Acts and Omissions is the first in a new series of novels by Catherine Fox, detailing the lives of the clergy and their families and in the fictional diocese of Lindchester. The bishop, the dean, the various cathedral canons and the choir all make appearances, as Fox weaves their emotional problems and life crises in and around the politics of the contemporary Church of the England. It’s a fictional experiment for Fox in several ways, and one which succeeds through a deceptively crafted style and a meticulously handled approach to her characters.
The emotional tone and psychological intensity of this novel is very different to her early novel Angels and Men, my only other experience of Fox’s work. Whilst she is still dealing with church institutions and the personal lives of people within them, the dense symbolic world of the earlier novel, with its dark flares of emotion, has opened out into a more expansive mode, more diffuse in its attachment to various characters’ psyches and with an almost gossipy tone at times. Where for another novelist this might reflect an exhaustion of style or a desire to write more glibly, I think both these features point to the novel’s purposes, as I’ll discuss below. It’s lighter and less claustrophobic mode of writing – where the protagonist of Angels and Men imagined herself gazing down on the world from a terrifying height, the narrator of Acts and Omissions invites the reader to swoop round with them and peer into people’s windows – but Fox is still concerned with people’s motivations and their inability to map their own lives rationally or instrumentally.
The novel was written in a relatively unusual way, with Fox posting chapters week by week on her blog, approximating the serial publication of nineteenth-century novelists like Dickens, Thackeray and – most aptly in this case – Trollope. As the novel is structured around the months (and church calendar) of a single year, this allows Fox to maintain a coherent narrative whilst also reacting to the larger public events which impinge on her characters, such as the vote on same-sex marriage, and the rise in the use of foodbanks due to the policies of the Coalition government. This has a major effect on the style and feel of the novel: the narrative arcs of particular characters (notably the troubled tearaway Freddie and the possibly gay bishop), with their expositions, developments, and crises, are fitted carefully into the regular structure. (Fox dislikes being called a “Christian novelist” – and for good reason – but perhaps her handling of linear and cyclical time simultaneously might be distantly called a Judeo-Christian aesthetic, for the sake of argument. If possibly a somewhat half-hour-before-they-call-time-at-the-bar argument.)
If much modern realist writing rations its references to the specificities of time and events, whether to allow enough space for the contingencies and alternative histories of fiction to take place or just to not date too quickly and cringily, Acts and Omissions has no such worries. For the first couple of chapters the direct mentions of phone apps, political events and even weather occasionally struck me as forced, as an attempt at a hyper-contemporary style, before I remembered that the novel was actually written whilst these were the topics of conversation. To say it felt “immediate” would be untrue, since that’s surely an effect of the particular selections of detail which modern realism demands. It almost felt like a challenge to traditional realism, a sneer at the canons of good taste and fictional economy which have ruled in the wake of Henry James. Fox’s technique harks back to the nineteenth century not only in its serial release, but in its unashamed cramming of stuff into the parallel world it creates and the messy boundaries it allows between the world it writes from and the world it writes about.
The publication method goes along with a narrative voice which addresses the reader very directly, asking them to come with the narrator around the buildings and gardens of the area, introducing them to the characters and hurrying them around the fictional landscape. It even challenges them outright at times, declaring that it knows what they’re thinking about a certain drinks party and they’re wrong, or challenging them to admit that they’re surprised a seventy-year-old lady can use a mobile phone. A lot of readers may find this intrusive, or frustrating, or even irritating, as the narrative voice obtrudes itself between them and the action supposedly being described. It’s not particularly to my taste, but it would be a mistake to consider the voice a failure of technique. It’s part of the book’s blend of nineteenth-century archaism and bloggy contemporenity, its deliberate divergence from Iowa MFA rules and the self-effacing aesthetic of literary fiction. Acts and Omissions chivvies the reader around and has a good rant now and then. It’s unashamed of having things to say, and this affects both the narrative voice and its relation to the reader.
The novel’s rapid movement between characters and the way it stages them talking about each other point to another challenge it poses to the reader. I described it previously as diffuser and more gossipy than Angels and Angels, and between these features may lie the book’s ethic. Fox’s writing seems to have a strong concern for explanation, or at least for attempts at understanding. Her characters’ inability to understand themselves (which is not always subtly signalled) throws the onus of sympathetic imagination onto other characters, and onto us as readers. The book insists that difficult sympathy is possible: sympathy between those with antagonistic political beliefs, with varying understandings of human nature and clashing visions of God and the purpose of life. The discussion within the book of other people’s intentions and characters, and the moments of psychological anguish she reveals, are something of a challenge to the world beyond her fictions. To mangle Beckett, the novel sometimes seems to be saying: “Gossip. Fail. Gossip Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
This helps make sense of the two self-imposed limitations which the book declares: not peeking into clergy bedrooms (or wherever else they might be found in flagrante) and no scenes set beyond the boundaries of Lindchester. The former is presumably partly self-defence, since anyone writing about a small world like the Church of England whilst involved in it herself is going to be accused of writing a roman a clef, and people will try to match characters to figures in the clerical world. But it shifts the book’s engagement with sex to its effects and its context, as well as its powerful impact for happiness or pain on people’s lives and sense of themselves. The second keeps the focus away from power politics in the technical sense and drags it back to the way power and influence affects those same people’s lives and relationships. The blending of these carefully tempered fictional ethics and defiantly messy aesthetics produces an intriguing novel, and the beginnings of what will surely be a lengthy and popular series.