Charlotte Grimshaw reviews Kirsty Gunn's 'innovative' novel Caroline's Bikini

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 06 September, 2018
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Kirsty Gunn. Photo/Getty Images

Kirsty Gunn’s unorthodox novel is admirable but emotionally wanting.

In the explanatory endnotes to her novel, which occupy about a fifth of the book, author Kirsty Gunn places Caroline’s Bikini within “the Scottish and modernist project, with roots in the early Renaissance tradition of Petrarchan love poetry, by way of a long-standing debt to writing by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf”. The contemporary realist novel, she adds, “can go hang”.

Writers are throwing out conventional structure, plot has fled to television (where it continues, incorrigibly, to entertain and enthral), autobiography is hot, stories are not, the novel as a mode of narrative has had its day, and all this is to be welcomed, since nothing can be more dead, for example, than the conventional B-grade English novel.

But if you kill a thing off, it’s as well to replace it with something living, because no matter how playful the pathologist, no matter how wittily she hovers over the hanged body with a sly wink here and a literary reference there, it’s still a post-mortem unless something extra has happened; unless, to quote Yeats, something has “changed, changed utterly”, and a “terrible beauty is born”.

Caroline’s Bikini is the story of Emily, who agrees to be an amanuensis for her friend Evan, when he falls in love with Caroline Beresford. Evan and Emily meet in West London pubs, where she will document his Petrarchan love for Caroline.

It doesn’t matter that the notion of an amanuensis in this context is implausible; nor that very little happens, the prose involves descriptions of pubs, Richmond and drinks containing gin and there is endless repetition of limited data, because the conventional novel can go hang.

The endnotes interpret the story’s construction, offer references to Petrarch’s Canzoniere, and, ignoring Virginia Woolf’s declaration that she wouldn’t tell a reader how to interpret her fiction, they explain the project: “Careful readers will note …”

There’s a general reluctance to criticise an innovative work for fear of sounding like the voice of conservatism. Caroline’s Bikini has really diverting ideas; for example, the engagement with Woolf’s notion of fiction as a series of moments, a “row of lamps” rather than a “big story”.

The notes, where they expand on the protagonists’ motives, echo Woolf’s idea of “digging beautiful caves” behind her characters to enrich the detail. Gunn’s desire to tear up the realist novel is admirable, and the whole effort has a pleasing intellectual complexity. But the lack of action, the repetition and the smallness of emotional scale are exasperating, and there is no shape. You could call the final fate of Caroline Beresford’s bikini “playful”; equally, you could call it fatuous.

My mind kept returning to Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum, in which Chidgey abandoned orthodox form more fully than Gunn has. Chidgey’s book is made of haphazard and often banal material, yet it’s alive with its own internal force, momentum and logic.

The Beat of the Pendulum in turn reminded me of a work by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles in the Tate Modern: Babel, a tower of radios playing different stations. When I first saw this sculpture, I had an immediate, naive reaction: my eyes filled with tears.

It was inexplicably melancholy; apocalyptic. It was the random, banal and chaotic given power and novelty. It borrowed from the old but signalled forward, to a possibly bleak future. It was power-packed and elegiac.

So the realist novel can go hang, but let something strong take its place. Let it move us, let it deliver us a serious punch.

CAROLINE’S BIKINI, by Kirsty Gunn (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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