- Schooling by Heather McGowan
Faber, 314 pp, £10.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 571 20651 4
Reading depends on memory: when one thing reminds you of another, however vaguely, both make sense. Even when the devil is in the plot, memory counts: the detective reminds the house party that the wound was inflicted from the left and you kick yourself for not remembering, once it’s been pointed out, that one of the guests swung her beads in her left hand. In this special sense, memory works both ways: what comes after has an effect on what comes before. A book without a memory – where each thing is written as if seen for the first or only time – would be a nightmare.
Schooling, Heather McGowan’s first novel, is nearly nightmarish: it means to tease you with nightmare.
Grey fog settles on the tracks. The wind picks up, swinging the sign Chittock Leigh Chittock Leigh. A rattling from down the platform is not the sign but a fourthformer at the vending machine. A day Father drove her to Euston himself. Took the morning off work, bought her the ticket, pressing it into her palm as if she weren’t the same girl who’d spent the summer caroming around the new city with a tube map, no lunch, cinema schedule. To the perfume counter at Selfridge’s, the market, a warren of stalls selling old pewter teapots and military overcoats. Lawrence of Arabia twice, A Brief Encounter which takes place much of it on a train platform.
The phrases follow the order in which a person might sense these things, sometimes point for point. ‘A rattling’, a sound, comes before the location, ‘down the platform’, which comes before a thought about what the sound might be, ‘is not the sign’, which comes before the right answer. It feels like freeze-frame perception – a second dissected – but it’s almost unbearable in its slowness: it would be an inhuman rate to be stuck at. However, it’s an anomalous sentence, because elsewhere connections are made. ‘Chittock Leigh Chittock Leigh’ is a kind of micro-memory – the rhythm of a banging sign on a station platform like the rhythm of a train. And then we are in full flow: ‘military overcoats’ leads to Lawrence of Arabia and one memory brings on another. But this is a book, and connections aren’t only made with what you already know. ‘Caroming’ is an unusual word, one you remember, and it appears again towards the end of the book, applied to a moth senselessly beating itself against an unlit lamp.
The term ‘stream of consciousness’ is supposed to apply to writing like this (the typographical oddities help). It fits well in a novel, because the kinds of connection that come with daydreaming – what you see reminds you of something, which reminds you of something else – are like the connections involved in reading. But it’s not as straightforward a trick as it seems. No writing is transcribed thinking, because even if we knew exactly what was passing through someone’s head, reading it would be impossible. The stream of consciousness is an illusion, a fiction like any other, a term as meaningless as ‘realism’ – or rather, meaningful only with reference to convention. A writer has to make choices about what to put in and what to leave out. And being stuck in a single person’s head can be trying: it’s a limitation that can be got round only by infiltrating thoughts and phrases that belong elsewhere into the interior monologue; usually it’s done surreptitiously so that the illusion isn’t broken. Even Mrs Dalloway doesn’t play the game by the rules. In the first few paragraphs of Clarissa’s initial wanderings, there is an interruption: ‘For it was the middle of June. The War was over.’ It’s not the sort of thing Clarissa would need to tell herself, but there has to be something to tether the writing, to tell us where we are. And though it’s done with words Clarissa might use, the jumble of thoughts that surround this is elegantly arranged. Schooling is different: it does away with tethers, forcing you to find your own bearings, to follow the clues to figure out exactly what has been going on. It also plays with the idea of its own illusion, always reminding you that this is a game.