Book review: ‘The Big Music: selected papers’ by Kirsty Gunn

This book is in bookstores now.

The Big Music: selected papers is UK-based New Zealander Kirsty Gunn’s latest novel. In her introduction she tells us that the book is a selection from some ‘papers that were presented to me,’ and that she has ‘arranged’ them. The papers as they appear in the novel are written as a third person narrative. So they must have been written by someone trying to tell a story. But who?

There are also copious footnotes and we are, it appears, supposed to believe that it is Gunn who has written them, as well as compiling the 100 pages of appendices. But, like Ian McEwan’s early inclusion of exclamation marks to signal that the narrative in Atonement was not his, but his fictional author Briony’s, the footnotes in The Big Music include many uses of ‘etc.’ – surely something Gunn would not do in her own writing – and it is soon very clear that what we have in front of us is an elaborate fictional construction.

It takes great courage and confidence to attempt such an approach, and create not one but two fictional writers – one who has written the ‘papers,’ and a fictional Gunn who has arranged them, written the footnotes and compiled the appendices – with such a consistent and convincing representation of their respective flaws. Kirsty Gunn clearly has both in spades.

But that’s not all. The ordering of the ‘papers’ follows the structure of piobaireachd (pronouned pee-broh, a specialised form of bagpipe music in four movements, akin to a symphony) because that’s what Gunn – the fictional Gunn – believes the author of the ‘papers’ was aiming for. And throughout, the footnotes tell you exactly what is going on. At times during my reading of the book I thought this was overdone, but I should have trusted her; it is one of the many layers that emerge and is, like everything in fiction, there for a good reason. Continue reading