Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Luminaries is a novel that so dazzles you with its accomplishments and ambitions that it’s easy to be distracted from its lack of ambition where it really matters.
It only adds to the distraction that we can still feel the afterglow from Catton’s 2008 debut, The Rehearsal – a novel packed with ideas, shrewd observation and formal audacity. A novel, moreover, that was contemporary. With The Luminaries, Catton is another New Zealand writer escaping into the past.
“Give us a tale, and spin it out, so we forget about our feet, and we don’t notice that we’re walking,” says a digger as he and one of the central characters set forth for the goldfields of 1860s Hokitika.
But Catton isn’t one to simply spin out a tale – she’s set herself the creative writing exercise to end all creative writing exercises: immersing herself in 19th-century fiction (fair enough); using astrological charts to help determine her characters and plot (righty ho); and structuring the book in 12 parts where each is half the length of the preceding one (hmmm).
The result is more than 800 pages long. You could walk a great distance during that many pages – but not without often thinking of your feet.
If Catton’s elaborate formal structure bespeaks remarkable control on her part, for the reader the book can feel out of control: such verbiage and pacing in another mystery novel would have prompted editorial slashes.
The mystery itself is fiendishly knotted, and worked both tighter and looser through Catton’s orchestration of misunderstandings and coincidences. It is the ultimate rejoinder to those who complain about the lack of plot in literary fiction these days.
Catton has lost none of the canny eye she demonstrated in The Rehearsal, whether for human behaviour or detail. There are many beautifully written passages. But there is also much that is stiff and stagy. By adhering so closely to the language and techniques of the Victorian novel, she has denied herself the toolkit of modernism.
It is pastiche, but The Luminaries is not knowingly winking an eye at us. Catton plays it straight, with only the occasional hint of the 21st century (eg, “You’ll shut your f—ing mouth”, her comprehension of race). But this means character is introduced through stodgy blocks of description rather than gradually via thought and action; formal thought and speech patterns (even when a character is supposed to be “full of nonsense and tumbling words”, he isn’t, really); an absence of psychological depth (a law-abiding man becomes an accomplice to murder without so much as a ripple to his conscience).
Catton acknowledges at one point she is imposing “a regimental order” – applying “mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection”. But without cracks and chinks, the surface of the novel is placid and detached. It’s as artfully manicured as the facial expressions she describes in a female character, and could do with some dirt beneath its fingernails.
The sense of artifice is compounded by the coincidences. Catton explains these in terms of social history (the West Coast gold rush being a “call that carried across the ocean like a faery pipe on a rare breeze”) and the stars, but the distancing effect remains the same, especially when events speed up to resemble a French farce (with someone even hiding underneath a bed).
The social history is well conveyed, including with regard to Maori and Chinese. But The Luminaries exists mostly as a puzzle to be solved or flummoxed by. There are recurring motifs and themes involving doublings and the relationship between truth and perspective. But these feel more like devices to serve the puzzle than like the stimulating ideas of The Rehearsal.
The great 19th-century novels entered the souls of their characters and wrestled with the conditions of their age.
With The Luminaries, one of our most gifted young writers has boxed herself in. Yes, it’s a big box, with a lot of space to move around in. But it sounds awfully hollow in there.
THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton (VUP, $35/$45); the Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced on September 10 (UK time).