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by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton's life swerved off its expected course almost exactly 12 hours before our meeting, the morning after her novel The Luminaries - a virtuoso work set amid the 1860s New Zealand gold rush - was named the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize.
When the moment came , the TV cameras showed a face as still as a marble sculpture, pinned into immobility by shock. Then she dove into her handbag and rootled through it until she found her acceptance speech, which she delivered in a clear but tremulous voice. "The superstitious part of me didn't want to make the speech too easy to find," she explains. "At the same time I knew I'd never be able to relax if I hadn't prepared something. At times of emotional intensity I need a script."
A person who radiates immense self-possession and quiet authority, she looks fresh and bright, despite only two-and-a-half hours' sleep; she cheerily attributes that to the fact that she hasn't taken off last night's makeup. She slept through her alarm, and more or less bundled herself into a cab for a breakfast-time radio interview, raking the previous night's pins from her hair as she did so.
Twelve hours ago Catton was a promising young writer, with two mostly well-received novels under her belt (the first, The Rehearsal, revolved around the figures on the periphery of a school sexual scandal). Now, she's a phenomenon. At 28, she's the youngest ever Man Booker-winning author with the longest-ever novel. She is only the second New Zealander to win it, after Keri Hulme, who was awarded it the year she was born. She has £50,000 in her pocket, and her book, having been a modest seller, has zoomed straight to the top of the Amazon sales ranking.
The win will mean, finally, a room of her own. At the moment she and her partner, the American poet Steven Toussaint, whom she met when they were both studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, rent a two-bedroom apartment in Auckland. While he works towards his PhD in poetry, "He gets the study, that's the deal. So at the moment I don't have one. The idea of being able to move into a bigger place is extremely exciting."
With the prize also comes that mixed blessing, fame, and she's already bothered by the uneven treatment accorded to men and women in the public eye.
"I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel," she says. "In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are - about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime."
And then there is the question of her youth. Though generally well-received in Britain, The Luminaries, she said, was subject to a "bullying" reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation - particularly in her native New Zealand. "People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45," she says.
"One of those things that you learn in school about any kind of bullying is that it's always more to do with them than it is to do with you. I don't see that my age has anything to do with what is between the covers of my book, any more than the fact that I am right-handed. It's a fact of my biography, but it's uninteresting."
It is the peculiar constellation of her age, gender and the particular nature of The Luminaries that has, she believes, provoked "a sense of irritation from some critics - that I have been so audacious to have taken up people's time by writing a long book. There's a sense in there of: 'Who do you think you are? You can't do that.' Something else related to that is to do with the omniscient third person narration of the book. There's a feeling of: 'All right, we can tolerate [this] from a man over 50, but we are not going to be spoken to like that by you.'"
The Luminaries is, at the plot level, a page-turning, suspenseful story about a series of unsolved crimes, written in the manner of a Victorian sensation novel. In January 1866, in the New Zealand gold-rush town of Hokitika, a Scot called Moody walks into a hotel smoking room to find 12 men ruminating on a series of mysterious events: the disappearance of a rich prospector, the death of a wealthy recluse, the beating to a pulp of a prostitute. All the men are connected to these events and bound to each other.
The novel has an entirely original organising principle: each chapter is preceded by an astrological chart and each character is associated with a heavenly body; the characters act in accordance with the actual movements of the cosmos as they were, starting on 27 January 1866. At the same time, the novel is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one – thus the novel itself wanes.
These principles may look tricksy or artificial when described rather than experienced but are not, says Catton, an "exoskeleton" - rather they are entirely bound up with the ideas of the book. "The paradox is," she says, "the relationship between, on the one hand, the characters being the masters of their fates, and on the other hand that being predetermined." She talks of the astrological structure as being akin to a structure a composer might work within, and mentions her interest in the book Godel Escher Bach, which explores patterns and systems in the work of the mathematician, artist and composer.
"One of the most baffling things is when people assume that when something is structurally ornate it is less human than something that is not structurally ornate," she says. "That puzzles me - I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities. The ability of humans to read meaning into patterns is the most defining characteristic we have."
It's the seriousness of Catton's work that strikes you when talking to her - her belief in the novel both as a "builder of empathy" and as a carrier of ideas. When I spoke to one of the Man Booker judges, critic Stuart Kelly, he said that it was her ability to "make the novel think in a way that the novel doesn't do normally" that set her apart; the way that, for example, she sets astrology and capitalism into play as competing systems of dealing with the world, but at the same time has produced "a rip-roaring read". "The prize went to the true avant-gardist," he said. "No novel has been like this before."
For Catton - the daughter of a philosopher and a librarian - the novel is a tool for thinking with, as well as feeling with. "It is in my view a much better vehicle for philosophy than syllogisms and logical constructs," she says.
"What I like about fiction most is that it resists closure and exists, if the reader is willing to engage, as a possible encounter - an encounter that is like meeting a human being."
The South Island of New Zealand, 1866. A gold rush is in full swing and the town of Hokitika is full of gold diggers, both literal and metaphorical. Twelve men meet in the back room of a seedy hotel to discuss three crimes in which all are somehow implicated: a whore has taken an overdose (was it a suicide attempt?), a young man has vanished and a huge stash of gold has been found in the home of a dead man.
When the 12, who include a clergyman, an opium-dealer chemist, a banker, two Chinese and a Maori, find they are not alone, they spill the complicated beans to the stranger. This involves shipwrecks, smuggled gold, blackmail, opium dens, fraud, revenge, unrequited love, accidental shootings, a séance and a trial; there are lost shipping trunks, hidden documents and lost fortunes.
In Eleanor Catton's Man Booker winning novel, the Victorian novel meets the Wild West (or South). Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is an obvious antecedent but I most thought of the Bob Dylan song Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts extended over 800-plus pages. If that's your pipe of opium you may well find this addictive - it's very clever, perhaps too clever by half.
The first problem is that Catton's pastiche Victorian prose can be painfully slow, especially when coupled with her habit of introducing each of the many characters by telling, rather than showing us, what they are like in abstract terms. Thus: "The cleric spent the present moment in constant visualisation, conjuring in his mind the untroubled future self he had determined that he would one day become." She also has a habit of extending her imagery to within an inch of its life: one character's love "ran deeper than the natural goodness he felt watching his mother shuck mussels and pile the slippery meat into a wide-mouthed flax basket on the shore . . ." (phew).
Then there is the strange structure. There is the cod astrological underpinning, with each of the 12 men seeming to represent a sign of the zodiac, chapter headings such as 'Moon in Taurus, Waxing' and each section prefaced by a star chart. You'd have to be Jonathan Cainer's much smarter brother to work out what, if anything, it all means. And the 12 sections get progressively shorter, making the opening far too stately and the end rushed. At the end the mock Victorian summaries that precede each chapter ("In which Charlie Frost forms a hunch . . .") are left to drive the plot forwards and plenty of loose ends are left untied (who killed the evil sea captain?)
This sort of baggy historical doorstep is popular with prize judges - last year it was Andre Brink's Philida, but at least that illuminated a little-known moment in apartheid and the wider guilt of slavery. Catton is unquestionably talented (her first novel, The Rehearsal, was garlanded with awards), and it's not that The Luminaries is badly done. In parts it's very well done indeed; but it's at least a third too long and some might find themselves asking why do it at all.
We're unwilling to give up on freedom, serendipity, and plain old hard work - but we don't want to just be a fluke. There's a deep reassurance to be had in feeling oneself part of some great cosmic cycle.
Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, an 848-page novel currently favored for the Man Booker prize, situates itself within this dilemma from the start. In the opening scene, the Scotsman Walter Moody, newly arrived in the New Zealand gold town Hokitika in 1866, unwittingly disrupts a secret meeting: "The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met... indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway." The description of this seemingly "accidental" arrangement - one that is in fact 'studied,' and 'conspired,' conjures not so much the train as the theater, and, sure enough, each player has been blocked into his proper corner. (This is true of Moody as well, as it happens, though he seems to have wandered in from the wings.) The Luminaries is, among other things, an experiment in predetermination. By extinguishing every coincidence, it turns literature into the same kind of problem as astrology: Do we want structural interpretation to dictate narrative, or is it best when a story's structure, as one character puts it, "always changes in the telling"?
One way to read Catton's novel is as kind of antipodean crossword, in which the clues lead one not to a filling-in of blanks but to the erasure of content - so the solution is little more than the grid into which everything fit. Each of the novel's 12 sections begins with an astrological chart for the date and location of its setting, which dictates what and how events will unfold. A Character Chart at the front of the book indicates 12 stellar characters, each associated with a sign of the zodiac and a location representing one of the astrological houses. These determine both the character's destiny and his personal characteristics. Example: One chapter indicates that the constellation Aries - represented here by the Maori hunter Te Rau Tawhare - is in the third house, which in astrology has to do with brotherhood, communication, etc., all of which make sense in the context of the plot. In addition to these zodiac-affiliated characters, there are seven 'planetary' ones that rotate throughout the astrological chart from month to month. One quickly discovers that the chapter titled 'Venus in Capricorn' will primarily consist of a tete-a-tete between the characters associated with Venus (the alluring Lydia Wells) and Capricorn (Aubert Gascoigne, a clerk).
The titular 'luminaries' - the astrological designation for sun and moon - are the opium-addicted whore Anna Wetherall and the prospector Emery Staines. In astrology, the sun more or less represents exterior, visible things, and the moon personal, internal ones, ergo so do these two - but they often reflect one another, exchanging qualities. Emery, in what is clearly a lunar phase, describes their relationship as "a connexion, by virtue of which he feels less, rather than more, complete, in the sense that her nature, being both oppositional to and in accord with his own, seems to illumine those internal aspects of his character that his external manner does not or cannot betray, leaving him feeling ... doubled when in her presence, and halved when out of it." And then there is Crosbie Wells, a drunkard whose murder is the still point around which the whole novel turns: Earth, in other words.
As if this were not enough, the very length of the novel's 12 sections has been planned in advance, beginning at 360 pages (not coincidentally, the number of degrees in a circle), and declining progressively until the final part of just three. The number of chapters per section also systematically wanes: The first has 12, the second, 11, and so on, down to one. By the end, the book had dwindled to almost nothing - chapters present the barest sketches of events, even as they attempt a final, revealing explanation of the novel's mysteries. Meanwhile, the little explanatory precis at each chapter's head slowly waxes to eclipse it: commentary stealing the function of story.
Encased in this postmodern complexity is a plot - a "sphere within a sphere," as one chapter has it - about as pre-modern as it gets, a mystery having to do with hidden gold, a prostitute's suicide attempt, and the disappearance of a wealthy man. Arbitrary-seeming circumlocutions ('d---ned'), chapter headings a la Dickens ('In which we learn ...'), the word 'connexion,' and the authorial second person plural are all de rigueur. Vividly set in the gold rush of the mid-1860s, The Luminaries is, on this level, a fairly straightforward page-turner in the 'sensation novel' mode, with the full complement of Victorian cliches: whores, bastard brothers, eavesdropping, a seance, murder, shipwrecks, impersonation, a dead baby, purloined letters, and a pistol hidden in someone's bosom, to start. Ignore the astrology, and the characters are stock: an Irish reverend with bad teeth, a couple of Chinese 'Johnnies,' a conniving madam with a sideline in the occult, noble savage, scar-faced villain, guileless naif, and so on. Everyone has secrets. Everyone remembers things just when doing so is most convenient. Events are often narrated second-, and even third-hand, explanations given, and scenes unfold within scenes within scenes, creating layers of revelation. The initial theatrical impression's sustained: Two characters find themselves momentarily "fixed in a tableau, the kind rendered on a plate, and sold at a fair as a historical impression"; Moody's hotel room is "furnished very approximately, as in a pantomime where a large and lavish household is conjured by a single chair." One might use similar metaphors for the novel as a whole.
Throughout, an authorial voice chimes in to assist, warn, and regret. Part of its function is to force the novel's parts rather blatantly into line: "We shall here excise their imperfections ... we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin." The "we" is hugely contrived, but then contrivance is what The Luminaries rests on. Lunar cycles mandate the narrative's return it to its beginning; a full year of star charts races the last quarter of the novel through 1865; even the name 'Hokitika,' which in Maori means, approximately, 'Around. And then back again, beginning' is unequivocal. The introductory 'Note to the Reader' (another period nod) even lays out the plot's themes, associating it with the Age of Pisces and things 'Piscean' in quality: 'mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.' Not just contrivance, but highly visible contrivance, underlies everything: Unlike, say, Bolano's similarly lengthy 2666, The Luminaries contains - nay, advertises - the keys to its own exposition.
The question this raises is what effect such structural contrivances have on a reader's pleasure - whether what we call 'novel' and especially 'big, ambitious novel,' is supposed to exist at the level of plot, or sentence, or on this third, impositional plane. Yes, Catton's language is beautifully tended - seeming, luminous in a mode appropriate to the 19th century cadence of her tale. There are no sloppy sentences, nothing that strikes one as unintentional or out of her control. Her observations too are astute, as when two men at a party bear "the distant, slightly disappointed aspect of one who is comparing the scene around him, unfavourably, to other scenes, both real and imagined, that have happened, and are happening, elsewhere." So it's possible to read the book with pleasure strictly on the level of what one might call its literary merits' - or it would be, if only its author would let you.
She doesn't. Neither are we allowed to fully engage on the level of characters or plot - the astrological contrivance is too shifty for that. Moody, for instance, represented by the planet Mercury, is initially placed to be a kind of go-between with the reader, following, as he does, just slightly behind the 'stellar' players as they explain their involvement in events; Thomas Balfour (Sagittarius), a shipping magnate, seems set up as our central 'explainer.' But then the heavens shift, Mercury moves out of Balfour's sign, and these two are flipped offstage like figures in a paper theater while others pop up to replace them. In fact, once the structural conceit becomes apparent, every detail of the novel glows with such intention that it almost blinds you to the pleasures of story. One becomes obsessive: Is the divider, the Greek letter phi, used for its symbolic affinity to the golden mean? Or does it stand for the constellation Ophiuchus, sometimes called the 13th zodiac sign? Catton never allows you to relinquish the impression that there are answers to be found, and that like a crossword, the novel might be no more than a sophisticated amusement.
Whether one appreciates this point is the question that emerges, in its sly, interesting way, in and through the novel's pseudoscientific groundwork. How and why, when so much care is manifest, do we feel manhandled? Do subjective responses suffer when an author - or the cosmos, in this case - dictates every element of the work to the point that even after 848 pages both character and plot can be drowned out by their own determinant structure? As in astrology, these questions have to do with relation, primarily that between the 'warm' pleasure of emotional engagement and the 'cool' pleasure of a game - pleasure as activity versus pleasure as state. That Catton has provided a 'solution' to her novel might strike some as diminishing its ability to generate the jagged thrill of the big (usually male-penned) novels it draws comparison to by virtue of sheer bulk - Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses say, or indeed 2666. It may, by virtue of this, seem far less 'serious' or worthy.
Catton, when The Luminaries was first published, was 27, and when I mention this to my group of 30-ish, novel-less peers, the reaction generally takes the form of whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is: from ugh and oh ... so I hate her, to she's the child of someone famous, and rich, and went to a fancy school, right? These are ugly, unfair (and some will inevitably say sexist) reactions, but ugly or not, they are worth acknowledging, and not entirely irrelevant either, it so happens. Because jealous displeasure with Catton's age-to-successes ratio stems from the same root as our discomfort with something as perfectly formed as her novel: a longing, in the midst of being impressed, for that truth inhabited by things spontaneous, ragged-edged, wounded, or imperfect, for things that are granted the freedom to fail. This is the point The Luminaries makes, in the end, having gone so far to the other extreme - its seamlessness delivers us around, and then back again. Perhaps, as Catton's Emery Staines explains, "True feeling is always circular - either circular or paradoxical - simply because its cause and its expression are two halves of the very same thing!" That's because it is people who both make novels and feel things about them - and while we might be conceived in chaos, we tell ourselves stories so as not to be.
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