidgey’s project, and that they will be recorded in her book. This must subtly influence the communicators, many of whom express themselves in Twitter-tone, the affect of those who are aware their words are being read. You could say the whole exercise embodies the Hawthorne or observer effect in psychology: subjects will alter their behaviour in response to an awareness of being studied. One exception to this is Chidgey’s mother, whose dementia renders her touchingly guileless.
Twitter-tone can vary wildly of course (think of Donald Trump, ranging through eerie levels of madness), but in a casual context, between nice, educated Kiwi people, Twitter-tone is unmistakable: arch, coy, dry, ‘witty’, ‘clever’, polite, low-key and, above all, supremely self-conscious. It’s the age of personal fake news and the whole world’s watching. No one is quite real on Twitter and Facebook, on Snapchat and Instagram (only flattering photos please).
This then, is a close-up view of Catherine Chidgey’s private life, word for word, the minutiae, the nitty-gritty. It’s an account so ‘uncensored’ that we go with her to her cervical smear test and read the fabulous line, ‘Just parting your labia now.’ It is, we are led to believe, unvarnished reality. We are allowed to hear exchanges with her sweet, bewildered mother, her nice partner Alan, her witty friend Tracey, her relatives. We hear Chidgey refer to her struggle with infertility, the fascinating detail of her unusual family arrangements involving surrogacy and sperm donation. We hear her jokes, her wry, comical misanthropy, her warmth and kindness, her extraordinary patience with her mother.
Everything is thrown in together: snatches of conversation, excerpts from the internet, random Facebook spiels, interminable banter (the passages about the carpet shampooer are unbearably tedious, as are many of the anecdotes told by and about elderly relatives). The reader has to adjust to ploughing through streams of seemingly unedited material, and it’s soon apparent that the only sustaining thread is one of narrative. What makes it tolerable is that a picture of a ménage emerges, characters come to life, and relationships start to be clear. When the reader has to work this hard, there’s relief at the reward: don’t give up, there’s an engaging story in here after all. But why make it so hard?
And how real is it all, actually? Which of the participants self-censored because they knew that Chidgey was recording? What did Chidgey decide to edit out or include as she ‘shaped’ the conversations?
Here’s what we do know: there’s no sexual activity, and there are no arguments. No one yells or tells anyone to get fucked; everyone behaves well. There’s exasperation and tiredness; there are hints of dark or negative moments; there are doubts about the baby, the books, the work and the house. There’s the fact that it’s boring living in a small town outside Hamilton, possibly the dullest city in the world. The cats create problems, teaching is hard, childcare is exhausting.
This is what we glean, what we read and infer, and yet, since the work is made from random transcriptions and spoken words, it’s all exterior, and there’s the tantalising sense that so much more could – possibly – exist: thoughts, the unspoken. What about grief, jealousy, violent feeling, anger? If they do exist they’re not written down, because, remember, we’re on the record here, and no one is giving much away. The unusual facts in Chidgey’s life, that she and Alan had a baby using a surrogate, and that Alan was then the sperm donor for another woman’s child, are not explored in depth. Given the premise that this is a giant selfie, the lack of conflict, controversy and confession is notable.
If ‘plot’ and ‘stories’ are not fashionable any more, is strong emotion passé too? Not generally – think of the young Knausgaard, distressed by rejection and violently slashing his own face. And his recording of miseries, cruelty inflicted on him by his father, his own transgressions. Compared to Knausgaard’s, Chidgey’s life is either genuinely quiet, demure and well-behaved, or we’re getting only surface. The technique is bold, but the material is bland. The smear test is as raw as it gets. She regards even that as a daring inclusion, discussing with her friend whether she should record the words ‘parting your labia’. The friend bracingly encourages her: go for it, sister!
The life then is polite and sensible, even twee: creative writing classes, the baby, cats, antiques, Alan’s daguerreotypes, work, visiting the rest-home, discussions about gardens, renovating. It’s all external data, which renders Chidgey herself oddly and paradoxically absent. This is a life curated. We have no absolute certainty what’s bowdlerised or effectively ‘photo-shopped’, what’s a genuine post and what might be fake news.
What lies beneath the privacy settings? It’s the age of the selfie; there are no rules. Does this apply to reviewing? Can the reviewer go selfie too, make a personal comment that involves ‘writing fiction’ and ‘the self’? Please bear with this posting, I think it’s apropos. Just parting the curtains now: I grew up in a family home so stressful that I emerged from it chaotic. As a teenager, I was often in trouble. The only orderly element in my life was my academic study: law and arts. I saw my best friend killed, and was questioned all night by homicide detectives. I moved into a violent relationship with a criminal lawyer who was much older and drove a Rolls Royce. I sat through numerous murder trials. I only found happiness when I had a baby, and built around him and my new partner our stable family life. When I wrote my first and second novels, I didn’t make anything up, I simply moved real events around, as Chidgey has described cutting her prose into strips and rearranging it. I wrote it all down, and the question I was most asked was, ‘You come from this nice, educated family. This ivory tower family. How (and why) did you make these things up?’ Well, it was a pre-selfie era. Confession wasn’t hot back then. ‘It’s just fiction,’ I said.
For me, too much happened. The life was so lurid that people thought it was invented. (They thought I was a crime writer, also ‘plot-driven’.) In Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum nothing wild or extreme happens and yet, with a great degree of wit, inventiveness and lightness of touch, she keeps us engaged, keeps us following, even though some of the material we wade through is so boring (the carpet shampooer, honestly) that she only just gets away with it. It takes an extraordinary level of confidence, and a lack of concern for the reader’s yearning for stories, to give the carpet shampooer and the surrogacy equal weight.
One function of experimental art is to create new work out of the currents that run between us: the way we communicate, the social forces, the data. If Chidgey is front-line it’s more by instinct than intellectual deliberation; it takes her editor, ‘Fergus’, to assure her that she’s onto something new. Perhaps she’s just innately, naturally, a product of the selfie age. But following instinct may be the best way to arrive at an original place. Her project leads the reader to the questions that are hot right now. Have people forgotten what private communication reads like? What has happened to our interior lives? What is genuine in the internet age? If the tree falls and is not posted, does it exist? Do we all live on the surface now, and is dialogue more meaningful to us if it’s publicly broadcast? Can conventional, as in fictional, plot-driven narrative be more real (more authentic, incisive and meaningful) than an autobiographical work? Can selfie-fiction be more false, more of an illusion, than a fictional story?
The most interesting point, perhaps, and the reason why the book is genuinely cutting-edge, is that Chidgey has created her work out of the very fabric of our times. It is art made out of posting, of surface and veneer – a self-portrait fashioned out of Face.
CHARLOTTE GRIMSHAW is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. She has been awarded the Sargeson Fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Prize, been shortlisted for the Asia Pacific Commonwealth Prize, shortlisted twice for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and won the Montana Fiction Award and Montana Medal. She has been Book Reviewer of the Year, and finalist in the NZ Post Award. Her Metro column won a Qantas Award. Her new novel, Mazarine, will be published in April 2018.