Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2018

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey #BookReview

As promised, this is a follow-up review to my first thoughts about Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum. which is longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  This ‘found novel’ is a remarkable experiment in fiction, drawing on – or purporting to be – the language that was all around the author.  In twelve chapters named for the months of the year, a life is laid bare through language that is both impersonal (TV, radio, social media, email, SatNav) and intensely personal – her conversations with friends and family, apparently recorded on her iPhone.

The first chapters of the book are engaging because of the challenge of interpreting a cacophony of words.  There are no markers to guide the reader as to context and many of the slabs of text comprise, as life does, multiple voices.  On the very first page, Catherine, who we are led to believe is the author herself, is talking to her mother and to her baby at the same time, and her mother is talking to Catherine and to the baby.  But it gets more complicated when there are not only more people talking at the same time but also references to media, which sometimes bleeds into the conversations and is responded to, but is sometimes just background noise.  I was fascinated by these early chapters, and also very impressed by the skill with which they had been constructed.

But as the book progressed and I became familiar with the ‘characters’ I also became intrigued by other issues, the most obvious of which is privacy.  Every author draws on life experience to construct fiction, but The Beat of the Pendulum explicitly uses the people in Chidgey’s life as material for the book, presumably with their permission (but maybe not always).  One of the aspects I wondered about was how this impacted on the conversations she had.  Surely there were times when she was asked (or told) to stop recording, or chose herself to stop it, but just as we all modify our communications in the presence of outsiders of one sort or another (e.g. neighbours in the garden next door) surely those who were conscious of that iPhone felt constrained at times?  What does it do to a marital relationship?

*chuckle* It’s not hard to imagine Chidgey’s friends, family, students, colleagues, acquaintances and hapless individuals who encountered her during this year, scrambling through the book to find themselves within its pages.  But the detached reader such as myself realises early on that these 494 pages are not only – of necessity – only part of a life, snippets extracted from a morass of language over 365 days 366 days, (it was a Leap Year) – but they are also filtered.  There is some discretion impacting on the author’s choices.  For example, there is mention of an exasperated Catherine accidentally leaving her impatient criticisms on a doctor’s voicemail, and there are scraps of the frustration every mother feels about an intransigent baby – but there is no blazing row with the husband.  The ‘Catherine’ of this book – which is explicitly named as a novel – is a Facebook Catherine, happily ‘oversharing’ the way that people do on social media, but retaining some aspects of life as private.

On February 14th we see that Catherine and Alan receive Valentine’s Day cards from their multiple cats, and we see how later that month on Feb 29th, (i.e. it’s a Leap year) a forgotten anniversary is festering, but we are never privy to the intimate words of love or passion between a husband and wife.

So you know how you forgot our wedding anniversary, when I made you a thoughtful bespoke special card, and –
I’m not liking where this is going.
– and so you were going to pick a bunch of hydrangeas for me, but you forgot to do that too?
Well, you told me that I was going to.  And I forgot.
I thought you could do that today.  To make up for it.  Because today’s an extra day.  A bonus day.  (p.66)

The novel is self-conscious about the writing life.  Reviewers are almost warned off by angst-ridden conversations about the terror that reviews can arouse.  There is nonsense about how all the ‘good reviews’ might be ‘used up’ by the time her book is under scrutiny.  There is delight about The Wish Child being longlisted for the 2017 Ockhams – and a droll sequence about not wanting to brag on her Facebook account so getting her husband to announce it on his.   Discussing another writer’s book, Catherine (or maybe her writing buddy or a colleague at the university, or maybe one of the members of a book group) talks about the author ‘using’ her relationship for a story and possibly upsetting her parents, and then there’s this:

I kept thinking that too, but that’s the nature of memoir, isn’t it.
You’ve got to hurt somebody.  (p.61)

Is that why The Beat of the Pendulum is a novel and not memoir?  I checked the publisher’s website to see if there were book group questions for this book, but no. Yet surely this is a book just teeming with questions for discussion…

The issue of oversharing is, I suspect, a generational thing.  My mother’s generation were coy about naming any ‘abdominal surgery’ they might have, and once, only once, did my mother ever say anything about her multiple miscarriages.  My generation is less coy in face-to-face conversations with friends but still tend to be reserved with work colleagues, male friends and certainly with Facebook.  But our generational successors have produced a flood of ABC articles and a growing catalogue of tell-all memoirs about the most intimate health and body issues. Well, there were aspects of The Beat of the Pendulum that others might find courageous, but I found distasteful.  Get over yourself, Lisa, I kept telling myself, it’s just your English genes reasserting a sense of reserve, but no, I am just not interested in other people’s bodily functions and that’s that.

What I was very interested in, because it’s so close to the bone for me, was the progression of Nana’s Alzheimer’s Disease.  My MIL has Alzheimer’s and I am seeing at close quarters how different it is to dementia.  Even when my father had ‘advanced’ dementia, we could have sensible conversations, he could still beat me at Scrabble and follow the short stories we read together and he could predict whodunit when we watched Death in Paradise and Father Brown. But what we see in The Beat of the Pendulum over the course of the year is the deterioration into intensely frustrating behaviours, not just the painful business of forgetting words, people and events, but also causing conflict, guilt and sorrow when Nana agrees to a change of room, replays the conversation about it endlessly and then, when settled in, rejects it and says (angrily and interminably) that she never agreed to it.  This reminded me of an old gent in the room next to my father who was always telling me about how his son had stolen all his money, brandishing his bankbook to show me the missing thousands, which of course his son had had to use to pay for the deposit on his father’s room.  That must have been so painful for the son, to have to deal with this accusation every time he visited.  Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease indeed.

The Beat of the Pendulum is still not in stock at Readings, but it’s now selling for under $30 at Fishpond and Booktopia has it too.  If I were running any kind of creative writing class it would be the book I’d make compulsory reading for my students because it’s not just innovative, it raises so many issues about what can or should be done with fiction.  It should be a contender for the Goldsmith’s Prize, assuming it’s eligible…

Meanwhile we wait to see if it’s shortlisted for the 2018 Ockhams!

PS Many thanks to Alys on the Blog for the review which made me really want to read this book!

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Beat of the Pendulum
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781776561704
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.89

Available from Fishpond: The Beat of the Pendulum


Responses

  1. Oh wow, this sounds very clever. Great review.

    • Thanks, Karenlee, I think that as a writer yourself you would find this very interesting!

  2. I think I’m hooked!

  3. I want everyone I know to read this, I’m dying to see what people think of it!

  4. Great review and it does sound like it would provoke an interesting intergenerational discussion. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received in NZ.

    • Fingers crossed!

  5. Well, I’m intrigued! And I love the cover.

    • I predict that you would love this. Absolutely.

  6. […] They were looking for ‘engaging and brave’ and didn’t include The Beat of the Pendulum?   See my review here. […]

  7. […] of Malte Laurids Brigge is essential reading IMO.  I wish I’d read it before reading The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey because that is a ‘found document’ too, and I shall read Gerald […]

  8. […] Beat of the Pendulum didn’t get a mention… My post about the shortlist is here, and you can see my review here and there are reviews of other longlisted books […]


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