The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
When I first started skiing it was in a resort called Livigno. I did ski school there each year, and to assess your level they had everyone participating in ski school walk half way up a hill lugging their kit, then ski down so they could watch and assess our descents.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is divided into 12 parts, one for each sign of the zodiac, and each part is roughly half the length of the previous making the whole book a kind of prose-spiral. What this means is that the first part of the novel is nearly 400 pages long and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve trudged right the way up that hill and are probably hoping that what follows will be worth the effort. Here’s how it opens:
MERCURY IN SAGITTARIUS
In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.
The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of the city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; 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 – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the flat clatter of the rain.
In a rather good review in The Guardian novelist Kirsty Gunn compared that opening to a play, and she’s right because it’s very easy to imagine the curtain coming up on that scene. Of course the reader has read the italicised introduction to the chapter, which tells us not only that a stranger arrives but that a secret council is disturbed. It’s giving away nothing then to reveal that the room looks so staged because that’s exactly what it is, the twelve men were’t expecting company and were gathered there because nobody ever goes to the smoking room of the Crown Hotel and they have important business to discuss.
Catton is operating at two levels here. Within the fiction the stranger is Walter Moody, a young lawyer come to Hokitika New Zealand in 1866 to make his fortune in the local gold fields. As the weather was filthy he decided he wanted a drink, and as he’s new to the area he didn’t know that nobody goes to The Crown. It’s a coincidence that sets the whole story in motion, and settle in because it won’t be the last coincidence. Soon the twelve men are telling Moody what brought them there that night, each adding his own account of a series of strange events which together they hope to form into some kind of coherent whole.
Above the fiction there’s another level at which Catton is effectively saying to the reader that they’re about to hear a story. That theatrical opening underlines the artificiality of the whole exercise, this isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The italicised chapter intro, the description-rich opening paragraph, the immediate use of coincidence all signals that we’re in the territory of the Victorian novel. Moody is us, arrived part way through and hoping to make sense of the narrative. As with Catton’s marvellous The Rehearsal, this is a book whose subject can’t be separated from its structure and style.
As with any great Victorian novel by the way, Catton is marvellous at description. Here’s a little more on The Crown hotel:
The Crown was an establishment of the serviceable, unadorned sort, recommended only by its proximity to the quay. If this feature was an expedience, however, it could hardly be called a virtue: here, so close to the stockyards, the bloody smell of slaughter intermingled with the sour, briny smell of the sea, putting one in mind, perpetually, of an untended icebox in which an uncured joint has spoiled.
What follows over the next 400 pages (which remember is just the first part) is a dense and frequently confusing tale of a possibly-murdered recluse, a rich young prospector named Emery Staines recently gone missing, an opium-addicted prostitute named Anna Wetherell found dying in the street from what appears to be a suicide attempt, a new parliamentary candidate subject to potentially ruinous blackmail and a shipowner suspected of fraud and crimes of appalling violence. The twelve men trying to make sense of it all range from a banker to a goldfields magnate to a chemist to a shipping agent to a hatter to a chaplain and more. It’s a dizzyingly rich and diverse cast.
Well, I say diverse, but they’re almost all men. Hokitika is a goldrush town and while it has men of European, Chinese and Maori descent it has almost no women, and those it does have are mostly prostitutes. Hokitika then is a nexus of desire, greed for gold and lust (and love) for Anna Wetherell.
Within each of the twelve parts of the novel is a number of smaller chapters, each headed by reference to the movement of the planets and stars in astrology. Here’s how the second chapter opens:
JUPITER IN SAGITTARIUS
In which the merits of asylum are discussed; a family name comes into question; Alistair Lauderback is discomfited; and the shipping agent tells a lie.
Balfour’s narrative, made somewhat circuitous by interruption, and generally encumbered by the lyrical style of that man’s speech, became severely muddled in the telling, and several hours passed before Moody finally understood with clarity the order of events that had precipitated the secret council in the hotel smoking room. The interruptions were too tiresome, and Balfour’s approach too digressive, to deserve a full and faithful record in the men’s own words. We shall here excise their imperfections, and impose a regimental order upon the impatient chronicle of the shipping agent’s roving mind; 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.
Again I’m back to Catton’s mixing of story and structure. By this point in the book just 5o pages in I was already trying to keep track of a fair number of characters, though I was definitely intrigued as to where it was all going. Catton now addresses the reader directly, saying that Balfour (a shipping agent) may be muddled in his account but that she as author (or rather the author within the text, since the author’s style of address is contemporary to the characters) has imposed an order on what’s to follow. That’s reassuring when you’ve still got nearly 800 pages left, but it’s an utter lie. Before too long I was distinctly lost.
There’s a character chart at the start of the book saying who everyone is and I soon had it bookmarked on my kindle, regularly going back to it to remind myself who say Joseph Pritchard or Charlie Frost were. I’d find myself virtually leafing back through the book trying to recall how two characters first met or how one account connected to another. By the time I reached the second part of the novel, almost half way through, I was starting to get distinctly frustrated and my grasp of what was going on was limited to say the least.
That’s the climb up the hill. Once you get up there it becomes absolutely apparent that Catton knows exactly what she’s doing. I’d got as far as I had partly through the quality of the writing and partly through faith in some of the bloggers who’d said this was worth the effort, and then suddenly Catton revealed through Moody that she knew perfectly well that the plot so far was (needlessly) convoluted. To use an utter blogger cliche I actually laughed out loud when Moody complained about how difficult it all was to follow, and then promptly summarised in a handful of pages everything that had happened over the preceding 400.
A few years before I started this blog I read Nabokov’s novel Pnin, which started to frustrate me when I detected an increasing disconnect between the authorial voice and what was happening within the fiction. Just as I was getting close to abandoning it I realised (I think when Nabokov meant me to realise) that it was intentional, and that Nabokov had been playing with me, risking alienating me as a reader in return for a greater payoff later. In the end I loved Pnin.
Pnin however is 176 pages long. It takes real audacity to spend 400 pages winding your reader up and then to have one of your characters essentially point out what you’re doing. It’s not that the first 400 pages were a chore, I had a ton of passages highlighted to quote as examples of Catton’s prose and talent for description. I’ve cut most of them for reasons of space, but here’s one which I thought particularly nicely done:
Mannering, as has been already observed, was a very fat man. In his twenties he had been stout, and in his thirties, quite pot-bellied; by the time he reached his forties, his torso had acquired an almost spherical proportion, and he was obliged, to his private dismay, to request assistance in both mounting and dismounting his horse. Rather than admit that his girth had become an impediment to daily activity, Mannering blamed gout, a condition with which he had never been afflicted, but one that he felt had a soundly aristocratic ring. He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat, an assumption that happened very often, for he had mutton-chop whiskers and a fair complexion, and he favoured expensive dress. That day his necktie was fastened with a gold stickpin, and his vest (the buttons of which were rather palpably strained) sported notched lapels.
There’s a lot packed in there and the whole first part is filled with great little portraits like that. Still, while I found the setting rich, the characters interesting and the structure intriguing, it was still taking me a fair bit of work to make sense of the twelve men’s different accounts. I was finding it hard therefore not to sympathise with Walter Moody when he says to them “‘your perspectives are very many, and you will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole.’”
After the half way point my experience of the novel changed dramatically. The device of having each part half the length of the other means that the whole novel starts to accelerate. Suddenly you know broadly what’s going on, and the question is what will happen next and what connects it all. The story straps on its skis and heads off down the hill, and without ever becoming any the less literary the book becomes a positive page-turner.
Catton’s playfulness though never goes away. There’s no author within the fiction, and yet even so the author is almost a character too. The quote above is one example, with the author criticising Balfour’s style (which they wrote of course) and promising to make things clearer but then distinctly failing to do so. It’s but one of many asides on the characters or notable incidents. There’s sometimes rather wonderfully elaborate language, such as: “Miss Wetherell lived by the will of the dragon, after all, a drug that played steward to an imbecile king, and she would guard that throne with jealous eyes forever.” At other times the author is positively prim, such as when a character threatens another with a gun ” uttering several profanities too vulgar to set down here.”
The astrological motif adds further depth, with each character representing (or governed by) a particular stellar body and their interactions following the procession of the astrological conjunctions. I know virtually nothing about astrology, but that didn’t matter because I could still see how the apparent coincidences within the narrative were in fact nothing of the kind governed on one view by astrological inevitability and the predestination of the spheres and on another by the fact that the entire novel is of course a completely artificial structure created by Catton to achieve particular effects. In a sense then it’s a clockwork novel, unfolding as the stars or Catton decree, impeccably controlled and with not a single page that doesn’t serve the wider purpose.
As the end of the novel grows closer its parts continue to grow shorter, until soon they can no longer fit in everything that needs to happen. I noticed that the italicised summaries grew longer, and started to contain material that wasn’t in the text that followed; the introductions breathlessly trying to fill in for what the chapters no longer had room for. By the end the novel had come apart like tissue paper in my hands, I was breathlessly at the bottom of the hill having made the last part of the descent so swiftly I was left trying to piece it back together in my mind.
That by the way is where that particular metaphor rather breaks down. In real life as a beginner skier I tended to panic when going too fast, braked and ended up reaching the bottom of the hill moving more slowly than I was at the midpoint of my run. Catton’s a better novelist than I was a skier, which is probably for the best.
So as not to make the whole thing sound too academic, I’m going to end on one final quote even though I haven’t touched on the nature of the luminaries themselves or their significance as the heart of the novel (but then it’s nice to discover some of that for yourself). This excerpt captures some of the wit of this marvellous seemingly-sprawling but in fact utterly controlled novel:
For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and laboured in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, towards defeatism. These nuances of his character were lost upon the subjects of the British Crown, with whom Quee Long shared but eighty or a hundred words, but to his compatriots, he was renowned for his cynical humour, his melancholy spirit, and his dogged perseverance in the service of untouchable ideals.
There’s a school of thought which says reviews shouldn’t be about whether the reviewer liked a book or not, but should rather give enough information to let others make their own minds up. I see that as a false dichotomy, and anyway more appropriate for a newspaper than a blog. I aim to give enough information that anyone reading this can form their own view, but I think it’s relevant to share my personal reaction too. This is an extraordinary book from a major talent. I loved it, and I’ll read her next book even if it’s 1,800 pages long.
I have two bloggers to particularly thank at the end here. Kevin of kevinfromcanada whose review of The Luminaries is here and who first introduced me to Catton, and David Hebblethwaite whose excellent review convinced me not to be put off by book’s historical setting or sheer bulk.