The Echo Chamber
An evocative and exquisitely written debut novel about family, empire and money.
Impressive in its scope and ambition, this first novel is at once a family saga, a book that reimagines the myth of the empire, and a history of objects. The Echo Chamber is narrated by fifty-four- year-old Evie Steppman, who grew up in Nigeria in the 1950s during the last decade of British rule. As a child, Evie exhibited extraordinarily acute powers of hearing; now, alone in an attic in Scotland that is filled with objects from her past and with her powers of hearing starting to fade, she sets out to record her history before it all disintegrates into a meaningless din. Tales of the twelfth-century mapmaker in Palermo, stories whispered by embittered expatriates, and eyewitness accounts from Nigeria's civil war mingle with Evie's memories of her childhood, of her grandfather, a watchmaker who attempted to forge a mechanical likeness of his dead wife, and of her travels across America. Williams's interest in history and storytelling and his talent for evoking multiple voices will remind readers of the work of David Mitchell, Peter Carey, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Listening, I gambolled in the womb. I turned somersaults and figures-of-eight. I saw nothing, felt only the warm stickiness of the amnion. No odours reached me in my chamber. Not the stink of gin or soap, spoiling meat or burnt oil. A mermaid sings. I was not a mermaid. A grub in a preserving jar floats in an azoic age. I was not that grub. Without conscience, I took in every sound.
And this is what I heard: the vicious spitting of feral cats, rug-beaters thwacking, traffic-bustle and crowds. Fat goats being led to market, their bleating disharmonious and afraid. Women pounding manioc. Hawkers singing shrill and repetitive love songs to vegetables, paeans to fish and fruit—Shrimps, prawns, smoked alive! Lovely oranges, lovely fresh oranges—and tailors, their sewing machines chattering in bursts. Hiss and splutters were street food cooking in palm oil. I heard the punishing of boy-thieves. And at all times of the day and night the ringing of insects. The womb, helped by the resonance of the amniotic fluid, sounded with the buzz, the flutterings, the shrill almost musical droning. And in the rainy season, thunder and the wild mutiny of rain, the curtain chord striking the window. I noted the coursing hum of blood. The sea too was almost always present.
When I was twelve weeks in the womb my parents embarked on a tour of Nigeria. We—the three of us—travelled up from Lagos, past Ibadan and Illorin and, after crossing the Niger River, to the city of Zaria where prayer-songs and cantillation echoed in my head, new sounds I took in hungrily. At Gusau I heard three bars of a chorus played on a piano, over and over again. My parents toured Nigeria and the quiet but invasive whisper of the sea was replaced by the sucking-noise of car tyres on muddied roads, forest paths, long-drawn footfalls and aspirate conversation. I recall the unique echoing of public spaces, antechamber, church, mosque, state hall. The splitting crackle of a bush fire. Bird notes, one especially I remember, a flute-like call. And another, a kind of boom resembling the distant baying of a hound. I heard the slapping of limbs during wrestling matches. The agonies of a constipated child.
And if the sounds swept in any-which-way, I too was indiscriminate; so that amid the commonplace I also heard that which is normally held aloof, set aside for night or passed off with a quick intake of air, things which cannot be repeated easily: District Officer’s dirty jokes, lovers’ sighs, the death agonies of men. All of us, in the echo chamber of the womb, are able to receive the wildest spectrum of sounds; it’s simply that we cannot retain them as we grow up. Who, in their maturity, can recall the special sound of sunlight? It rings in the ears as when one circles the top of a fine-wrought wine glass. And the tumescent heat of Nigeria which sprawls and rumbles like a jet aeroplane. I heard the almost unbearable sorrow of an elephant’s call, the sad music of the nightsoil workers at Five Cowrie Creek. I eavesdropped on smugglers’ tales, and they reminded me of prey-birds swooping, bent on murder. I perceived three worlds in the rhythm a girl beat out on an aluminium barrel at the same time each evening: the one that surrounds us, the reality that one can sense; the world of those who are dead and buried but continue to exist and may participate in our lives; and the splendid realm of objects, that hold in their very matter, despite their incapacity, the sign of everyone who has held them, traded, buried, smitten, pocketed, hurled, sought knowledge from, tapped out a rhythm on or packed away. My ears were keenly alert. They were small, yet they captured every sound.
It was not always this way. Because in the beginning, when I resembled a transparent grub, there was silence. In truth there was none because silence needs its other; and since I had no ears to speak of I had no noise and thus no silence. Rather, in the beginning there was a great emptiness. The silence was in me. And the silence was me. It lasted eighty days.
You grew up in Scotland. What drew you to write a novel set largely in Nigeria?
My uncle is originally from Ghana (he was adopted by my grandparents). As a child, I would ask him about the country of his birth but he was never willing to talk about it. So as a result, I developed a fascination with Ghana and West Africa generally. I went on to study West African history at university, focusing on the colonial period, and learned about the presence of the British in Nigeria. This encounter between two powers, and the resulting conflicts of belief, religion and language, fired my imagination and inspired the novel.
Evie frequently comments on her writing process as it's unfolding throughout the novel. Why did you decide to make her such a self-reflexive narrator?
It's not so much that I set out to make her self-reflexive; more that this was inevitable, given the premise. Evie recalls her past primarily through sound, so when she starts to go deaf she fears she will forget her past. She feels compelled to write her memories down before she loses them, hence her writing the book. That already makes her self-reflexiveshe is undertaking this project for a specific reason and comments on this process. But also, sound is not easily captured in words, and Evie comes to believe that the process of writing her story is changing, perhaps even corrupting, her past. Evie's feelings about this appear in the narrative, and form a kind of self-commentary on the writing of her history.
The Echo Chamber is among other things an extended meditation on silenceor the relation between silence and sound. What interests you most about this subject?
I think of the book, in part, as a conversation I'm having with the writers whom I've read and loved: Samuel Beckett, for instance, whose work deals brilliantly with silence; W. G. Sebald too interweaves silence, in the form of ellipses, into much of his writing. In examining sound in order to talk about silence I was also influenced by Italo Calvino. In Six Memos for a New Millennium he explores the concept of lightness through a dazzling study of its opposite. My aim in The Echo Chamber was to create this massive vocal cacophony of a book that would end in silence, like the proverbial and actual moment of silence after a storm.
At times your writing approaches the lyricism of poetry. As a writer, are you more engaged by music and metaphor than by narrative? Or do you feel these elements are equally important?
The great advantage composers have over writers is that music isn't obviously about anything. It has associations for sure, but no referents. Words, on the other hand, refer to things directlyobjects, emotions, places and so on. But there is always a slippage of meaning between a thing and its referent. That's why many writers, me included, mistrust language's ability to capture the world and our experience of it truthfully. So while I was inspired by music and also wanted my book to be alive to the music in language, I was also aware that novelsand this is one of their strengthshave the capacity to speak specifically about something, using narrative. There's no reason why abstraction should be incompatible with telling a story. So while I think the two elementsmusic and narrativeare in some senses opposed to one another, they are equally important for me as a novelist.
Many novelists struggle for years with their first book. How long did it take you to write The Echo Chamber? Did you revise the novel a great deal?
Hmm, it took me almost a decade to write! But for me those years of writing were more often a joy than a struggle. I didn't revise a whole lot. I took a lot of time over the planning and structuring of each chapter, so not too much revision was needed in the end.
Like much postmodern fiction, your novel incorporates different texts and a multivocal narrative. What is it about these and other postmodern strategies that engages you personally as a writer?
I tend to think of multivocalism in terms of collage or montage, and as such as much of a modernist practice as a postmodern one. I'm drawn to intertextuality because writing is for me as much about reading, and I want my work to reflect this. And I guess multivocal narrative is my way of addressing the issue that there is never just one way to tell a story.
Early in The Echo Chamber you reference the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, author of the magical novel The Street of Crocodiles. Has Schulz been a major influence on your work?
Yes, Schulz is a writer I very much admire. I mentioned earlier how I see The Echo Chamber as a conversation I'm having with all the writers who have influenced me, and for sure I include Schulz in this list. In fact, I included passages by him in my book. I love The Street of Crocodiles for its crooked narrative energies, its confounding range of reference and feeling, and for much else besides.
At various points in the novel, Evie questions the reliability of memory and the truth of her stories. Do you feel it's possible to discover significant truths through storytelling?
That's a difficult question to answer. I don't know that you can discover truths of the kind scientists aim for. But through storytelling, I think it's possible to approach significant aspects of experience and in the best cases to reach a realm of meaning that is not quite sayable. That's what I'm after. That's the really difficult thing.
What are you working on now?
Something very different, but which seeded from the experience of writing The Echo Chamber. Late in the novel Evie transcribes some diary entries from a former lover, and I asked the writer Natasha Soobramanien to produce them. She came up with something beautiful and surprising, and the diary entries make up what are chapters 25 and 26 of The Echo Chamber. The collaborative experience was amazingly fruitful and liberating and so Natasha and I decided to work on a joint novel-length project. It's a combination of fiction and creative nonfiction. Like in The Echo Chamber, transcription will also be one of the narrative strategies. We're exploring the history of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago, a British colony, currently leased to the United States for use as a military base.
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