The Memory Room
Vintage, $32.95 pb, 436 pp
Consider the plight of the established novelist. The readership (that’s us) comes to recognise a particular style, a particular set of themes, and presumably that is one of the reasons to go on buying the writer’s books. Should the next book always be in the same mould – in which case we might become a tad bored – or should there be something quite out of character, causing us to gasp with disbelief? After all, it is usually disastrous when a diva starts singing popular songs. Christopher Koch’s new book sets up these kinds of tension. Something new about what is remembered? It is his old territory: the narrative starts in Tasmania, where the light is different and the telegraph posts go marching off across the terrain; it lands in various parts of Asia, much of it seen indoors or by night; fetches up in Canberra; and ends prospectively in India. There is acknowledgment of the allure of fascination itself, of innate qualities such as grace, the special efficacy of the spirit, intuitive recognition of the other, and the twin soul; and other circlings around matters of deep consequence. At times, so driven is Koch to press his intimations of ‘the mysterious zone beyond the ordinary that can never be netted in words’ that he forgets his own warning, and tumbles over into something like self-parody: everything becomes grist to the mill, even cicadas: ‘ancient heralds of mysterious rebirth, [they] had emerged from their underworld to dominate the day until now, only subsiding when the sun went, as though cicadas and the earth were linked on the same astral journey.’ He does not often exaggerate his material like this; but he is intent on elevating it.