John Mason Brown claimed that a critic preferred the indolence of opinion to the trials of actions. At the critical DLR, we find ourselves so indolent that we can’t even be bothered to rouse ourselves to the action of literary criticism. So, we’ve asked someone else to do it for us.
In the first of our variously authored literary reviews, a good friend of the DLR takes us through what The Independent has already described as a “remarkable novel”: The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams.
Echoes of empire
The Echo Chamber is Luke Williams’s debut novel. If ‘debut’ makes you think of quickly written first novels that recount an author’s own life, then please think again. The Echo Chamber is an imaginative epic, stuffed with meticulous observations and complex characters. Stories echo within stories, and at the centre of these is that of Evie Steppman, a woman with an extraordinarily keen sense of hearing.
Evie is a middle-aged woman striving to turn a series of fragmented memories into a history of the men and women of British Africa, ‘the dreamers of Empire’, during the time of the British departure from Nigeria. At least this is her initial aim. She subsequently claims to be faithfully recording her past ‘before it becomes tinnitus and is lost’. Ultimately she talks of silence – ‘the true subject of my history’. Her approach ranges from a lyrical interview to a series of stories – some of which she claims to have first heard in the womb – to the transcription of diaries and letters that she has collected throughout her life. These she has gathered together in the cold and cluttered attic of her father’s house in Gullane, Scotland, where a mappa mundi hanging on the wall slowly disintegrates.
Through Evie, and her voices of British Africa, Williams delivers a deeply nuanced study of storytelling, here framed by a particular moment in Nigeria’s colonial history. Extracts from Williams’ own compilation of source material (listed in the endpapers of the book) are rewritten in The Echo Chamber as disjointed tales of Empire, of migration and exile, of avariciousness, brutality, struggle and repression. Some are told with an attitude of wonderment, without seeming to question the wrongdoing at hand. Others are written from a position of remorse. And in the midst of all this Williams presents Evie’s intricate study of sound as well as her search for silence.
It started with the sound of rain. One afternoon, pressing my ear against the underside of the onion table, I drew back sharply, for the vibrations thundered in my head; how violently the rain drummed on that hard surface! After that I began to listen into or within its grain, and soon I started to pick out its individual elements. I noted, for instance, the hissing as it fell through the elephant grass, and the slap and thud as it beat off roads, sounding like a team of barefoot runners sprinting over wet sand; also the high percussive noise as drops bounced off pots and pans; and when it passed through plants and foliage, the noise was more like a continuous sigh; which I set apart from the drops filtering through trees; or the brighter pop and loose tripping of the water falling and flowing in the gutter; or the violent clatter on corrugated iron, which sounded like prisoners banging tin cups against the bars of their cells. Sitting beneath the onion table, I found I was able to isolate the individual tones, set them apart and, as it were, spread them before me.
In the noisy theatre of a market in Lagos, where Evie grows up, we meet the main players of her early life: Iffe, who presents Evie with a vision of Nigeria that is full of hope and nobility, and her son, Ade, who offers Evie friendship, and takes her on forbidden visits to see a boy called Babatundi. In episodes reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Evie’s loss of innocence (both physical and political) takes place on her path with Ade from Iffe to Babatundi. But along Evie’s way are also the stories of the massacre at Benin, the slum clearances of Lagos and the brutality of Babatundi’s brother Sagoe, who brilliantly and horrifically characterises the novel’s portrayal of humanity at its most inhumane.
The tone of the book becomes heavier as the narrator’s powers of hearing fail her. The noise in her head, of the chatter and the confessions of the people in her past, grows as she writes. Doubting the truths within her history, she takes increasing solace in transcription, and it is tempting to suspect that Williams found comfort in this process too. Eventually the narrative is handed over entirely to Damaris, a former lover. The switch from Evie’s lament to Damaris’s diary is a moment of light relief within the book: Evie, who hears so well, has fallen in love with a mime artist. We begin to hear Evie as Damaris states, ‘Like most people with terrible voices, she sings with great enthusiasm.’ We begin to see her as Damaris describes her: as a man-woman; her super-powered ears as paddle-ish. Evie’s history-writing is halted. She is reduced to echoing these words in indignation. ‘Paddle-ish!’
Two hours from Washington we get out at a truck stop and order pancakes. Evie chats to a big-shouldered man on his way to a cattle auction. Asks if she can record him. They go outside into the parking lot. I see her point up at the sky. A single cloud. Can’t hear but I can tell. Auction that, she’s saying. He fixes his eyes on the cloud. Inhales deeply. Launches into a spiel without stopping. A controlled kind of babbling. He looks possessed, eyes rolled up at the sky like that. Evie stands amazed, holding out her mic. He’s finished. For a moment, Evie’s static with shock, then she launches into gestures of amazement.
She played it to us now on the bus. Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A foreign language. A kind of yodelling. Like the same two strings on a banjo twanged again and again, a rhythm to his babble, and remembering how he looked possessed, I think of speaking in tongues. And then it occurs to me. What Evie is doing with her project. She is divorcing sound from gesture. Opposite to me.
This section of the book has a different tone to the rest for a reason, as it was authored by another writer, Natasha Soobramanien, on Williams’ invitation. Soobramanien’s involvement in the book draws a critical parallel between Evie Steppman and Williams himself. For Evie’s difficulty in writing her history – so vividly portrayed – touches upon the difficulty of any author writing any history. Upon the problem – and the possibilities – of the historian’s reliance on unreliable source material, re-imagined memories and other people’s voices.
When Evie, and Williams, again pick up the narrative, it feels good to return with them to the comparative safety of Evie’s attic; to consider her world afresh after her introduction by Damaris to a Western world of beautiful freaks, space oddity, art and love’s ability to threaten your very sense of self. It is dreadful to discover how terrifying silence, or the impossibility of silence, can be for Evie. And it is moving to read of the sun-bleached patterns on the wall of the attic where the mappa mundi once hung.
As Evie writes, ‘Soon after, we came to a halt. Not a conclusion, nothing so satisfying.’ And the book draws stutteringly to a close. The Echo Chamber is not an historical epic but an epically digressive work, which deliberately begins to eat itself before it gets to the end. As such the reigning motif of the disintegrating mappa mundi is vital. But it is the insistent return to observations of sound and silence that holds Williams’ novel together. Where the writers and historiographers that he acknowledges as influential – from W.G. Sebald through Samuel Beckett to Hayden White – undertake writing in opposition to forgetfulness, or consider language as something to mistrust, or history as akin to fiction, Williams’ characters are assembled to examine all of these things: to create noise and to be silenced. It is in the sound of silence, that which follows an outrage or a protest, that The Echo Chamber presents its own critique of history and its telling.