The Unilluminated

28 April 2014

Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning novel The Luminaries is an impressive achievement. But despite elegant writing and a daringly original structure, it left me feeling unenlightened.

Jealousy is an unattractive emotion. While most of the Seven Deadly Sins have been resuscitated over the years – Lust is now quite fashionable and even encouraged in certain quarters – jealousy is still right down there with self-pity as one of the Unmentionables: something we all feel from time to time but seldom admit to.

When considering how to review The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s doorstop-sized novel set in the 19th century New Zealand gold rush, jealousy is a most appropriate place to start. It is, after all, a narrative based largely on jealousy – set in a world organised entirely around self-gain, in which the characters envy each other’s wealth and success, and where theft, deception and adultery abound.

The jealousy on display in The Luminaries, while impressive, pales in comparison with my own. I’m bursting with jealousy, you see, about the stellar rise of Ms Catton. She exploded onto the literary scene in 2008 with her debut novel The Rehearsal, a dark postmodernist fugue about schoolgirls, exploitative sex and voyeurism. It was a messy, somewhat pretentious experiment, written by someone who’d clearly overdosed on Judith Butler’s gender-as-performance theory in a university Women’s Studies course, and the ending disappeared up its own creative writing school-shaped orifice. In its favour, it was edgy and original, and a refreshing change from the dour realist fiction that most other New Zealand authors were producing at the time.

With The Luminaries, Catton has taken a major step up in stature – and in doing so, has artfully laid claim to the literary career I wanted. It really isn’t fair. I was supposed to be New Zealand’s new literary wonderkid. I was going to write the Great New Zealand Novel that would be a massive bestseller and win the praise of critics. I was the one destined to win Booker Prize before I turned 30. Annoyingly, she got there first – and she’s ten years my junior. Is it any wonder I’m seething with jealousy?

There are a few salient details that could, I suppose, staunch the rising tide of bile in my throat and give me some perspective. Unlike me, Catton has actually dedicated her life to writing. Oh yes, and unlike me, she has actually finished the manuscript of not one but two novels and had them published. But this seems beside the point. How dare she be so clever and work so hard and win all that acclaim for producing two highly original novels? And all before she turned 30. Is she actually an alien? Has anyone counted her ribs?

I sat alone in a darkened room with my green-eyed monster as The Luminaries made the Booker Prize longlist, then the shortlist, and then carried off the award in October last year – making Catton the youngest ever winner and only the second New Zealander to win the Booker. Intriguingly enough, New Zealand’s first Booker laureate, Keri Hulme, won for The Bone People, another strange experimental novel set on the remote West Coast of the South Island. And the year of Hulme’s award? 1985 – the year of Catton’s birth. I detected a celestial conspiracy.

A well-meaning friend, unaware of my jealous rumblings, gifted me a hardcover copy of the book for Christmas. While beautifully bound, the hardcover announces The Luminaries as an intimidating read. Weighing in at over a kilogram, it’s 834 pages long, with  a list of characters in the manner of a Tolstoy novel and hand-drawn astrological charts in front of each chapter. Early reviews described a fiendishly complicated-sounding narrative structure based on the astrological placement of the planets and the waning of the moon. It seemed best tackled over the holidays, when I had plenty of time and a steady supply of tea and chocolate biscuits close to hand.

I didn’t read it, of course. Christmas and New Year came and went, and Catton’s brick sat reproachfully on my bedside table, as I ignored it, cheerfully eating leftover mince pies and watching back episodes of Modern Family. Unfortunately, my astrological sign, Gemini (in Catton’s words “an energetic spirit” who “could not be without external stimulation for long“) demanded a showdown. Last month, I was invited to attend an event run by the newly established Australia & New Zealand Literary Festival of Literature and Arts in London, which kicked off with a Q&A with Catton and Robert Macfarlane, the chair of the Booker Prize judging panel. It was time to read the damn thing at last, and confront the Catton.

I started but didn’t finish the book in time for the Festival event, but was highly impressed with Catton as an interviewee: intelligent, articulate, generous about discussing her novel as an entity separate from her, and conveying the quiet confidence and self-assurance without apology that I associate with the best aspects of New Zealand women. I was sufficiently charmed to ask her a question (about the way the characters in The Luminaries perform their personalities, a theme carried over from The Rehearsal) and even queued with the Faithful to have her sign my copy of the brick-book. We had a brief, friendly chat about mutual friends, while a weirdo in the queue behind me took her photo with his iPhone. Eventually, I conceded defeat: if there’s going to be a super-smart and fearlessly ambitious and hardworking 20something author to single-handedly propel New Zealand literature to world attention, then it might as well be her.

I ploughed through the remainder of the novel over the next few weeks, interspersing longer Kindle reads with the occasional dip into the hardback. By Sunday afternoon, it was over. I heaved the brick-book back onto my bookshelf with a certain relish, noticing the slight definition in my biceps that wasn’t there when I began. The publishers should really sell t-shirts for those souls hardy enough to have finished it: “I Survived The Luminaries.”

Despite my vestigial rumblings of jealousy, I must, like many other readers, give praise for an astounding technical achievement. There’s an ambition and scope to the plotting and telling of The Luminaries that’s inventive and utterly self-assured. Much of the pleasure of reading the book lies in watching Catton work within the formal conceits she’s established for herself, and marvelling that she manages to pull it off.

Part One, “A Sphere Within A Sphere” (running to nearly 400 pages) is especially intriguing, and for my money, the strongest section of the book. A handsome stranger named Walter Moody arrives in a smoky saloon in Hokitika on the night of 27 January 1866 and meets 12 strangers – including a banker, a hotelier, a pimp, a chemist, a chaplain, a newspaper man, a Maori greenstone hunter and two Chinese gold prospectors – who have a mysterious alliance. Though they appear more like a jury or the 12 suspects in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Orient Express, there’s a deeper logic at work. Each man relates to a sign of the Zodiac, and their fates circle around five more mysterious characters: Anna Wetherell, the “whore” (the moon); Lydia Wells, his wife, a one-time brothel madam and a gloriously unrepentant villainess (Venus); Francis Carver, a swindler and possible murderer (Mars?); and Emery Staines, the golden-haired Sun of the piece who is revealed to be Anna’s lover and astral twin.

Over the course of Part One, we view the same night through the perspectives of each character, mostly through a series of two-person scenes, in which Catton tracks each character in relation to his or her astrological opposite. Slowly, the details unravel of a convoluted melodrama involving murder, robbery, mistaken identity, extortion, opium addiction and good and bad fortune.

As in most crime dramas, the truth is relative, and everyone’s perspective is limited and prejudiced, with no one character able to see the whole truth on their own. The reader is invited to construct and deconstruct and reconstruct the story as they read – noting clues, picking up and discarding red herrings and rethinking old assumptions. It takes Moody to put the pieces together, in a Dostoyevsky-like courtroom scene towards the end of the novel. It’s a terrific, tautly written scene, and it provides a welcome reprieve for exhausted readers struggling to keep up with the all the  narrative convolutions.

If it sounds like a lot of hard work – well, it is. Catton clearly relished the difficulty of her project, and the book, while coherently written, makes few concessions to readers wanting a quick fix or easy resolution. It’s a book that commands you to slow down, pay attention and think deeply.

Catton’s prose is sleek and elegant, and her languid omniscient 3rd person narration recalls (and gently parodies) the great 19th century novels of Dickens, James, Melville and Eliot. She fearlessly narrates long passages in which the true natures of each character are described in sweeping astrological principles. Her would-be hero, Walter Moody feels “a thrill of satisfaction” whenever he catches his own reflection, “but as an engineer might feel, chancing upon a mechanism of his own devising and finding it splendid, flashing, properly oiled and performing exactly as he had predicted it should.” Benjamin Löwenthal, the Gemini character, is described as “both solicitous and self-doubting—attributes that, because they opposed one another, tended to engender in him a state of constant, anxious flux.” Aubert Gascoigne, a clerk, “like most extremely sensitive people…. could not bear sensitivity in others.” Elsewhere, she has fun with the kinds of aphorisms that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wildean comedy: “Nonchalance is a form of elegance, when it demands much, and declines to reveal its source”; “Disdain, for all its censorious pretension, is an emotion that can afford a certain clarity.”

Moving beyond character, Catton’s eye for detail is extraordinary. The breadth and depth of her powers of description are on a par with the best work of Henry James. In a single scene, she can note details of dress, appearance, setting, weather, landscape and emotional tone, with a conciseness and precision that the Master himself often lacked. Her observational eye extends from panorama to minutiae with astonishing ease. A storm “borne on greenish winds” begins “as a coppery taste in the back of one’s mouth, a metallic ache that amplified as the clouds darkened and advanced”. Elsewhere, a woman moves “with a weary, murderous languor, like a disaffected swan”.

In the spaces between the scaffolding of the murder mystery, Catton also takes time to ruminate on larger philosophical questions, including the double meaning of “fortune”. Nearly every character is on the make and trying to reinvent themselves in a new country and become rich. Despite this flurry of freewill, they are all locked in a pre-destined celestial path in which their fates are sealed. Anna the prostitute becomes a potent symbol of a world where all relationships are transactional – in addition to being a item of sale, she is unwittingly used as a form of currency by having gold dust sewn into her dresses. Within this mercenary world, a romance between Anna and Staines blooms unexpectedly, like a desert flower. As the story diminishes, the love story comes slowly to the fore. In Catton’s ontological universe, love is the antithesis of commerce: selfless, generous and eternally expanding.

So much talent, such huge ambition, and an enticing panoramic canvas on which to work. I wanted to love The Luminaries, or at least be dazzled by it, and have the kind of moving, transcendent experience you have when you encounter a great work of fiction like Middlemarch or The Portrait of A Lady.

Sadly, I didn’t. Despite, or perhaps because of Catton’s strenuously prescribed structure, I found myself unengaged. I watched listlessly as she moved her characters around her celestial chessboard, admiring her impressive storytelling technique, but failing to be moved by the human drama. I puzzled over reviewers who described the book as “gripping” and “spellbinding”. Feeling neither gripped nor spellbound, I turned the pages with a vaguely grim sense of duty, sensing that I was reading something Important, and wondered whether the payoff would be worth the effort.

After the first few hundred pages, endless retellings of the same story started to feel laboured and exhausting rather than illuminating. As Kirsty Gunn writes in her excellent review for the Guardian: “as we read on, we don’t read in…. The characters don’t gain depth as the story proceeds; they slip further away from us…. [the] details don’t come together to be compressed into a reality we care about and inhabit.” The New York Times‘ Janet Maslin agrees: “The slow pace requires Ms Catton to work and rework the permutations of her cast of characters…. each story is given endless reiteration and precious little amplification.”

Things aren’t helped by Catton’s refusal to provide a clear resolution to the murder mystery, or even to demarcate the cosmological boundaries of her story. Several strange occurrences – an apparition in a sea chest, characters who share a telepathic exchange of bullets, food and laudanum – are never fully explained, leading many readers to conclude either that Catton’s universe allows for the supernatural, or that, as Genevieve O’Halloran admits in her North & South review, “There may be a resolution that I’ve been just too dense to figure out.” Either way, Halloran writes, “[t]he thinking and talking about it wasn’t enjoyable – it nagged away at me like a sore tooth”.

Part of the difficulty of The Luminaries derives from obscurity of the astrological references Catton is using. Most readers will have only a sketchy understanding of the Zodiac, and won’t understand the astrological guiding principles behind Catton’s manoeuvring of the characters. While it sounds impressive to say that the characters are guided by the arrangement of the planets in 1866, what use is that to a reader who doesn’t understand those arrangements? We are left in Catton’s hand to work the characters through patterns that only she and a couple of Thai-dyed astrologists called Chantelle can understand. The delayed gratification of the novel is entirely deliberate. As she showed in The Rehearsal, Catton is drawn to difficult postmodern narratives that conceal as much as they reveal. It makes for a frustratingly obtuse experience, especially after ploughing through 834 pages of exhaustively-described text.

After the languid pace of the story in the first half, thing accelerate as the moon wanes and each chapter becomes half the size of its predecessor. While this gives the story a much-needed jolt of adrenaline, we discover that faster is not necessarily better. As the chapters become shorter, details become scarce, and the Dickensian introductory notes at the start of each chapter (“In which a stranger arrives….”; “In which Mr Thomas Balfour suffers a lapse of discretion“, etc) carry more meaning than the text of the chapters.

We end the novel in a state of confusion – a beautiful confusion, admittedly, eavesdropping on two lovers listening to the sound of the rain – but with little idea of where we are. This dislocation seems to be Catton’s point. She wants to remind us, I think, of the limitations of human narrative as a way to untangle the mysteries of the universe, and perhaps to encourage us to read between and behind the lines to seek out hidden patterns of meaning. If I was a top-notch astronomer or one of those autistic kids who can recite π to 249 places, this would perhaps be the moment where I shouted “Eureka!”, as Catton’s narrative constellation became crystal clear. Sadly, for me, anyway, it didn’t.

Part of me wants to love Catton for her ingenuity and fearlessness in harnessing complex patterns into literary fiction, and to make emotional truths co-exist with deep thought. (She’s spoken in interviews about how “structural patterning so often [stands] in the way of the reader’s entertainment and pleasure”, and her desire to write a book that was “structurally ornate and actively plotted at the same time”). While this worked for me in Kate Bush’s album Aerial (where she set π to music), I struggled to find much emotional connection or satisfaction in The Luminaries. Perhaps I’m just not bright enough to get it, or perhaps I’m just an old fart who likes literary fiction to be like porn, with the guarantee of a money shot and a climax in the final scene.

As I lumbered towards the finish line and rested my aching wrists, I was left admiring rather than loving The Luminaries. As an achievement in modern fiction, it’s a remarkable piece of work. Catton’s success provides a much-needed endorsement for New Zealand’s fishbowl-sized literary community, in the same way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy galvanised the country’s film industry and Lorde’s recent success re-energised pop music. New Zealanders are accustomed to punching well above their weight on the world stage – a feat that Catton has gracefully and intelligently proved. For that reason, I like the idea of The Luminaries, especially as an advertisement for the talents of my home country, more than I do the actual book.

As it was, I felt inadequately recompensed for the time and energy I’d put into reading the novel. Though I was often charmed by the beauty and eloquence of Catton’s writing, her ambitious structure overwhelmed my engagement with the story and characters. There are moments where it seems as if the love story will explode out of its strictures and envelope the reader. The story comes to quivering life whenever Anna appears in view. “She spoke“, one character observes, “with an exhilarated fatigue, the kind that comes after the first blush of love, when the self has lost its mooring, and, half-drowning, succumbs to a fearful tide.” Later, the narrator muses that “Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own.” No one who writes sentences like that can be accused of being numb to human emotion. But alas, the intensity of the affair burns itself out like a candle, disappearing into the curved lines of Catton’s astral calendars.

The best aspect of finishing The Luminaries – apart from being able to announce smugly to friends that I’d finished it – was the dissipation of my green-eyed monster. I can no longer be jealous of Catton. It’s clear to me that I had neither the focus nor the inclination when I was her age to pull off such a mammoth project. Writers like Catton are very rare indeed, and it seems fitting for her to hoover up plaudits and prizes – we need to reward our pioneers and our intellectual explorers. But that The Luminaries is not a book I’d want to write, even if I was able to. While I can agree with Catton’s publishers and the Booker Prize judges that this book reinvents the possibilities of the novel, it feels more like an interesting intellectual exercise than something urgent and necessary to my understanding of human nature.

On the upside, reading The Luminaries has given me renewed confidence about tackling big books. Proust will be a piece of cake (or at least a tasty madeleine) after this. And I can’t wait to see what the Talented Ms Catton does next.

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