Reading as mudlarking

The Chimes
Anna Smaill
ISBN 9781444794533

The Chimes, debut novel of poet and violinist Anna Smaill, portrays a post-apocalyptic but disorientingly medieval dystopia dominated by music. The novel opens with Simon, a boy on his own, as he embarks on a mysterious errand to London. But this is London as we’ve never seen – or more accurately – heard it before:

At first it’s just the shouts and calls of song from traders. Then there are the driving bursts of melody from highboy, viol, clarionet . . . Music spills from the living quarters above shops, spins up from groups of musicians standing in door frames. Trompets send out brassy martial calls along the roof turrets. Viols speak with voices high and yearning and full of ache like human song. And under it all is the hard horesehoof beat of tambors. It grows and grows in a vast crescendo.

In the fallen London of The Chimes, life is lived in a strict and complex hierarchy in which an Order composed of virtuoso musicians lords over the Guilds, tradespeople and, most lowly of all, the pactrunners. With every individual’s memory broken anew each day, the true contours of reality remain obscured, from us as well as from Simon, and the nuances and secrets of Smaill’s novel emerge gradually, accreting in melodious and remarkable prose.

In a world where written language – known as “code” – is lost and directions are committed to tune, every day is regulated by the public broadcast of song, culminating in the day’s most commanding composition: the chimes. In ways which are not immediately clear, we sense that music is central to the maintenance of civic harmony overall, but it’s no less important to the affairs of the pactrunners, who rely on rhythm and cadence to eke out their meagre existence. The “sounding” of the world in The Chimes often creates a kind of verbal synaesthesia that requires adjustment to the usual sensory configurations and results in such pleasing turns of phrase as “the curve of tune” and “a pale ellipsis of silence”. The strangeness of this world also leads Smaill to coin a long list of euphonious neologisms, most of which are as aptly poetic, if not always strictly necessary. My favourites include downsounding, thamesmuck, soundfabric, crosshouse, stonegreen, bodymemory and memorylost.

Simon joins the Five Rover Pact, a gang of memory-impaired scavengers who run the labyrinth of London’s forgotten sewers and subway tunnels, seeking out dispersed ingots of the element palladium to sell for an unknown purpose. In the early chapters of The Chimes, when we’re lost in the lyric density of the new language, the richness of the novel’s prose prevails, and we unearth startlingly fresh images in an act of reading-as-mudlarking that parallels the hunting of the pactrunners themselves. At every turn, strange and startling scenes emerge, such as this one, depicting an episode of the chimes:

The sides of the river unfold. The forward and backward of all objects walk out and present themselves – brick, man, boat. The river thickens as if it’s going to curdle – as if you could walk out on it, right over the crenelling waves and eddies.

Something in the language of the book takes you into its confidence, assures you that the neologisms and severe turns of phrase are the only way to write about the world which comes after writing – a world in which the authority of sound is uppermost, as in the following passage:

I wait for five beats and then I pull the small whistle from round my neck. I put it to my lips and blow our comeallye, as high and taunting as I can make it. Strange to hear the tune, innermost and close as a name, skewed in the harsh, baiting echo. I fight the need to run. I wait two beats more past what I think I need to and then I move off. Presto, forte.

Memories emerge piecemeal for Simon out of the objects he totes around in his memory bag: glimpses of his mother, a vision of his entry into London in the opening of the book. The world of this early portion of The Chimes is one of resonant mystery: a fellow rover cuts her arm to try to keep hold of vanishing days, a boy named Steppan walks out of the shadows and gets a lesson on music before passing into oblivion, a member of the Order slashes a woman’s shirt in a cemetery and leaves a score written on the wall of a tomb, stanzas of a forgotten song percolate through memory to the surface of consciousness. As the truth of the world before the enigmatic act of Allbreaking begins to slowly emerge, the sensory realm of The Chimes remains largely intact: there are mudflats and bits of parchment, pebble runes and rusted cranes, the smell of chestnuts and cries of street vendors. Up until the emergence of the plot, almost wholly intact and as fully-armed as Athena from the forehead of Zeus, The Chimes narrates the story of Simon and Lucien, two compelling characters trying to negotiate a world rendered in the most precise and concrete terms – a world that seems to go in all directions, infinite and strange and attractive as only the best fiction can be.

In a recent Booknotes article, Harriet Allan took on the vexed subject of reviewing book reviewers. In a discussion of “the book eco-system” in New Zealand, Allan suggested a list of important traits for reviewers. Allan notes that “a good reviewer understands readers want to know about the book they can buy, not the book the reviewer would have written”. Sound advice. This was wisdom I tried to keep in mind as I turned to the final portion of Smaill’s novel that I found less successful. As we slowly come to learn, the social order of The Chimes is controlled by an especially harmonious tyranny that uses the strict beauty of music as an excuse for domination. While all is structured and stable inside the manicured corridors of The Citadel, life beyond its soundproofed walls is one of chaos, discord, and unthinkable human loss. Unfortunately for The Chimes – if not for modern letters as a whole – there is another tyrant afoot in these pages. For any reader of contemporary fiction, the tyrant will be familiar enough: it is that despot known as “the action plot”.

While I felt too deeply for Simon and Lucien not to be bound up in their quest to save the world, I cannot deny that my investment was compromised by the creaking sound of the wheels of a familiar plot as they began to move us onto the home lap. It may be that Smaill assumed contemporary readers demand a certain dose of confrontation, skirmish, incarceration, and implausible eleventh hour triumph served up with an appropriately unpredictable but inevitable twist. And, who knows – it may be she’s absolutely right. Maybe these are expectations no savvy writer will fail to meet. And yet, I could not stop myself mourning the turn toward the already known in The Chimes. I read to the last page with interest and concern, and I would bet that most other readers will as well. Even so, I felt a pang of sadness at the passing of the evocative and concrete world of river muck, rabbit snares and vespers that I had read in the previous portions of the novel. This sadness was not so much at what Smaill had failed to do, as what she had failed to continue doing – to depict an unknown world where characters had what Grace Paley called “the open destiny of life”. I returned to Allan’s sage advice on reviewing, and double-checked my resistance: was I writing of the book that the author had written and not the book I would have? Maybe there was something amiss in my application of the principle but, on the other hand, it was the strange, new book that Smaill had written I yearned for, instead of the one already fully formed by popular culture which had snuck its way into the final pages of The Chimes.

My reservations about the action plot aside, there is no question that The Chimes is an important book.

Thom Conroy teaches in the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University in Palmerston North. The review of his novel, The Naturalist, can be found in the New Zealand Books online archive:

The Chimes has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2015.

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