THE BEAT OF THE PENDULUM
by Catherine Chidgey
(Victoria University Press, $35)
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey
It's strange sometimes how the writerly muse works: years of struggling to make headway with a literary project, frustration, setback and failure to find an ending; lean years of rejection and an inability to publish anything. Then, like that cliche about London buses, two books come along almost at once.
Which brings us to acclaimed New Zealand novelist Catherine Chidgey. In 2003, she published her third novel, a historical tale, The Transformation; her fourth, The Wish Child, arrived 13 years later. Clearly the wait was worth it, the book winning New Zealand's prestigious Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize.
Now, 12 months later, Chidgey's new novel, The Beat of the Pendulum appears. If the author's publishing chronology has been unconventional, so too this latest book. Not a historical fiction like her last two works, The Beat of the Pendulum is subtitled a found novel. As a form, the found poem is quite the thing right now. It takes words, phrases and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframes them as poetry.
In The Beat of the Pendulum, Chidgey translates this into a book with the words that bombard us daily: private and professional conversations, emails, television programmes and online material. These, Chidgey filters through her sharp memory and sharper pen, structuring her daily encounters with language into a declaratory journey through an entire year.
Chapter by chapter, what ensues is a bricolage, rewriting what "the novel" can be. Gone are the traditional rules around fiction, such as the stipulation there must be a formal plot and clear set of characters. Instead this story is a composite of family conversations, spam emails, teacherly interactions on creative writing exercises and online writing course advice recorded by the author. She, her family, friends and students become the novel's cast. The result is compelling, like earwigging on passing chit-chat.
If the craft is fresh, the themes of the book are familiar. From discussions around raising a surrogate child to conversations with a mother whose offspring the character Alan fathered through sperm donorship, it is a fearless examination of these contemporary domestic issues.
The Beat of the Pendulum is an important and deeply imaginative novel. Chidgey experiments with and opens up new structural territory for what contemporary fiction might be. Readers should be prepared to be challenged; equally, they should be prepared to be thrilled.
ALLEN CURNOW: COLLECTED POEMS
Elizabeth Caffin &Terry Sturm (Eds)
Auckland University Press, $60
ALLEN CURNOW: SIMPLY BY SAILING IN A NEW DIRECTION - a BIOGRAPHY
Terry Sturm, Edited by Linda Cassells
Auckland University Press, $70
Both books available in a limited edition slipcase - $125
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey
Even in death, Allen Curnow remains New Zealand's foremost poet.
His six decade career included more than 30 collections of verse, numerous plays, edited volumes, popular satirical poems (penned under the pseudonym Whim Wham), a Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and umpteen literary awards. Poems like Landfall in Unknown Seas stand as symbols of New Zealand's distinctive cultural and literary identity.
By weight and dimension alone, Allen Curnow: Collected Poems and Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction - a Biography surely suggest something of these achievements and the legacy left by their subject. Fortunately the heaviness of the product is more than matched by the weightiness of the content, making both books welcome additions to New Zealand poetry past and present.
Of course, there have been other books assembling Curnow's poetic oeuvre. Collected Poems 1933 - 1973, Allen Curnow: Selected Poems (1982), Selected Poems 1940 - 1989 and Early Day Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941 - 1997 to name a few. However, ensuring its point of distinction, this latest Collected Poems is the first to gather works from across the entire span of Curnow's life. If it's not a complete collection (in that it doesn't hold every poem Curnow ever wrote), it comes as close as possible to doing so.
Thoroughness can be seen in highlights amongst its congregation here such as the early, formal Valley of Decision and The Spirit Shall Return and Curnow's first nods towards freer forms, New Zealand City and A Woman in Mind.
There are the playful (Impromptu in a Low Key, The Game of Tag among them) and the indispensable like The Weather in Tohunga Crescent and the epic Early Days Yet. In short, this is a book which, in its array of poems well-loved and forgotten, offers familiarity and surprise.
Of the two books here, the biography, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction is the most authoritative and fresh, if only because it offers what has never been - a credible examination of Curnow - and does so with rigour and vigour. At 600 pages, author Terry Sturm and editor Linda Cassells are to be commended for their thoroughness, insight and refreshing depiction of their subject as brilliant and blemished.
The early, sometimes unsettled years, adolescence in Lyttleton and formative Auckland student days; comprehensive discussions about developments of his collections and plays; friendships with Rita Angus, Denis Glover, Dylan Thomas and the like; even the ancestry: it's all here, enabling one to close the book understanding how Curnow the icon was anchored in Curnow the man.
Allen Curnow: Collected Poems and Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction - a Biography are amazing works. The aesthetic production, heft, and substantial content make them sumptuous products to own.
LOU REED A LIFE
by Anthony DeCurtis (John Murray, $38)
Reviewed by Greg Fleming
Although he wrote a song insisting he was just an Average Guy - "Average in everything I do/ My temperature is 98.2" - Lou Reed was anything but and that's made clear in this excellent, well-researched biography.
Brilliant, sensitive, cruel, cantankerous, controlling - Reed was the definition of the Difficult Rock Star. DeCurtis first met his subject in an airport in 1995. Reed recognised him as a Rolling Stone writer who had reviewed his album New York six years' earlier .
Reed said: "How many stars did you give it?" Four. "Should have been five."
DeCurtis doesn't make too much of his personal connection to Reed but his rock journo contacts enabled access to many of Reed's key collaborators - getting interviews from David Bowie before he died, Reed's first two wives and fellow journalists and record company staffers who had the misfortune to be assigned to Reed.
One, Jeff Gold, describes dealing with Reed as a "Me burger with I sauce" experience.
"It was all about Lou. Lou did what Lou wanted to do on Lou's timetable."
While DeCurtis does a creditable job with the Velvet Underground material, the book really comes alive when detailing Reed's solo career and his descent into speed addiction and his life in the erotic underworld of 70s New York. DeCurtis gets to the heart of Reed's troubled relationship with a street-hustling transvestite called Rachel, to whom Reed dedicated one of his most romantic songs, Coney Island Baby; "Reed ... found in her someone whose secret life rivalled or ... even exceeded his own."
DeCurtis points out how Reed was ahead of his time on gender issues - although once Reed got sober in the 80s he would identify as heterosexual. Fans will love the details DeCurtis' research has uncovered - when he drank, Reed preferred Johnnie Walker Red to expensive bottle of single malts and after his wedding to Sylvia Morales the party hit a pinball arcade.
More significant is an anecdote by journalist Howard Bowman. During an interview in 1992, Bowman accompanied Reed to an ATM in New York. Inside, a homeless man was sleeping, which enraged Reed - the poet of urban decay - and he went into the branch, complained to the manager and had him removed.
Despite Reed's contradictions and polarising nature - he could go from self-aggrandisement to self-loathing in a heartbeat - DeCurtis makes a strong case for his work. Not only the celebrated Velvet's output but also records such as The Blue Mask, Berlin and The Bells from Reed's oft-maligned solo career.