x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The Echo Chamber: A symphony of fragments without a tune

Luke Williams's novel of a woman who is obsessed with sound is crammed with information and contains big ideas, but in the cacophony ends up saying too little.

The Echo Chamber
Luke Williams
Viking Adult
Dh62
The Echo Chamber Luke Williams Viking Adult Dh62

The Echo Chamber tells the story of Evie Steppman, a middle-aged, Nigerian-born Scot whose acute sense of hearing has given her a lifelong obsession with sound.

Alone in an attic in Edinburgh, pained by the onset of deafness and surrounded by mementoes of her past, she pieces together an assortment of histories - her own, her family's, and that of late colonial Nigeria: "Inspired by the din in the attic, the sounds of my past begin to rise to a clamour. The remnants of all I have heard, once clear but now shrill and indecipherable, are screeching in my ears, as though I have walked into an aviary."

The cacophony doesn't let up for the whole book: we read diaries, letters, encyclopaedia entries, loving appropriations from the works of Bruno Schultz and Günter Grass, and, most typical of this mode of contemporary literature, lists.

The title is borrowed from the autobiography of Roland Barthes, one of the poststructuralist philosophers of language who remain hugely influential in literary criticism and beyond. The figure of the echo chamber was intended to suggest the interlocking influences that, Barthes felt, are the fabric out of which both books and human identities are woven.

From the title down, The Echo Chamber explicitly signals that this is a book with big ideas, but it's a lot less cerebral than it sounds. In many ways, it reads like a conventional novel. It has been described as ambitious, but I wondered if, in the end, Williams didn't quite have the courage of his own convictions.

A first-time novelist, Williams draws together his many elements with considerable confidence. The diary of Evie's ex-lover is among the most engaging parts of the book - and a note at its end lets us know that it was written by Natasha Soobramanien, a writer with whom Williams is currently collaborating on another novel.

This gesture reveals the best and worst of The Echo Chamber: its openness to its lineage is exciting, but its failure to speak precisely is disappointing. It may be that, in an irony that would please a poststructuralist, Williams has ended up saying too little by trying to say too much.

Ten years after James Wood first invented the term "hysterical realism" to describe the kind of big, sprawling novel that attempts to cram reality into its pages through a process of mad accumulation, many of his observations still stand.

Wood's contention, in his now-famous review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, was that these books "know a thousand things, but do not know a single human being". His argument contains a clutch of questionable assumptions about the novel, and it's evident that the best of the "hysterical realists" - Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo - have at their peak produced remarkable works of fiction.

Yet it is equally clear that the often less-than-benign influence of the big book has produced myriad lesser novels that signal their ambition through an exhausting array of miscellanea, rather than an attentiveness to their own form.

For all its virtues, The Echo Chamber strays into this category. Evie even keeps a tin of "unica, a term which signifies objects that are the only one of their kind". Each unique object, subsumed under the sign of uniqueness, becomes, curiously, only an example of uniqueness, and therefore not unique at all.

In reply to James Woods' review, Zadie Smith talked about the difficulty of finding a mode of writing that would be "equal to these times". The big, quirky book full of details has emerged in the era of information hyperinflation: data is more accessible and more fragmented than ever. You can see why novelists succumb to the temptation to give themselves over to information free fall, but in doing so they run the risk of rendering everything fungible. In The Echo Chamber, we read accounts of both a 1970s David Bowie tour and Nigerian civil war atrocities, the sewers of Lagos and the parks of Edinburgh. All are engaging, but Williams leaves it deliberately unclear what he wants to do with this wealth of material. In a turn that reveals something of the book's uncertainty about itself, Evie eventually resolves to stop writing entirely, apparently disabused of the whole project of storytelling. In its variety and lack of resolution, The Echo Chamber is a little like going somewhere for dinner and being presented with a heap of groceries still in their supermarket bags, while the cook languishes in the kitchen, exhausted by the effort of choosing what to buy.

Crammed with information, ranging from musical trivia to undigested slabs of colonial history, the novel is deliberately encyclopaedic in its reach.

Stories, we're reminded, create their own realities, and there is a gap between writing and the world. In this context, it's hard to know what to make of the chapters that narrate atrocities in Nigeria during the colonial period and the Biafran war. Evie's response is usually to tell us that she is struggling to write, or think, or sleep: "Three weeks ago I completed my transcription of Ade's letter. Since then I've been barely able to write ... The only unceasing noise is the ringing in my ears, now nearer, now further, now filling my head."

Williams seems to be suggesting that there is something fundamentally incomprehensible about these inhumane acts, that they resist writing. Because of this essentially apolitical stance, we learn very little about the situation in Nigeria. All is explained if we remember that this is a Barthes-influenced echo chamber. Barthes' approach to language dissolves the self, the book and the world into a free-floating chain of impressions, like acid breaking up an enzyme. It's a freedom to speak that can come at the expense of the ability to speak meaningfully about politics.

Williams is preoccupied with the problem of the unreliable narrator, in all of its permutations. Unreliable senses: "Did I really 'see' these strange visions? Or was it the raging in my head that led me to type out those false imaginings?" Unreliable memories: "But perhaps I am confusing several different occasions, and different times." Unreliable language: "How dim and unnatural words are!"

That this is a well-worn trope doesn't make it any less worth rehearsing, but the language of the book seems strangely undisturbed by its knowledge of its own unreliability. It often veers into a soft-focus Victoriana, peppered with the hoariest possible clichés: "But I am getting ahead of myself"; "I must press on with my story".

Like, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, The Echo Chamber borrows the structures of experimentation as a frame for an essentially conventional novel. Williams studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where he was taught by WG Sebald. And it's obvious from his references that he has read well and widely. But his hearing, unlike Evie's, is lopsided: he is tuned in to the multiplicity of these forebears, rather than their rigour.

Perhaps it's the experience of studying creative writing or the obsession with literary "voice" that leads writers such as Williams to strain so hard for distinctiveness, so hard that the writing is sometimes weighed down by its affectations: "For instance, when Father recited portions of Gray's Anatomy I was able to construct a crude map of my body. I felt my ear like a tiny conch. I came to think of tibia and fibula as sisters. I had only a partial idea of the shape of the human form; instead I gestured outward. I mapped the geography of Narium Minor, following in my mind the Intercostal Artery to the Costal Cartilages, where, across a thin and sanguine sea, Pectoralis Minor began."

The satisfying similarity between place-names and body-parts is commonplace, and imputing it to a foetus doesn't make it any fresher. These overwritten passages could have done with a kind editor.

The self-deconstructing, portmanteau book is in a sense an abdication of authorial responsibility. In Theodor Adorno's words, it "exempts itself of the burden of giving form". That seems crazy to say about this novel, which is if anything over-concerned with form - chapters have self-conscious titles, and the constant borrowing reveals an appreciation of literature's formal qualities. But the narrative constantly unpicks itself in order to write about the difficulty of writing. However well crafted Williams' symphony of fragments, a novel isn't just a distinctive enunciation: good novels speak from a particular position, from within a particular politics, and in a particular time. Williams already has a way of speaking - hopefully in his next novel, we'll find out more about what he wants to say.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.