Stories of Secret Violence, Composing, 02/01/2017

A little while ago, I finished reading a novel The Transformation by Catherine Chidgey. I didn’t know anything about Chidgey’s work when I found the book. I literally discovered it at random.

I found Catherine Chidgey a skilled and charming writer, but falling
short of revolutionary in her art.
Seriously. At random. One of my neighbours in my building moved out and left a couple of books sitting on the radiator in our basement porch. I’d never heard of Chidgey until I picked up this very mildly water-damaged hardcover, abandoned and forgotten after moving day.

Every book deserves a good home and a few extra readers.

Its central character is an arrogant, over-wordy, incredibly pretentious, sociopathic wig-maker. Born in France, after some violent incidents and quite possibly the murder of his own mentor, he ends up in Tampa.

The book is set in the last years of the 19th century, in the prelude, event, and aftermath of the American invasion and occupation of Cuba during their war with Spain. A Cuban war refugee, a boy in the heat of his teens, is one of the major characters.

It’s a fairly standard story, but the unreliable narration of the wig-maker twists what the reader knows about its events. When he describes his own emotions meeting the major female character of the book – a young widow with distinctive white-blond hair – it’s almost an unintentional seduction.

It takes a couple of hundred pages of a reader’s discomfort at the slow drips revealing the wig-maker’s real personality for you to realize that he’s an obsessed stalker. It’s a very artful, skillful process. The wig-maker’s narration is literally his talking himself into doing increasingly horrible, vile acts.

It's clear to see Chidgey's influence from Vladimir
Nabokov – the unreliable narrator, using his power as
narrator to hide his true nature as a monster. But as an
artist, do you want to have influences or influence?
Not coming up with excuses, but calmly reasoning his way to ordering grave robbing for supplies of hair to build wigs. Or building the object of his affections a wig the size of Leibniz’s when she paid him for a bang fringe. Or locking a child away to harvest her hair.

The whole story isn’t told from his perspective, though. There are chapters following the widow and the Cuban boy when they’re away from the wig-maker’s knowledge, which are told in a near-omniscient third-person.

It reminds me of another book I read once about a similar charismatically violent sociopath, The Debt to Pleasure. It was basically the same form – an unreliable narrator guides you through his personality, slowly revealing enough about himself that you realize he’s a monstrous multiple-murderer. Chidgey’s character was a wig-maker, the other a chef.

I enjoyed the book – Chidgey’s writing style is crisp and florid. It’s suited to writing about the flowery yet intellectual empty culture and lifestyle of Florida at the end of Victoriana. She's a deft hand at those slow, Nabokov-inspired unfolding self-revelations in narration.

But I felt like there wasn’t much beyond this. It was a less intricate and less meta-textual version of the same story as Pale Fire – a monstrous sociopath presents a charming façade at first, but his continuing narration reveals his true nature.

It’s hard to ask someone to push beyond what a genius like Vladimir Nabokov did. But that’s what an artist ultimately has to do. Not just create art but progress it. Never to be satisfied in a shadow.

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