If I was to mention to you a book written in 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words in length then your thoughts may go several ways. Some of you may think it sounds pretentious, some of you may think it sounds too clever and a gimmick, some of you may think it sounds like an author testing their craft and being experimental leading to amazing results. The latter of you would be right, the book I am describing is Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at Its Heart which I had the pleasure of living with for a while recently and was rather sad to leave.
I can’t decide if With a Zero at Its Heart is a novel or a memoir. I can’t decide if it matters. I have decided that with each chapter being made up of ten concise short bursts of recollection around a theme that it lingers somewhere delightfully between the two. I have also decided it is going to be quite a mission to do it justice and explain just how wonderfully it evokes the story of a (rather bookish) young man as he grows up, discovers he is gay, finds himself, travels, becomes a writer and then deals with the death of his parents and the nostalgia and questions that brings about the meaning of life and how we live it.
What is so clever about With a Zero at Its Heart is the way that the novel is constructed. I don’t just mean the 24 chapters with 10 paragraphs all of 120 characters, though this makes for a very condensed work and intensifies the gamut of emotions (joy, sorrow, love, loss, the works) throughout. Initially because every paragraph in every themed chapter is from a different point in the narrator/authors life you worry that you are disconnected. Soon you feel completely opposite as the more you read the more you connect these snippets and short stories from a life into the wider whole story. For example we follow, on and off, the huge story that is the experience of the death of his parents, we also follow smaller stories like a bunch of cleaned bottles which clearly are a vivid part of his memory and have a tale to tell. There is something joyous in the celebration and companionship of the bigger and smaller stories all interweaving.
He’s waiting for his father to get home, standing on the sofa beside the bay window that looks out onto the street. When the car comes round the corner he waves and jumps up and down. His father drives past the window and beneath the arch that leads into the yard, then storms into the house. He’s furious. He walks across the room and grabs the arm of his son, who’s still on the sofa, and pulls him off until the boy is half-standing, half-crouching on the floor. His father slaps him round the back of the head. By the time his mother comes in they’re both shaking. That sofa’s new, his father says. He must think I’m made of money.
It is in a way a collection of 240, I think I have done the maths right there, moments that in themselves are a small story and world within the bigger universe of a person’s memory. Here also the themes in each chapter come in to play. The titles are wonderful, with a sense of the serious and the fun, like ‘Language or Death and Cucumbers’, ‘Money Or Brown Sauce Sandwiches’ or ‘Correspondence or Coterminous with the Cat’. Yet what is fascinating is that as we read about subject like death, money, sex, and the body we see how the relevance of those words and indeed those objects change as his life progresses. The first paragraph/memory/story being the earliest and then they come nearer to the future.
It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. As I mentioned the condensing of it has a real intensity which will sit with you throughout. It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.
His favourite aunt gives him a typewriter. The first thing he writes is a story about people who gather in a room above a shop to invoke the devil. When they hear the clatter of cloven hooves on the stairs the story ends, but the typewriter continues to tap out words, and then paragraphs, and then pages until the floor is covered. He picks them up and places them in a box as fast as they come, and then a second box, and then a third. There is no end to it. I am nothing more than a channel, he whispers to himself, and the typewriter pauses for a moment and then, on a new sheet, types the word Possession.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved With a Zero at Its Heart. I found it deeply touching and moving in its subject and prose, and also exciting for its form. It is one of those wonderful books which tests you slightly as a reader, plays with you (in a good way) and then grabs hold of you and takes you over. It is a relatively short book yet one that I was reading both in gulps and then having a break to let all the stories settle and the bigger picture slowly but surely form. It is in essence the story of a life in 24 chapters and is quite unlike anything I have read before. Highly recommended reading, one of the most original books I have read in a very long time.
I am definitely going to have to head to more of Charles Lambert’s back catalogue as it is rare that an author can write a book with such an unusual form and make something so emotive and compelling. The last time I came across such books were Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the slightly shorter – in all senses - and teeny bit more gimmicky (if I am being honest, though I liked it a lot) The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan. I have to say though, Lambert’s has a much heftier emotional punch than either, and you know how much I love Mr Rhodes! Have any of you read any of Charles Lambert’s novels and if so which should I head to next? Which other original and ‘experimental’ books have you tried and been rather bowled over by and why?