Knowing one another, Maggie Trapp

The Beat of the Pendulum: A Found Novel
Catherine Chidgey
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776561704

Tess
Kirsten McDougall
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776561001

Gabriel’s Bay
Catherine Robertson
Black Swan, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143771456

Imaginative writing takes the hurly-burly of life and boils it down to something at once contained and capacious, and stories – whether real or imagined – allow us to see and feel lives other than our own. In their new novels, Catherine Chidgey, Kirsten McDougall, and Catherine Robertson present compelling, intimate accounts of New Zealanders. These works are about ostensibly everyday lives. Yet these ordinary characters reveal the extraordinary that we all live within. These stories, each in its own way, speak to our need for story. 

In The Beat of the Pendulum, which Chidgey names a found novel, we are witness to a wide-ranging selection of a year of recorded words from Chidgey’s own life. These recordings (which, as Chidgey notes, have benefited from some reshaping) capture the ephemera and the asides, the meaningful exchanges, as well as the seemingly inconsequential musings, that take place over the hours and days of an entire year.

The book comprises a series of seeming non-sequiturs. It jumps from this to that, from one quotidian remark to the next. But, taken in the aggregate, the book is larger than the sum of its parts. Indeed, an evocative plot emerges from the mass of collected moments. We can discern a narrative of plaintive, unscripted, elliptical prose. In this ostensibly verbatim recitation of a year, we move from pathos to bathos, from subtle, moving moments to dry and even absurd exchanges, all of which invite us in with humour and warmth. We skip easily from “Sally Field Is Gone! Today we say goodbye to Sally Field. A weighted blanket moulds to your body like a warm hug” to

My rule of thumb when I’m deleting photos is to ask myself if you died, would I regret getting rid of this blurred picture of you? That’s forty-six defective Alans gone. I’m trying to delete a few every day, otherwise I’ll never get through all of you.

These are moments that are banal and painfully moving at the same time.

Chidgey has recorded and committed to paper the quotidian ins and outs of her life and, contrary to what we might think, these unadorned real moments don’t read as a recitation of plodding fact. Rather, this compendium of recorded conversations at times exhibits a slightly frenetic pace. We are often plopped down in medias res with no sense of who’s talking or why. But the book is also a letting go. There are no real plot constraints; yet, almost in spite of this, characters and a vivid story emerge from the seemingly unformed collection of recordings.

The book feels like life. It’s entirely in dialogue, and reading it is like reading a play except there are no stage directions or dialogue tags. Amazingly, this extended recitation becomes moving, humorous, rich, and even plotted-feeling. Chidgey’s record is accretive. The episodes she recounts acquire weight and meaning as they unfold. The wonder of this book is how the seemingly discrete, ephemeral, inconsequential moments listed somehow become a moving narrative. As she recounts, she herself is thinking through similar issues when she’s teaching her creative writing students, and we hear her say, “We can think of stories as an attempt to give structure – beginning, middle, and end – to the daily chaos surrounding us.” As we listen in on random moments from Chidgey’s personal life, we come to know complex characters, we witness narrative tension, we perceive a satisfying story arc.

This is a found novel, which is a brash oxymoron. Novels by definition are crafted and plotted. This book is an omnibus of recorded, real, largely unfashioned moments, which, pleasingly, manages to read as a novel when taken as a whole. The Beat of the Pendulum pushes against our notions of form, shape, and shaping. This book interrogates the limits of what a novel can be. Chidgey encourages us to consider how our lives, unvarnished, are story-like: inviting, moving, sweet, sad. In accumulating the moments of her life, Chidgey reveals a deeper story, a story that speaks to all of us.

Where Chidgey manages despite extreme exposure to gesture at mystery and the unsayable, McDougall has crafted a short, spare novel about small, seemingly simple, straightforward moments that, once we scratch the surface, bespeak layers of inscrutability. In Tess, characters communicate through circumlocution. The novel is about how all of us tell it slant. Tess is the finely drawn story of a young woman who is gifted with preternatural sight and insight. Unbeknownst to those around her, Tess can see what others aren’t willing or able to say. She is acutely aware of how others variously share and withhold themselves. She doesn’t so much read minds as she sees others’ unspoken or unsayable memories. The burden of her ability is what Tess carries throughout this brief novel. Her visions bring her closer to others’ lives, while at the same time alienating her in profound and troubling ways. Tess is both deeply alone and intimately attuned to others. Her unbidden visions render her alienated yet unnervingly entwined with others. Tess asks us to think about what it means to know someone, what it means to truly see or understand others. The mystery of Tess’s insight becomes a figure for how all of us experience empathy and intimacy.

This is a novel of precise, pellucid prose. It’s a joy to read passages such as:

Tess watched the horse turn its head to the side and open its big horse lips to show its teeth, which looked like an old man’s fingernails, large and yellowed. The horse wrapped its meaty tongue around the apple and pulled it into its mouth in one piece. It crunched down and small pieces of apple iced with long threads of white saliva fell from its mouth as it chewed.

We are also privy to quiet moments of understated humor threaded throughout: “She made a soft noise. Lewis spoke quietly. ‘I don’t even know your name,’ he said. ‘Tess,’ she said. ‘Tess.’ At first he heard her saying tisk, tisk, telling him off.”

Tess lives in her own mind as well as in others’:

Everyone’s got something they want to keep hidden, Benny would say. The difference with you, Tess, is that you can see it. She tried to explain to him that it wasn’t that simple, that she could only see what people vividly remembered, and if someone really wanted to hide something, they would.

Tess comes to know others’ stories by means of unsanctioned and unmediated access. And this is, in effect, the position we all take when we read narrative – we enter into someone else’s head – we are granted access to others’ stories, we enter into others’ worlds. Tess probes the self/other divide. And we, like Tess, are left wondering how much it’s possible to know others.

If Chidgey’s and McDougall’s new novels prod us to consider form and the place of knowing and interpretation, Robertson’s Gabriel’s Bay entirely immerses us in the world of her characters to such an extent that we might forget we’re reading at all.

Gabriel’s Bay is a rich, layered, affecting view of life in a small New Zealand town. As Robertson writes, “Gabriel’s Bay is an amalgam of several small New Zealand towns, so wherever you think it is, you’ll be correct.” Robertson has crafted a fictional town that feels as real as any number of small towns in New Zealand, and she’s created flawed, complex, memorable characters, whose stories are entirely consuming. The centre of gravity for each chapter is one character, with the chapter names cycling through the 10 or so central characters we come to know over the course of the book. Robertson has structured her novel using different character-driven chapters and, in this way, we come to perceive the larger story piecemeal and through various lenses.

Robertson’s novel might be likened to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Brian Doyle’s Mink River, or Steve Braunias’s Civilisation. Just as these books do, Gabriel’s Bay brings a place to life and dives deep into the lives of people who live with and near each other, their expectations and misunderstandings braided tightly together. Robertson’s town is the site of complicated love, fraught communication, risible misunderstanding, hard-won second chances, and lasting connections. The town is the lifelong home of a number of the characters, and it attracts not-always-immediately-welcomed new arrivals as well. We witness an eager man – half-Irish, half-Scottish – arrive from London to try to make his mark. And an earnest Indian doctor is slated to move to the town, by way of England, in order to take the place of the aging and much beloved town doctor.

There are a number of bittersweet moments in Gabriel’s Bay, just as there are laugh-out-loud scenes. Robertson’s prose is wry and plaintive, humorous and witty: “Kerry had tried a spot of casual conversation, but it had turned into an amateur ventriloquism skit – he both asking and answering the questions – so he gave up”.

And:

When they learned to dress themselves, you no longer played the peekaboo game. Skill with a spoon meant no more giggles at swooping aeroplanes. When they learned to read, you went from narrator (doing all the voices) to lights-out monitor. No more piggybacks, no more falling asleep in your lap, no more make-it-better kisses. Hugs only when no one was looking. Teddy bears put away in cupboards. Clothes you’d made became outdated and outgrown. Every height mark chalked on the wall a countdown to them leaving home. Mothering was as much about grieving as loving. But no one ever mentioned that.

The novel touches on what it means to be from this place, what it means to be a product of this country’s history:

Brownie’s room had a tree outside it. An oak, Sam thought it was. Planted by people who believed they could control this new country, make it theirs. The need to feel connected – to family, roots, land – it was so strong, wasn’t it? Made people do all kinds of things, good and not so much.

Gabriel’s Bay deftly reveals the tension between the town’s residents as they navigate loss and disappointment. We recognise some of the characters’ trepidation as they debate a proposal to change the town’s name back to its Māori name (here we can pick up echoes of Braunias’s Civilisation). And we watch as young characters, Pākehā and Māori, give voice to complex feelings they are just beginning to name:

Tubs’s own grasp of politics and history was less firm than the grip he had on the wet beer can, which had already slipped once out of his hand.

“Because, of course,” said Brownie, “the government owes us nothing.”
“Your lot are getting fucken millions from them!” said Tubs. “Whereas what have us white folks got?”
“Autonomy over your own culture and language,” said Brownie. “The lion’s share of land and property ownership. Majority representation in business, politics and the judiciary. Easier access to higher education. A society focused around your traditions and customs – ”
“Aqueducts,” said Deano.
What?” said Tubs.
“Monty Python,” said Deano. “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
“You’re a fucken weirdo.”

This is a novel that invites each of us in. We come to care for all of these characters as we see this place through their eyes. Their everyday concerns add up over the length of the novel to produce depth and resonance. Robertson reveals the complexity and the community available to each of us in our ordinary lives.

These three new works by women writers comment on the novel, on New Zealand, and on reading, seeing, knowing – and the uneasiness, as well as the comfort, all of this engenders.

Maggie Trapp lives in Wellington and teaches writing and editing online for University of California, Berkeley.

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