The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams
Early in Luke Williams’s wonderful new novel The Echo Chamber there are two scenes that are telling of the writer’s attitudes towards authorship and literary construction. The first is a delicious piece of mock gothic where the heroine’s father meets his own soon to be father-in-law for the first time, “He saw nothing at first, or nothing tangible, since the room was filled with smoke. As it dispersed, Rex made out a figure bent over a large wooden table, a broad, round-faced semblance of a man with unkempt hair and black shiny eyes.” This is Mr Rafferty who is working on “a woman, or rather the likeness of a female form, white bloodless, prostrate on the table, parts of her covered with a sheet, others simply missing…” The father-in-law is a kind of Victor Frankenstein who is employed by the British Government to build emotionless killing machines from old body parts. Earlier in the novel he has attempted to build a clockwork heart to bring his dead wife back to life, a brilliant satirical riff on the Romantic notion of the author, one who brings immortality through finely wrought trinkets.
Williams’s book itself is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. He has used large sections of text from other writers – Perec, Grass, Schulz – in its construction, and a whole section was written by a collaborator. The novel is an attempt to debunk the notion of authorship. In interviews he has said that his ultimate aim is to write a novel in which not a single sentence is his own, which brings us to the second scene: a storyteller within another story within the central story of the novel (there are a lot of stories in this book, it is after all called The Echo Chamber)
says: “To write is to substitute living words for empty scrawl. It is to filch and deceive. There is nothing natural in it – a parasitic, masturbatory art.” Which has more than an echo of Beckett about it.
Like Tom McCarthy’s Booker nominated C, this is a novel that engages with the legacy of Modernism, and like the central character in C the heroine of this novel, Evie, is involved in an act of hearing, trying to build a narrative from fragments and transmissions from the past. Evie has a bionic capacity for hearing, she hears everything from the scurrying of mice in the ceiling, to her parents embracing in Oxford fifty years ago, to the streets of Lagos where she grew up. She is writing down what she has heard aided by a few trinkets around her, a fake Mappa Mundi, a pocket watch, both items which attempt to record something and fail. Although a book about the failure of memory, the failure of the creative act, still like Beckett it says ‘on.’ This is a novel full of wonderful stories imbued with a wealth of beautiful images. Williams’s prose is dynamic and flexible, able to change register at will and employ a wealth of different styles – from the icily clear to the wildly lyrical. There is a great tension at its heart between its theoretical pinnings and its linguistic and storytelling exuberance, but that is certainly no bad thing.
It is deeply satisfying to find a novel as ambitious as this in both scope and style from a contemporary Scottish novelist. The book has a cosmopolitan swagger missing from a great deal of contemporary writing in Scotland. It sets its sights high and in almost every department delivers. The fact that it is a debut is even more impressive. Luke Williams is most definitely one to watch.
The Echo Chamber
Hamish Hamilton, rrp £18•99, 384pp