- 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.
Most of the episodes in the book are presented from the perspective of Catrine Evans, a 13-year-old American at an English boarding school. You would expect a child’s-eye view to be used to make you see familiar things in unexpected ways. Nicholson Baker’s The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998) is about a nine-year-old schoolgirl (also an American in England), and it’s written in her voice in the third person, as if she were telling the tale with herself as hero; she’s a happy fabulist, endlessly concocting ‘just so’ stories to explain why things are the way they are. Schooling, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to be the world according to Catrine. Events that have yet to happen creep into the supposed present, with results like this: ‘When Vicar honked from outside they walked down the rock path to the faulty car though they did not yet know the tyre would puncture.’ The logic is immaculate: the sequence of events is preserved, even though the car has yet to move. As Catrine is being shown to bed by a teacher, there is: ‘You have pyjamas, he seems confused, this will be the night of the moth.’ ‘You have pyjamas’ is his question, but without the standard punctuation the sentence looks like logic of another kind, an exercise in conjugation. When the subject is switched rapidly in this way, you end up not knowing whose head you’re in; there is no inside or outside, nothing that is certainly speech, and the verbal patterns take over in ways that seem to suggest significances that aren’t apparent. The dislocation of the words doesn’t stand for a way of looking at things: it belongs to the book.
So the point is in the telling, not the story, which might seem just as well, because not very much happens in Schooling, and when you leave the writing aside you’re left with a boarding-school book with a boarding-school story, and the characters are what you’d expect to find. Here are a few of them: Teddy Evans, Catrine’s Welsh father, who loves her very much and tries to make up for her missing mother, who died not long before; Mr Gilbert, the chemistry teacher with too-short trousers, who takes Catrine on painting trips and gets too close to her for some of his colleagues’ comfort, as well as (possibly) for Catrine’s; the disappointed Mr Betts, who teaches English and is infatuated with Madame Araigny, the French teacher with only nine fingers, but has a wife and children hidden in the town and is ashamed of who he has become; Owen Wharton, the Older Boy who appears from time to time clad in motorbike leathers to offer warnings; Aurora Dyer, the horsey girl who burns down the cricket pavilion; Brickie, who ‘has something’ on Catrine, which turns out to be a story about Mr Stokes, the current headmaster, who lost his eye when he asked Teddy Evans, his contemporary at school, to shoot him in the leg to avoid his national service. When Teddy refused, Stokes let his gun go off accidentally, losing his eye when the bullet ricocheted. It all feels very familiar, though it’s hard to say exactly how.
This is deliberate. Schooling is constantly nodding towards genre. Teddy, as befits a father in his dotage, seems to have spent his time at Monstead in a riot of japes and larks. But to a degree this is mythologising: the stories he regales Catrine with all have names and he offers them up as familiar treats – ‘Hamey Eats the Bird the famous How I Did Not Marry Miranda Watson the Barrister’s Daughter’. Catrine is constantly brought up short by the staged, hackneyed appearance of her new home; she is ‘dropped in the middle of a boarding school plot’. She makes a few stories of her own, led astray, her teachers think: notably, she arranges a group of older boys in a nude composition on a playing field, for Art’s sake: ‘Four ruddy schoolboys posed against a swampy backdrop. Flash shoe difficult to. Hurry the fuck up, yank. Mutiny of the odalisques. Hold on. Struggling with the F-stop as the boys marble with the cold, ruining her composition.’ Naturally, this type of set-up is preparing us for the entrance of a fool: Betts, having importuned Madame Araigny for a stroll, wanders into the scene. ‘Right out of de Sade . . . Mr Betts fusty strides . . . Indecent . . . Pornographic I could say.’ People are constantly making entrances, and stage directions intrude into the text: ‘Exit Mr Gilbert stage right’ means a moment of drama, as he strides off in (rather forced) pique. Drama isn’t the only form the writing plays with when characters’ behaviour seems all too familiar. When the untrustworthy Gilbert has failed to keep a rendezvous with Catrine in the library, his apology comes as music: ‘The strings prepare for a bridge to contrition . . . Glissando, I’m terribly terribly sorry. Quietly now in preparation for a final crescendo.’ Of course, it turns out that Gilbert’s mother was ill and Catrine wants to say: ‘A Familiar Enough Tale’. The staginess is a way of showing that people behave in predictable ways, but it also shows that they are aware of the roles they are playing. When Catrine is having tea and toast with Gilbert at his house, an old friend of his appears at the window. ‘After ensuring Catrine notices that Dido notices that Catrine is wearing Gilbert’s sweater, Dido enters the parlour setting.’ A professional entrance: it’s all in the timing. In ways like this, the theatrical is mixed with the real, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to tell where the performance ends. Owen Wharton, the mysterious Older Boy, assembles a cast for a performance of The Birds, and rehearsals begin, but the script they are reading through begins to encompass events around them: suddenly the pavilion has burned down again. The script re-enacts what has been happening, but in slippery ways, and characters begin in one role and end up in another. The director struggles – ‘wharton (throwing down script): I can’t keep up with this’ – but there’s some comfort in the idea that people can’t be entirely contained within one role.
In Schooling, the dramatic arrangement is so prominent that the real world seems far away. Places referred to are slightly dislocated: Gilbert takes Catrine to the university town of Oxbow, where he and Betts studied; the London of the book has nothing in it you recognise exactly. But there’s another kind of teasing at work: the suggestion that the book might take you away from the Woolfian aesthetic into a grittier world. The first chapter ends as Catrine’s father is driving her to her new home, trying to bring her out of herself with his usual stories: ‘discovering worlds within worlds, can you imagine the heritage here this place where I once was how you’ll love the old school where they debate so fiercely, they read such books, they marvel at science.’ A line break, and Chapter 2 begins: ‘They sniff glue.’ But it’s another false lead: there’s very little glue-sniffing, and this is how the real world presents itself, as noises off. At one point, apparently, the American President is shot, but we only hear this third-hand as Catrine rabbits away to Teddy when he comes to pick her up: ‘Father did you hear about the president the American one shot in the back outside a restaurant.’ Which President? Why? This, which impinges only slightly on Catrine (her classmates think it’s a good thing because of the President’s enthusisasm for the Bomb), feels as if it ought to remind you of something. Someone at least must have been shot in the back outside a restaurant, and we’re used to things being there for a reason. But we’re also used to trying to work out what the reasons might be.
In the final chapters, Catrine, in passing, picks up an envelope with a Spanish stamp she finds in the road; she puts it into her all-swallowing canvas bag, where she keeps her relics, including her ‘Gilbert original’, a handkerchief he’d covered with paint. It rings a bell: Catrine has been hoping for letters from Isabelle, the friend she’d had in America; it’s not clear where Isabelle is now, though there is the odd clue when Catrine thinks of her: ‘I can see the flamenco dancers kept in her mirror and the way –.’ Bells are always ringing. Owen Wharton describes a girl tying her rabbit to a parked car, with unhappy consequences: ‘A child will think, if a car’s parked, why would it move.’ When I read this sentence it seemed to remind me of something – something in the book? – and then I remembered I’d heard it on the radio that morning: two children had been in a car when it started moving and rolled into a lake; they drowned. Reading Schooling is like this: what you’re reminded of is always somewhere else, inside or outside the book; reality intrudes. Soon after arriving at Monstead, Catrine starts revealing to people that on an idle day in Maine she and Isabelle (maybe) killed a man. They dug an old tyre out of the dirt and set it rolling down the hill; it knocked a man off his motorbike. But it’s never clear what happened: the event is constantly reinterpreted in Catrine’s mind; sometimes it disturbs her and sometimes she tells the story to amuse. By the end she has rewritten it entirely: ‘The man got up brushed off his knees looked once up the hill then back to where the tyre landed he shook his head once he shook his head again Well that’s an anomaly in these parts.’ It helps to keep reality at bay: Gilbert has erased the memory of exactly what he did with Catrine on a night at his mother’s house; she remembers, but for her it becomes ‘the night of the moth’ which inexplicably played around her bed – and then, by the tiredness of repetition, ‘the night of the you know what’.
Sometimes it’s difficult to see whether there’s anything there through the fog. When Owen Wharton appears in front of Catrine for the first time, he asks: ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Do you even exist?’ she says. ‘That’s not very polite,’ he replies. (Quotation marks mine.) Seeing doesn’t come naturally: you have to learn how to do it. This is what Gilbert’s painting lessons are for. ‘When I ask what colour’s this and you say Green, don’t laugh that’s exactly how you said it, Green, well I put it to you, what about loden? What about teal or jonquil? Where the hell’s barium?’ It’s a good point, which Catrine takes seriously at first: things don’t necessarily look like you expect them to; they are precisely themselves and can’t bear comparison. It’s a lesson the book has learned. There are no metaphors, exactly, though phrases like ‘the morning sun a cold ball above’ can have you fooled, until you remember that a few lines above Catrine has been at a football match. By this metonymic sleight of hand, McGowan gets away with unusual formulations – ‘The chair presses a mondrian into the back of her legs’ (Catrine has just been discussing him); it’s clever, because it would be a shame if opportunities such as these were missed. One thing may affect the way another thing feels – skimming stones takes on a certain quality for Catrine because the way she’s taught to hold them, like clasping a waist between thumb and forefinger, is a reminder of Gilbert’s characteristic gesture – but this doesn’t make them identical.
Catrine’s lessons in seeing are filtered through Gilbert, however, and Gilbert is unreliable. Some of his remarks on the art of painting seem as though they aren’t meant to refer to brushstroke technique. The message he begins with – don’t draw what you know must be there, but what you see – is transmuted by the end into its opposite: sometimes you have to rely on what you know rather than what you see, which feels by this point like a coded suggestion about what she should do with the memory of what she thinks she saw of him on the night of the moth. When he contradicts himself in other ways, she starts to react sceptically to his lessons. She’s concerned about the other women in his life: Dido, who teaches at Oxbow, and who he eventually reveals he was married to; and Fi Hammond, a girl doing her O-levels, who he claims to have no opinion of other than that she’s a good student. And then there are the blue nudes he keeps stacked away in the spare bedroom. On one of their later outings, Catrine begins a canvas in dull browns, in the style, she declares, of Thomas Cole, who he’d told her not to like: but she has decided to be contrary. Clearly, Catrine doesn’t want to be seen as just another girl. Can’t the teacher reck his own rede? At one point, Gilbert, treading on thin ice, begins to say she reminds him of someone. But he extricates himself: ‘No, I love you like yourself, like my very own Punchinello. I never made you into something you weren’t, into some replacement, some –’ ‘Analogy,’ Catrine finishes. In this book, where sight counts, and everything has to be seen for itself, there is nothing worse than analogy.
Alone in London, Catrine takes herself off to a gallery, and is looking at the paintings when a woman approaches her and takes exception to her attitude, insisting that she has a thing or two to learn if she is to be loved.
I said, because I was proud, I have a head with individual character. She didn’t like that much, saying, When you are naked you are ideal, that is if you are a true nude. If you insist on owning all this character on your head or in your face well so be it, but you will never be a study. Character compromises, dear girl.
She rubs it in when Catrine bites back, saying: ‘if you continue to speak in that tone of voice you will never be analogous.’ There is a trick to being seen properly as much as there is to seeing – one Gilbert can’t teach her. If you are to be liked, you have to be like other people, not self-willed; you have to be analogous, to be interchangeable with Fi Hammond or Dido. Catrine won’t have it; to her father she complains: ‘I want to have character I don’t want to be compromised.’ Her interlocutor in the gallery has it wrong: it’s lack of character that compromises. Being is more important than seeing – you can’t, after all, see something as itself if it isn’t – and this is the most elaborate tease of all. There’s a lesson in this, that puts the writerly games of experimental fiction – games that aim to teach you to see – in their proper place. In fact, there’s a lesson on it too: Catrine attends a class on the subject of the eye.
An eye is not a thing unto itself like bear or chicken you see it is attached by an optical nerve to an object called brain or the old grey matter. An eye cannot be set upon the world to make its fortune. It needs constant attention and cannot simply be left to fend for itself. I ask you, have you ever seen an eye at a junction, stick over one shoulder, red handkerchief knotted at the end? Or in a lorry headed south for winter? Be sensible, an eye has no thumb so how can it hitch?
One of the games Gilbert and Catrine play is to award each other points. A witty comment here, a nice gesture there, will up the score. Catrine is a hard marker, but fair; Gilbert briefly merits 92, but his score hovers in the eighties, despite all his efforts. Gilbert, who doesn’t have her sense of perspective, rates her ridiculously high, and she tells him so. What she keeps herself from telling him is that really to her he was always a perfect hundred. He is, after all, himself – he wears black socks and his clothes don’t fit – and that deserves everything. I want to say that Schooling is the best book I’ve ever read, but it isn’t, exactly. It is, on the other hand, the only book I’ve ever read quite in this way and the only book so quite unlike any other. It gives you faith that novels can be different, which is a bigger thing that it sounds.
With all the connections, the memories and half-memories, meanwhile, Heather McGowan has written herself out of her book. It’s normal for a writer to have pathologies that creep into what they say and which tell you who they are: McGowan remains invisible. But there are clues; she does at least have predilections: Lawrence of Arabia, for example. While Catrine is still trying to adjust to life in England and the archaic complexity of the school, she thinks: ‘What did Lawrence mean. Sand is less confusing than shrubbery.’ Lawrence is a totem, used to screw up courage. Catrine likes to fight, but she is warned: ‘You are not Lawrence, Evans, this is not your Arabia.’ She doesn’t agree, and wonders at one point: ‘What’s the trick they asked Lawrence when he put his hand in the flame. The trick is not minding.’ Which is a way of telling herself she can get by even when she feels hurt. One line from the movie appears twice: ‘My name is for my friends.’ You’d better believe it.