What is a story? The question broadly resembles parallel queries in the arts and sciences. In Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider recently glimpsed a particle which, expressing a certain field, provides a quality called mass to other, fundamental particles. At Liverpool Tate, you can currently see work by Turner, Monet and Twombly; and can wonder at reckless, seemingly offhand brushwork which yet amounts to a recognition of form, or else explores its conditions. What Gunn pursues in her new fiction is not dissimilar to what those painters and physicists also seek. How does fiction acquire its narrative mass? Can sheer contingency amount in the end to a recognisable and palpable story?
Originally, Gunn was haunted by a singular image. A man in his eighties, feeling death’s closeness, stood among the hills of Sutherland in Scotland’s remote north, a poorly clad newborn baby girl in his arms. Who was he? Whose baby was this? Why was he heading at first light for an inaccessible place? How was this situation possible among those he lived with? For Gunn, the questions were begged by the power of the image. She spent the better part of a decade finding an approach. The result is The Big Music, which opens with this strong and strange scene.
Gunn wanted much more than answers, however: she also sought form. Her assemblage of ostensibly found materials turns out to have been, in the tradition of Mansfield and Woolf, as much a matter of rhythm as of shape; and so, to borrow Henry James’s formulation, “the story won’t tell” straightforwardly. Events emerge from sometimes ephemeral materials collated from an amorphous jumble of documents and tapes sifted, processed and presented by a narrating mind. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake offers an analogous experience, with narrative events pending through a screen of verbal and ideational contingency.
But whereas Gunn’s lyrically dense earlier fictions, notably Rain, The Keepsake, Featherstone, and The Boy and the Sea, were in a sense sustained prose-poems built around extended conceits, richly textured in terms of phoneme and image, here she has chastened her facility. The prose is spare. There is little elaboration, even syntactically. The burden of meaning is borne wholly by the larger conceptual frame – a formal mimesis of classical Scottish bagpipe music, comprising a ground melody leading to and comprehending significant variations. The divisions of the book notice and respond to the technical names for those musical movements.
This is apt. The somewhat demented old man comes of a long line of pipers. He believes his last, as yet unfinished composition, “Lament for Himself”, needs this abducted child’s presence to help him find the defining note. It is a reckless stroke. His unheeding of any responsibility except to his art, is understood – indeed matched – by the abandon of Gunn’s text, an apparently blind search for inchoate, looming shape driven only by the technical needs of the music. Gunn also provides a critical apparatus of fictional notes which continually cross-refer, along with a set of documentary-style appendices. These are the story’s matrices, which render its operations liminal, at once providing and deferring closure, in a revelation of reticence. The identity of the narrating “I” is at the last seen as complicit, once the family situation gains purchase on the reader’s mind.
The reader must join Gunn in making this story. Its particular mass will be an emergent property, a reading of a wider field of force. Readers can thereby discover, in and through this roughness of found then sorted materials, a history worth caring about; and can feel what it means to grace difficult lives with a natural and shapely gravity.