A Filling Meal
Each Christmas, here in New Zealand, my wife likes to eat lobster transported all the way from our home province of Nova Scotia, Canada and provided courtesy of our friendly neighbourhood New World supermarket. She enjoys it – I don’t. I’m meant to – I grew up in Nova Scotia, I should enjoy all the God-given bounty from the rivers and sea. But I can’t stand the stuff.
So I believe it is with The Luminaries, the 2013 Man Booker prize winner. I should enjoy it as well, celebrating the achievement of a fellow Canadian-born New Zealander.
While my wife enjoyed her lobster over Christmas, I sat down to table with The Luminaries. I knew who would finish first. Each day over the past few weeks, The Luminaries has sat before me like an enormous roast ham, a tome started on Christmas day and consumed in portions for days and weeks after.
In the Pan
There are many ingredients used in writing a book, any one of which can be used to initiate the process. In her sophomore novel, Eleanor Catton ambitiously set out to create a piece which started with, and remained faithful to, its structure. According to her interview with The Guardian (the infamous one in which Catton was quoted as saying that New Zealand had “no reviewing culture at all” – a comment that started a mini Twitter war including Guy Somerset, Books & Culture editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine), Catton based her novel’s structure on planetary movement and formed 12 of her major characters from the signs of the zodiac. Going further, and for reasons I don’t understand, each of Catton’s 12 chapters of The Luminaries are half as long as the previous one.
Kira Cochrane, writer of The Guardian‘s article, suggests this is “worryingly abstract and mechanical”; perhaps contrary to our image of the inspired author – emotionally or spiritually driven to pour out a story on paper to change reader’s lives, like Athena birthed from the skull of Zeus.
Instead, this technique conjures an image like William Blake’s monotype Newton – the scientist obsessed with measuring everything in time and space but neglecting the pulse of humans and the universe alike.
It does seem strange to the Romantics among us, but reading The Guardian interview served to reassure me as, for my current novel, I started with a theme, not a character or an emotion; and the theme generated ideas in terms of structure and character – it was a starting place. My question regarding The Luminaries is: is there any need for the reader to understand the astrological component of the book? With my novel, I have started with the theme which prompted a structure, but I’m not married to it – I’ve deviated; but when I’ve wandered too far, I’ve returned to it. It is difficult to say how diligent Catton was – was there any deviation or did she stick to the map regardless of what emotions or characters tried to sway her?
Catton’s insistence on halving subsequent chapters does create some suspicion in a reader – must we read all those 270 000 words to enjoy a good story or are we subjects of a structural experiment?
I say: it’s all good Ms Catton. Yes, there is a lot of telling; yes, there are a lot of extra words in passages; but the experiment (or endeavour if you prefer) was matched by good story-telling – intriguing characters, a vivid setting and certainly a complex plot in the genre of Victorian sensations. While I do not fully grasp the astrological allusions and its full impact in the book (Like C K Stead, “I have allowed myself to pass over” much of this), I do recognise that the time shifts in the final sections, in which past and present are alternated then dominate to the finish, created a circular effect. Regardless, it is clever. Catton controls it – there is never a sense that the author has lost track of what the reader has been exposed to or wants to know next. It is a page-turner and a bloody good mystery.
Besides, as with any entry into a creative enterprise, we must accept certain conventions no matter how incredible if placed in the crucible of realism. In The Luminaries, a lot of stuff happens on certain days – akin to Joyce’s Ulysses – while hardly anything happens on the days in-between. That’s Ok – that’s theatre. We accept that and, I suppose, we can forgive the many coincidental events that need to happen in order for the plot (or the nefarious plotting of some characters) to occur. Some missing, misplaced, serendipitously delivered or stolen trunks play the role of lost or mis-directed letters from Shakespearean drama. Similarly, we overlook the implausibility of Walter Moody acting as the defense attorney after such a brief time in Hokotika; and why didn’t anyone, in the massive first section, propose the notion that Emery Staines might have been on the Godspeed the night Francis Carver weighed an unscheduled anchor? Nevermind.
Stead’s criticism of the book’s ending (“tails off in a tangle of loose ends”) is potentially true, but I sense that the ends can be tied. It would require a re-read to verify – but I’m still pretty full.
Styles of Spices
When I read that Catton had not only set The Luminaries in Victorian New Zealand, but also written in the style of that era, I though it was a very novel idea (pun intended). I have recently been informed that modern writers of historical fiction are discouraged from writing in the style of their period. However, surely as a teacher of Creative Writing, Catton is aware of this advice and deliberately chose to break the rules.
According to The Telegraph, Victoriana is popular these days. I wouldn’t know about that. I have read some Dickens and some Melville – apparently a source of inspiration for Catton and it shows.
In his review, Stead writes, “The history of literary fiction in the 20th century was a struggle … to escape from this kind of writing,” as if we have cut the fat out of our literary diet in the belief that we will connect with the core and characters of the story more intimately and be healthier for it, without a wall of words which can serve to impede rather than enlighten.
I agree – and yet, isn’t it nice to indulge occasionally, feasting on loquacious passages of verbosity which, rather than manifest obfuscation, create a delightful perspicacity?
“And here Bartleby makes his home, sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous- a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!” (Bartleby the Scrivener)
“Her carriage bespoke an exquisite misery, a wretchedness so perfect and so absolute that it manifested as dignity, as calm. More than a dark horse, she was darkness itself, the cloak of it.”
Some have accused Catton of self-indulgence, a terrible slam against any writer; but what about the lip-smacking self-indulgence of the reader?
Where’s the Heart?
A house, a church, a school, though exactingly structured, have no life without people within. So it is with the novel and, I suppose, therein lies the risk of beginning with structure rather than character. Catton developed her characters from the signs of the zodiac (Mannering apparently exhibits the qualities of a Leo for instance) and this strategy shows, sometimes woodenly. One criticism of The Luminaries is that Catton tells a great deal, rather than showing. Guy Somerset rightly points out that we learn about characters through exposition rather than by inferring from their behavior, dialogue, etc. and that there is often a mismatch (“even when a character is supposed to be ‘full of nonsense and tumbling words’, he isn’t, really.”). Some of these character descriptions even read, transparently, like researched astrological profiles.
However, there are some very, very good and memorable characters in The Luminaries, a veritable Shakesperean collection listed in the dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, covering a range of cultures and with some great names – Francis Carver, Emery Staines, Sook Yongsheng, Te Rau Tauwhare. The book is hefty with male characters as you would expect from the gold rush era in 1860s Hokitika. This setting is immensely impressive in terms of place and time – I did feel like I knew the streets and sites of Hokitika well as a result of Catton’s description and integration into the lives of the characters.
Emotional Side Dish
The prevailing criticism to which I can subscribe is the seemingly weak emotional chord running through the book. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters. That’s OK with me to a point – I enjoyed the book on the planes of ideas and artistry and don’t necessarily need to connect emotionally with characters. But I speak for just this one reader and can understand others who might feel a disconnect – I take this as a reflection and a warning for my own writing as, again, since I initiated my own current novel from a thematic and structural base, I am still seeking an emotional chord for readers to appreciate as they have in my first novel, Redeeming Brother Murrihy.
Too Much to Swallow?
In reviewing a book, I consider the author’s purpose – what did the author set out to accomplish? In this, I believe Catton’s The Luminaries does stand out as a triumph for readers and writers to admire and emulate. It is extraordinarily clever.
At the same time, I consider the audience for whom the novel is intended, and this is where The Luminaries might divide its readership, for it is difficult to discern exactly who this book is for and this may explain the chasm between reviewers.
Is it too clever? I admire cleverness and enjoy the connections for what they are, even when contrived at times. If you’re like me and prefer ham over lobster, The Luminaries might be for you, but don’t feel you need to read it or like it because others do. It depends on your taste. I say this one tastes good.
Buy The Luminaries on Amazon.
Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in New Zealand and the author of Redeeming Brother Murrihy: The River to Hiruharama and Te Kauhanga: A Tale of Space(s).