Review: The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn


Is it a novel at all?! Neil Stewart finds much to annoy even the most dedicated reader in Kirsty Gunn’s new book

Review The Big Music Kirsty Gunn

Ah, the bagpipes: played well, capable of making the heart of even the most deracinated Scot surge with joy; played badly, of making us long to hear instead the soothing sounds of foxes copulating. Music composed for and played on the pipes is known as piobaireachd, and can take the form either of a “little music” for celebrations and dances, or Ceol Mor, which translates rather wonderfully from the Scots Gaelic as “the big music” – a music for laments and sorrowful times. Comprising repeated themes that are returned to and elaborated over and over, differently each time, before simply “fading away” whenever the piper chooses to end his tune, it’s a structurally novel form, and one that Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music utilises as the structure for a novel.

Or is it a novel? In a preamble which has all the hallmarks of the favourite 19th-century trick of introducing a controversial text via an “editor” to whom the manuscript is supposed to have been passed (James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a suitably Scots example), Gunn herself sets out what will follow: a trove of apparently “real” notes, diary entries, transcripts and even little bits of play-script she has discovered during her researches, all concerning the (also apparently real) Mackay family of Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland. Her role, she claims, has been to assemble the heap of notes she’s found into a narrative, around the structure of the piobaireachd. There’s a nice pun here on “arrangement” in a musical as well as an editorial sense, but that’s small consolation when the preamble feigns humility (“my poor attempts at drawing together a text”) shortly after describing what will follow as “[a] millefeuille of pages … Not so much a story as a place, a world”.

My near endless goodwill was exhausted by these incessant, often smug-sounding footnotes. In the end I was tempted to make my own arrangement of the various sections by forcibly removing them from the book and scattering them in the air

So, hackles raised, we turn the page. We read the outline of how a piece of the Big Music would be structured, in movements and refrains and, therefore, how The Big Music will be. We turn another, and there we see it: our first footnote.

Footnotes in a contemporary text are an easy signifier that we’re in the realm of playful, even – whisper it – postmodern fiction: think David Foster Wallace’s “under the line” commentaries, or the playful, recursive fiction(s) of Junot Diaz, John Barth or Mark Z. Danielewski. In these examples, notes skip alongside the main text, commenting on it, amending and addending it, even undermining it wholly by drawing the main story into the apparent margins – all the while reminding us of postmodernism’s assertions about the impossibility of objective truth.

In The Big Music, footnotes serve a different function: they irritate. The main text of the book – I’ll get on to the appendices shortly – runs to 377 pages, and includes more than 200 footnotes. Most of these draw attention to the structure of the book (“More on this can be found in the preceding Taorluath section” – yes, I know, I’ve just read it). Others simply repeat prior information: on p.115, the four movements of piobaireachd music are summarised, for maybe the fourth or fifth time (and by no means the last). On p.272, a footnote reminds us “The relevance of [the Little Hut, John Sutherland’s hideaway, as a] place of composition has already been noted in earlier sections”. The “arrangement” of texts within The Big Music may be intended to look contingent, potentially moveable, like the chapters of that Modernist touchstone, B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which are bound individually and presented in a box so that the reader can pick his own random order to read them in. Presented in a similar way, The Big Music could have been forgiven its constant reiterations – but it isn’t: it’s presented as 400-odd pages for you to read in sequential order. The sad thing is, I’m the most indulgent reader you could hope for. I forgive books their missteps and flaws readily, and I even found it easy to imagine why an author who’s built an incredibly complex structure for her novel would be miffed if no one twigged how much work had gone into it. But even my near endless goodwill was exhausted by these incessant, often smug-sounding footnotes. In the end I was tempted to make my own arrangement of the various sections by forcibly removing them from the book and scattering them in the air.

It’s not hard to recall what you’ve read before, even without the footnotes’ constant nagging, as this is a book in which nothing much really happens. It starts with a potentially electrifying scene – a dementia-ridden old man stalks off across the treacherous Highlands terrain with his abducted granddaughter – but what follows is curiously inert. The old man’s worsening illness is reason for his estranged son Callum to come home to the Highlands for the first time in many years; here the younger man must face not just his conflicted feelings for his father, but those he has for his half-sister Helen (whose child is the baby abducted in the opening scenes) and with whom Callum seems to have had an incestuous relationship when they were teenagers.

There’s little urgency to the way the story unfolds, if indeed “unfolds” is the word for a book which favours the interior over narrative: characters rehash memories over and over, dwell on the past, get stuck, cannot (like the plot) move forward. There are constantly recurring themes, leitmotifs, of privacy, creativity, solitude and loneliness, and the quietly dysfunctional relationships among family members who can barely talk to one another seem to mirror back and forth across the generations. And there are formally fascinating notions: the seven generations of the Sutherland Mackays parallel the seven notes of a musical scale, while the blasted terrain of the Highlands seems to inspire the bagpipes’ low and constant drone over which those notes skirl – but it all sits so flatly on the page. Despite Gunn’s able and convincing links between landscape and music, or love and creativity, the fact remains that stories are not tunes (and those damn footnotes are not gracenotes). A text that wants to be a piece of music is on a hiding to nothing.

On the plus side, Gunn’s writing can often be beautiful. There’s a touch of the gorgeous musicality of A.L. Kennedy’s prose when Gunn’s starts to gleam: likewise, she offers acute insights into the psychology of her characters, whose obsessive raking over the past has a touch of the Proustian. There are times when the characters start to breathe: you feel, at last, she’s not pushing the reader away with but bringing him closer. (It must be said that the best parts of The Big Music are, not coincidentally, those where Gunn allows the story to unfold for several pages at a time unencumbered by footnotes.) The results aren’t lasting: I never found myself emotionally involved in the characters’ stories, not least because the deliberate similarities in names – all Johns and Callums and John Callums – while presumably meant to, again, remind us the harmonics in sets of music notes, just make it irksomely difficult to keep clear who’s the son, who’s the father, and so on.

A text that wants to be a piece of music is on a hiding to nothing

By the concluding section, irrelevant information – noise, rather than music – has taken over. Fifty pages from the end, we’re being told what crofters of the early 18th century would have eaten for their lunch. Every other chapter is a history lesson – specifically, the sort of history lesson you suffered through on a Friday afternoon while an uninterested teacher would reel off lifeless facts and stats. This reader, head growing heavy, felt a distant echo of the desire to carve his initials into the nearest desktop with a compass point. It’s not a question I normally ask of a novel, but I did find myself wondering why on earth The Big Music was telling me all this. Would there be a written test at the end?

After the 377 pages of – well, let’s say “story” – come an additional 80 pages of appendices, indices and “additional material”. On the one hand, this is supremely clever: just as the bagpipes’ music, properly played, should simply fade, its ghost echoing on when the song proper has come to an end, so too these materials prolong “the world” of the book after the story has ended. On the other, so much of this material has already leached into the preceding pages already that these seem pretty superfluous. Their purpose seems to be to leave the reader finally wondering how many layers in Gunn’s millefeuille have been fiction and how many fact. Maybe these pages are full of true histories; maybe they’re an elaborate authorial trick to intermix fiction and fact. Is there a Grey Longhouse up there in the Highlands, where the bagpipes are still taught? Are these architectural elevations of a real place? Is “B”, played on the pipes, really the “Note of Challenge” and “F” the “Note of Love”, or is that the novelist’s conceit? With an internet connection, it wouldn’t be too difficult to investigate further. It says much for The Big Music’s successes that it raises these questions, and much about its failures that this reader couldn’t be fashed to find the answers. C