By Luke Williams. Viking Adult, 2011. 384 pp. $25.95. ISBN: 978-0670022830
Italian Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto, “The Art of Noises,” became a cornerstone of modernist thought for its ingenious taxonomy of the aural. From the sorting hat of sound, Russolo drew six discrete categories: sibilant noises, rumbles and roars, screeches and creaks, percussives made by touching such resonant objects as wood, stone, or clay, portentous sounds such as hisses, and animal and human noises.
A similar conceit underpins Luke Williams’s sprawling debut novel, The Echo Chamber. Fifty-four year old Scotswoman Evie Steppman, blessed, or perhaps cursed, with sonic acuity, parses and classes noise as she recounts her family history through narratives and interludes that take her to Normandy, Palermo, Nigeria, and home to Gullane, Scotland, where she composes her tale. Entering Evie’s reductive sensorium, where the auditory and the haptic have primacy over other senses, the reader as listener hears a lyrical, melismatic story that draws upon her senses, pulling her into a narrative arc reminiscent of Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, yet absent the emotional tidiness therein. This, coupled with the vivid sketches of material craft and literary history that anchor the narrative, offering stasis or permanence when Evie’s hearing begins to fade, shape this multivocal, richly evocative novel. Like its analogue, music, The Echo Chamber is a formalist reverie, a traducing of noise, a mapping of sense onto sound, with kinship with written tradition.
Sound, matter (a pocket watch, a mappa mundi, a radio, and pamphlets chronicling the imperial siege of Benin), and story bind Evie to her eccentric family. In the main, the characters peopling her story include Mr. Rafferty, an aging “murderer,” who, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, tries to revive his dying wife by creating mechanical parts for her, including a heart; her father, Rex, an imperialist “monster” who believes he has wrought positive change in the municipal development of Nigeria, but whose regression into an illness with schizoid symptoms leaves him cowering in corners of Evie’s attic like Bertha, the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; Taiwo and Iffe, her Nigerian caretakers; and Ade, Iffe’s son and Evie’s lifelong friend.
Like the titular character in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and the narrator in Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Evie is a quintessentially postmodern storyteller who struggles repeatedly against the inadequacy and unreliability of language, which, in tandem with her hearing, distorts her experience. Her “memory is a mausoleum of broken sounds”: “I feel an almost unbearable sadness when I think of all I have heard, the little I retain and everything that is gone, all those minute, unutterable tones which most faithfully encapsulate my history. I know that one day all the sounds will disappear…they will drift toward me like ghosts and timorously make themselves known…All I will be left with are these words.”
Like the 18th century French philosophes, who collectively wrote the Encyclopedia, or Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, Evie turns to material craft as a counterpoise to senescence: “whenever the sounds become a meaningless clamor and I cannot concentrate on my past, I turn my attention to the present, to the objects that surround me in the attic, those still, mostly silent companions.” Like Michael Ondaatje’s characters in The English Patient, both narrative cartography and cartographical narrative become heady lenses for her experience. Evie herself considers the cartographer, El Edrisi, her foil. In literary debt to both Shahrayar and Scheherezade of the Arabian Nights, Edrisi elides mapmaking with femininity, naming the women he seduces after geographical places of resonance, but also learning the intricate art of storytelling to woo the implacable Abila, and finally returning to his birthplace to become a mapmaker. Evie sees a kindred spirit in man and matter alike: “I was like…he who when ignorant of lakes and towns sketched savage beasts and elephants, and in place of contour lines created improbable realms.” But where at first she prizes map and story as amaranthine storehouses of human experience, they begin to refract memory and its loss. Once repositories of travelers’ dreams, maps, eaten by moths, decay, becoming equal parts “beauty” and “menace” to Evie.
Landscapes of attrition, loss, and regression proliferate in the novel, echoing the diminution of Evie’s hearing. The dream of the white man’s burden gone, its concomitant friendships and loyalties, such as Evie’s with Iffe, who literally turns her back on Evie at a public rally, the plangent moaning of Babatundi, the mute or “idiot boy” tragically bereft of words, the story of Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” #45 in F-sharp minor where one by one instruments leave the stage until only two muted violins carry the melody, all are indexical of Evie’s growing struggle to discern the notes of her own voice, the filaments of her own story, from the sonic imbrication and narrative polyphony to which she is ever sensitive. From “all the timbres at once, the whole diapason of life,” a soundscape directly indebted to the cacophony of Joyce’s Ulysses, whose hapless yet acutely percipient Leopold Bloom Evie mirrors almost to the word, the voice recedes into a conversation where Evie and Rafferty echo the “shall we go?/Let’s go” badinage of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:
Mr. Rafferty: It’s getting dark.
Me: Let’s get along.
Mr. Rafferty: Where to?
Me: Back home.
Mr. Rafferty: …
Mr. Rafferty: …
The words, like silent raindrops fall. The ellipses fade to silence. But, in the end, Evie prizes silence more than sound, telling her thespian lover, Damaris, that it bookends all music. Where the terpsichorean play of sound enlivened life, so the hushed spaces she hopes to find after burning all her archival materials, every item competing with her history like those in Jean Baudrillard’s episteme, carrying its own sound, offer prelapsarian tranquility. In a poetic hearkening of Auden’s line, “silence the pianos and with muffled drum…” early on, Evie revels in the quiet of all postwar fronts. By the novel’s end, she finds peace in the Audenian knowledge that “all the rest is silence/on the other side of the wall,/and the silence ripeness,/and the ripeness all.”