There's a Problem with this Book / Maybe the Problem is with Me: A Reading of The Beat Of The Pendulum
Jackson Nieuwland reads Catherine Chidgey's latest novel The Beat of the Pendulum and finds it bewildering and hilarious, but lacking weight.
I started reading The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey yesterday and was greeted by more of a cacophony than I expected. I knew Chidgey was going to be drawing from the language she came across in her day-to-day life, which would obviously provide her with a vast pool of voices and vocabulary, but I had assumed that she would have formed that raw material into a more linear and accessible text.
So far, many of the voices are speaking about a baby or a young child. In a way it feels as if I am reading from the perspective of that child. I don’t know who is speaking, I don’t really understand what they’re talking about, and the world is still a chaotic and alien space to me. I assume that I learn to read the book and Chidgey learns to write it, the language will become clearer and more delineated, and my perspective will expand from that of a baby to my adult self, a movement similar to what takes place in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
Joyce is not a comparison I expected to make with this book
Joyce is not a comparison I expected to make with this book. I had predicted a kind of combination of Kenneth Goldsmith and Sheila Heti, or Vanessa Place and Karl Ove Knausgård. But, at least in these first few pages, Chidgey seems less interested in the conceptual nature of the found novel and more focused on the language the technique provides her with.
Alongside Joyce, another comparison that comes to mind is J R by William Gaddis, with it’s similar barrage of dialogue. Also, the entry for January 11 is entirely made up of questions, making for an easy comparison to Padgett Powell’s, The Interrogative Mood. There is still time for the book to become more of what I expected it to be, but I hope it doesn’t. I’m enjoying the challenge of it so far.
The book takes place over one calendar year. I was hoping to read a month a day but I’m only halfway through January. Hopefully I can get to February today.
Today I read nothing.
I finished January this morning and things are beginning to become more comprehensible. It’s interesting that the most recognisable and satisfying text so far is from advertising, GPS directions, and technical jargon. The things that are at the core of most literary fiction (characters and their interactions, setting, mood, even plot) remain opaque and frustrating, while the language we find uninteresting and often ignore in day-to-day life becomes comforting.
Language we find uninteresting and often ignore in day-to-day life becomes comforting
This is because the book flattens the text it presents. Nothing is contextualised or given significance outside of the language. We can’t tell the difference between spoken and written language, and when people speak they aren’t identified. We don’t know who they are. This strips away the meaning we normally draw from conversations. We don’t care about someone’s house being robbed if we don’t know anything about the people.
In contrast, commercial language is already flat. It never had any greater significance to be absorbed and so in this context its bright surface seems to shine even brighter than before. There is a page long passage of Google Maps directions interspersed with news headlines and occasional swearing on January 26 which conveys a lot more emotion than any of the dialogues about babies or houses.
I once got in a taxi, the driver was from India and had been here for one and a half weeks. I asked if he had a NZ driver’s license and his reply was ‘actually this is my brother’s business’. He couldn't drive at all. The amount of time people from other cultures have almost caused accidents in front of me on the motorway and we're completely unaware amazes me. Not being racist, it's just an observation.
Anyone who needs to say not being racist is certainly being racist. Chidgey inserts this racist statement without comment. It doesn't seem to be her speaking, but there’s no evidence of her speaking up to disagree, nor is does she insert any language afterwards that could be read as a rebuttal of these beliefs. This is very disappointing.
But I have to admit, I love that Chidgey refers to Eleanor Catton’s book as, “The fucking Luminaries.”
The entry for February 20 contains the sentence, “I don’t want to be associated with white privilege.” Yet in February 14, Chidgey talks about her diamond Katherine Mansfield Award earrings. There’s quite a disconnect there.
I was feeling guilty about missing days of reading this book until I reached the entry for March 7 which is left blank for no apparent reason. If Chidgey can miss a day, so can I.
A week of not reading because of a terrible case of gastroenteritis.
A week of not reading because I started a new job.
A week of not reading because of [redacted].
It’s just a diary really.
There's a problem with this book. It seems to me that it’s lacking direction. It clearly doesn’t include all of the language Chidgey comes across on each of these days, which would have been one clear conceptual project. I can’t determine what editing it down achieves aside from increased brevity. It doesn’t feel honed or sharpened, just (thankfully) shorter.
This could have been a book about Chidgey’s relationships with her mother, husband, and child. It could have been an explosion of hilarious language, non-sequiturs, and unexpected aphorisms, pointing at the ridiculousness of modern life. But what it has turned out to be is a collection of entries, all doing different things and pulling in different directions. They are seemingly without aesthetic, narrative, or constraint-based connections between them. Found language is not a strong enough unifying quality. I want a book that takes me from point A to point B. That can be done through plot, politics, emotion, or any number of other things, but I’m almost two hundred pages into this book and I haven’t gone anywhere yet.
The other problem I have with this is book is its politics. It seems to be coming from a perspective of unselfconscious middle class privilege. Chidgey’s problems are about where she wants to live, not where she can live. She discusses purchasing vintage jewellery and carpet cleaners, while letting problematic comments go by unquestioned.
Writers like Claudia Rankine, Nina Powles, Bhanu Kapil... are also making strong political statements and comments on society. Their work has a weight this novel lacks
To me, the most exciting practitioners of this style of experimental fragmentary writing are coming from the margins. Writers like Claudia Rankine, Nina Powles, Bhanu Kapil, and the art collective Fresh and Fruity use the same techniques as Chidgey, but are also making strong political statements and comments on society. Their work has a weight this novel lacks.
In the entry for March 31, Chidgey describes sending a chunk of The Beat of the Pendulum to her publisher and him calling it cutting edge. I just don’t agree. If it was cutting edge I wouldn’t be constantly thinking of other books and writers to compare it to (Édouard Levé, David Markson, Renata Adler, Jenny Offill, Evan Lavender-Smith etc.). In all honesty, this all makes me wonder whether Victoria University Press would have published this book if The Wish Child hadn’t been such a big success. That’s not something I want to be thinking about when reading a book.
Or maybe the problem is with me? Perhaps I’m just not the audience for this book. I would say that content-wise The Beat of the Pendulum could be described as a domestic novel, and while I sometimes enjoy domestic writing, the examples which I get the most out of are usually by younger writers (Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Eat When You Feel Sad by Zachary German).
Or maybe the problem is with me?
So perhaps there’s a generational gap preventing me from enjoying this book fully. Perhaps it’s the sort of book which the reader needs to be able to relate to and I’m not at a stage in my life where I can properly connect to what is happening to Chidgey. The only sentence in the book I’ve felt a strong connection with was in May 18: “We don't think in words, we think in pictures.”
I came to this book wanting and expecting to enjoy it. The concept was interesting and I was excited to see an established Aotearoa New Zealand writer publishing something so experimental. But I’m disappointed by the execution. The found language of the novel hasn’t consistently engaged me. And now that I’m reading with that feeling of disappointment, perhaps I’m judging The Beat of the Pendulum too harshly. If I’ve already decided I don’t like the book, I’m much less likely to enjoy the rest of it.
I loved it when Chidgey got the Vengaboys stuck in her head though.
The entry for June 7 reads: “As a sex worker, it’s very difficult to make ends meet.” That is the only sentence for that day. No context. Is it meant to be a simple statement of fact? Or some kind of joke? It’s not funny. What information is it based on? It feels disrespectful to sex workers, even if it is intended as sympathetic. They deserve more than a sentence. They deserve a considered opinion. They deserve to have their own voices heard.
It was fun to read the transcript of the author photo shoot and then look at the author photo at the back of the book and compare the two.
It wasn’t fun to read this sentence from the July 9 entry: “I had this lesbian couple sitting behind me, which was fine, except one of them took her shoes off and put her feet on the back of the seat next to me.”
Why wouldn't it be fine to have a lesbian couple behind you? Because two women displaying affection towards each other makes you uncomfortable? No, it’s because they all have smelly disgusting feet right? Yep, that's what qualifies someone as a lesbian.
One aspect of the book which I enjoy a lot are the aphoristic or fragmentary, single sentence entries. May 14, “Tell us what you’re doing for Privacy Week,” is a great clever one liner. June 27, “A blue-black bird on the hard shoulder, its dead wing rising as I pass,” is haunting and beautiful. June 14, “I’M A PUPPET,” is a bewildering and hilarious non-sequitur. July 29, “One day we’ll look back on this and laugh” is clearly a massive cliché, but is given depth by its context in the novel. And June 23, “Tanya Carlson saw my floral toilet-seat cover,” holds so much more pathos than most of the longer entries manage.
There is some really successful humour in this book
It hasn’t come up yet, but there is some really successful humour in this book. Like when Chidgey is worried that their daughter doesn't know what yellow is because they haven't been taking opportunities to point out colours. Her husband says, “We must demonstrate with a banana.” Or the discussion about why we need an International Fish Migration Day. Or when Chidgey doesn’t hang up after leaving a phone message at the doctor’s office and proceeds to curse the facility out while still being recorded. There’s a lot of funny stuff in here.
Yesterday I mentioned the humour in this book. Now I’m reading two people joking about P babies. Not funny.
The November 6 entry was really entertaining. A group of people talk about Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, without mentioning his name or the correct name of the book. It reminded me of the passages in Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, which are essentially art essays, but this was looser and more conversational. I wish I had some idea who the voices in the entry belonged to. I assume one is Chidgey, and guess the other characters are people who’ve appeared earlier in the book, but there's nothing to signpost who they might be.
That's something that happens a lot in this book. I can't create the characters in my head because I never know who is saying what. It's interesting, but if Chidgey wanted to go down that path she could have made these dialogues a more prominent feature of the book.
Then the November 10 entry makes me glad that Chidgey didn’t write a whole book of untagged, multiple speaker conversations. It consists of sixteen pages of a group of people talking about family members I don’t know. What us the purpose of this passage? It’s long and it drags. Is it meant to tell us something about family or memory? Maybe it’s meant to say something about how memories are valuable even when they lose their details? Maybe about how failures of memory can fuel conversation and provide something to bond over? I’m sure Chidgey had some reason for including it, but I found it very frustrating.
When there are only two people talking, and it's clear who is saying what, Chidgey creates her most effective scenes. One fun example are the entries spanning November 24 to 26, in which two speakers go back and forth listing things that annoy them. While I did enjoy reading this passage, a five hundred page book of it would be rather pointless; this type of thing works better on a smaller scale. This is perhaps why Chidgey took the approach of including a bit of everything in the novel, rather than editing it to focus on one particular style or subject.
The December 6 entry contains another instance of unquestioned racism: “...it's not that I don't like black people, it's just there's too many of them.” Again, this isn't Chidgey speaking, but she doesn't call it out at all. It makes me uncomfortable with her to say the least.
Luckily the December 9 entry provides a ray of light. In it Chidgey’s husband Alan drops knowledge about the cultural imperialism of the New York Metropolitan Museum. If there had been more of this and less of that December 6 bullshit it would have made a big difference to how I feel this book.
A copy of The Beat of the Pendulum came into the library today. Someone had reserved it.
Finished! Finally! Not that the book was dragging. It actually sped up the further in I got, which is possibly a result of me finally knuckling down and reading it more consistently, rather than any shift in the text itself. But it was a relief to finish a book I’d been reading for months. Four hundred and ninety five pages is very long for me. I’m looking forward to reading some poetry and maybe a graphic novel.
While I still think that The Beat of the Pendulum is a flawed book, and one that had the potential to be something stronger, I have grown more affectionate towards it than I was in the early stages of reading. Steve Braunias described this book as an “unreadable writing exercise,” and I disagree. None of my problems with the book have anything to do with its readability. The language never becomes the incomprehensible wall of text that experimental found text has the potential to be. I was more put off by the book’s politics and lack of focus. I fully believe that if Chidgey and her editor had chosen a direction for this novel and formed it more tightly, that it could have been a powerful piece of literature.
Although it didn’t always feel like it, The Beat of the Pendulum is definitely doing something. I feel differently now I’ve finished. It did take me from point A to point B, and I don’t regret reading it.