Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.Continue reading
I have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.
One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.
“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.
Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.
I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.
The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.
This post is expanding on a few thoughts I’ve had recently, mostly prompted by reading Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and ‘elitism’ (first published in New Zealand’s Metro magazine in March 2013, then posted on Metro‘s website in December). The whole essayis fabulous, and you should read it. Catton argues that literature itself can’t be elitist, because a book can’t dictate who will read it, or how. But I’m more interested in her conception of literature as encounter, and book reviews as a means of ‘describing and critiquing a literary encounter’. This is such an inspiring idea to me, a different way of thinking about books: less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why? It’s something I want to try to capture more on the blog.
Thinking about it more, I start to feel that experiencing a strong engagement with a book is more valuable than liking it per se. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not knocking enjoyment of a book, or suggesting that we should feel happy about disliking one; but it seems to me that – less often – we can have deeper reactions to a book which reach beyond that kind of consideration. I’m reminded of when I read Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham a few years ago: the only time in the history of this blog that I’ve abandoned a book and still felt the need to write several hundred words explaining why. At the time, I was annoyed at the book; now I can see how infrequent it has been for me to be so affected by a book I didn’t like, and I feel that’s worth treasuring (it also makes me wonder whether I should give the novel another chance).
Another example. This week, I came across Jenny Ackland’s response to The Luminaries:
It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away…still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?
I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft.
It’s a wonderful piece that captures just the sort of encounter Catton is talking about. I strongly suspect from this that the experience of reading The Luminaries is going to stay with Ackland for a long time, to put it mildly. But I would also wager that the negative parts of that experience will become integral to the memory of the whole (that’s what I mean by going beyond ‘like’ and ‘dislike’). To my mind, one reading experience this intense – even when there’s rough with the smooth – is worth a dozen moderately pleasant ones.
Another thought I’ve had recently is that Eleanor Catton’s current breakthrough reminds of China Miéville’s emergence at the time of Perdido Street Station (2000). Fittingly enough, there are striking coincidences (both writers won a major literary prize with their second novel, and at around the same age). But what I’m thinking about is that both came along as young writers with a very intense vision for their work, and an ability to articulate that vision powerfully. They could see their own way to do things, and Miéville opened up a space that changed the creative landscape around him (other writers, too, but it seems to me that Miéville’s voice rang loudest).
There are a couple of key differences: Miéville emerged from and worked firmly within the field of science fiction and fantasy, which Catton does not; she also doesn’t appear to have a creative ‘manifesto’ like the New Weird. It’s also, of course, too early to know how Catton’s career will develop; but it will be interesting to see how, and how far, her influence spreads. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more elaborately plotted historical mysteries, or novels built on formally organised structures, in the years ahead; but to focus on such trappings is to overlook the heart and soul of Catton’s books, which to me is the depth of unity that she achieves. My hope is that writers will take one key lesson from Catton’s work: do your own thing, and do it as fully and as well as you can.
Since I started planning this post, it has also occurred to me that The Luminaries would make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with Viriconium, particularly in terms of how (if?) they gradually erode story. But that’s a thought for another time!
I started this blog in 2009, and began to explore some of the new fiction that was being published. The highlight of my reading year was an obscure debut novel by a young New Zealand writer, which had just been released in the UK. I read it on a whim and thought it was terrific, one of those rare instances of a book embodying the very essence of what speaks to you as an individual reader. I wished everyone could discover what I had found in this book, and was frustrated when, though it got some attention, it seemed a novel destined to remain in relative obscurity.
Four years on, that same writer published her second novel, and I loved it as much as her first. But the circumstances are very different: there’s no obscurity for Eleanor Catton now, because she has won the Man Booker Prize with The Luminaries. I’ve already written about why I love The Luminaries so much, so I won’t go over that again here. Instead, I’ll say a few words on why I’m so pleased with the Booker result.
For the past few years, it has felt to me that the Booker was stuck in something of a rut; whatever the merits of the individual winning titles, it was starting to seem like a lifetime achievement award for English novelists. Not this time. This year, the Booker has recognised a writer at the start of her career – and what a career it could be.
The Luminaries is a joyous, stubbornly idiosyncratic novel (‘a publisher’s nightmare’, as Catton put it in her acceptance speech) that celebrates and interrogates its own project in equal measure, and it deserves as wide an audience as possible. I want writers to have visions as compelling and individual as Catton’s, and to be able to make a success of them. I can only see the Booker result as a clear signal that this can be done.
On a personal level, of course it’s very pleasing to see my own tastes align so squarely with the Booker jury’s. But Catton’s win also makes me feel that my generation is really starting to make its mark on the literary world (at 28, Catton is the youngest-ever winner of the Booker Prize) – and that’s a good feeling. As long as there are writers like (and yet completely unlike) Catton around, the future of literature looks bright; and I’m confident that she will continue to be a vital voice in it.
If I were to rank the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog (and there are over 500 of them) in order of enjoyment, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008) would be right at the top of the list. I bought it on a whim, knowing nothing about it; I was nearly put off by its mannered style; but then everything clicked into place, and I ended up with one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Naturally, then, I’ve been eager ever since to read a second novel by Catton.
Four years after reading The Rehearsal, I have now had that opportunity. At first sight, The Luminaries appears a very different proposition from Catton’s debut: at 830 pages in hardback, it is more than twice the length of The Rehearsal. Where the first novel was set in a deliberately non-specific contemporary Western milieu, the new book is tied firmly to a time and place: the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika in 1865-6. Where The Rehearsal was fractured and stylised, The Luminaries has the appearance of being more conventional: the chronology leaps back at one point, and the novel’s twelve parts grow progressively shorter, but there’s nothing as obvious as The Rehearsal’s non-linear blurring of realities; and Catton’s prose remains within a largely convincing 19th-century idiom.
Things are not as simple as they seem. What made The Rehearsal stand out so much for me was how its unconventional form and style so completely embodied its central concern of performance, and reflected that back in myriad ways throughout the book. Catton does the same thing in The Luminaries, with a different set of concerns – but the extent of it only become apparent once you’ve finished.
Before I get further into that, some plot: we begin on 27 January 1866, when Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer, walks into the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, disturbing twelve men in conference. Gradually gaining their trust, Moody hears their story: a couple of weeks earlier, a hermit named Crosbie Wells was found dead in his cottage, and a not inconsiderable fortune soon after. Around the same time, a young woman was found unconscious from opium in the road, apparently having tried to commit suicide. Through acquaintance with each other, each of the twelve men discovered that he was somehow connected to these events; so they decided to gather together in this room to discuss what may have happened, and what could be done.
As the novel progresses, more and more connections between the characters become apparent, revealing a complex and dastardly plot. It’s not for me to say much more about the twists and turns; but I will say that, if you want a page-turning murder mystery, you will find one in The Luminaries. This book is as tense and exciting a read as I have come across in a long time. But Catton does not stop there.
If you read any articles about The Luminaries, you’ll soon hear about its elaborate astrological underpinning. Twelve of Catton’s characters (the twelve men interrupted by Walter Moody) represent the signs of the zodiac; another seven represent planetary bodies (Moody is Mercury, for instance). Catton calculated the horoscope for Hokitika during the calendar year in which The Luminaries is set, and transposed the changing positions of each body into the relationships between her characters. Now, for many readers (including myself), I suspect this would not be a satisfactory end in itself: if you don’t know much about astrology, you won’t spot the connections; if you don’t believe in it, then you probably won’t care anyway. But what this astrological foundation does, to my mind, is set up some of the novel’s main subtexts.
One of these, as I’ve hinted above, is the idea of connection and relation. This is perhaps most obvious in the mystery itself: ‘there is no truth except truth in relation’ (p. 364), as Catton’s omniscient narrator puts it; and, indeed, no single character knows the full truth of Crosbie Wells’s death, or the plot going on around it. But we also see this theme manifest in the way that so many of the characters are trying to forge their own paths in life, to act on or against the world (gold prospectors in search of a life-transforming nugget, of course, but others as well), yet are scuppered by the actions of others. Catton’s characters are enmeshed in a web of interdependence that they can only begin to comprehend.
But the zodiac is not only a structure for connecting relationships in this novel; it’s also an artificial pattern imposed by humans on the night sky – and most of the characters have no truck with it. There are several ways in which Catton examines how we try to impose order on reality, and the implications and limitations of doing so. A murder mystery, for example, traditionally relies on a pattern being imposed upon seemingly unconnected facts. There are two major scenes in The Luminaries where this happens: when Moody sums up the accounts of the men in the Crown Hotel, and a later courtroom scene. Both of these sequences end with someone rushing in to announce an unexpected development. It’s a rather melodramatic device, but I see it as a literal interruption of disorder: the facts have been arranged to the characters’ satisfaction; everything seems to make sense – then in comes someone to reveal that it doesn’t. A classic fictional edifice is undermined with one of its own tools.
More pointedly than murder mysteries, there’s another example of a pattern placed over reality in the form of the gold mines themselves. These affect the world physically, silting up the Hokitika River; and Catton never allows us to forget that this is land which once belonged to the Maori. ‘You with your greenstone, us with our gold. It might just as well be the other way about,’ says one character to the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare. ‘No,’ replies Tauwhare, ‘it is not the same’ (p. 814) – but that is as much as we hear. These issues may not be explored in detail in The Luminaries, but Tauwhare’s voice still speaks eloquently, for all that it does not say.
I said earlier that each of the novel’s twelve parts is shorter than the last; more precisely, each part is half the length of the previous one (so Part I is nearly half the book, part XII just a few dozen words). This gives The Luminaries the shape of a golden spiral. It also acts like a spiral – or, to keep up the celestial theme, a black hole, stripping out information as it goes. Though the novel begins with the immersive detail of a mystery, when the focus moves back to 1865 to tell the events leading up to Crosbie Wells’s murders, the chapters then get shorter and shorter – the narrative breaks apart.
Here, the novel begins to embody the tension between the open future and rueful hindsight, the sense of predestination and the sense of free will. The summaries heading each chapter (all beginning: “In which…” take on more of the detail. Without these, each chapter would be a floating fragment of time with no context; the only reason we can place them is that we know what has come afterwards. So the novel spirals down to a singularity, a moment poised between the infinite possibility ahead for those experiencing it, and the inevitable tragedy that we know will unfold. What may seem foreordained after the event is, we see, nothing of the sort in the present moment.
I finished The Luminaries grinning from ear to ear at the experience of having read a novel so completely and idiosyncratically realised. Moments like that are one reason I read books in the first place; and they’re why, for me, Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.
The Blue Bookcase blog is hosting a “Literary Blog Hop” this weekend, and I thought I’d take part, as I tend as I tend to think of this blog as covering literary fiction. Participants are asked to answer the following prompt: Please highlight one of your favourite books and why you would consider it “literary.”
Okay, that’s a good opportunity for me to think through what I mean by “literary”. I doubt I could come up with any hard-and-fast definition that wouldn’t have fuzzy edges, but here goes. I don’t think of literary fiction as a category that excludes particular genres; I think of it as a general description of books that I can appreciate as something more than just a way of passing the time.
The novel I’ve chosen to highlight here is my favourite read of last year – The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. I’ve already written on it at some length here, and so don’t want to repeat myself too much, but, to give some context: The Rehearsal is about an alleged scandal between a teacher and pupil at a girls’ school, and a play inspired by the scandal which students from the local drama college decide to stage. Then again, that’s not really what the book is “about”; it’s about different kinds of performance and pretence – in life, not just in theatre.
What makes The Rehearsal “literary” for me is the way that its main theme is played out on so many levels, and that the different aspects reinforce each other. The drama students literally put on a show; the girls at the school do so metaphorically in how they relate to each other. Some scenes read more like a theatrical production (and not necessarily the one being staged at the drama college) than a report of “reality” – even the novel itself is putting on a show. Catton takes risks with structure and dialogue, but it all works, because everything is tied back to the central idea of rehearsing.
So, that’s The Rehearsal. Now to check out some of the other blogs in the hop…
I know we’re some way past the halfway point of 2009, but I wanted to do a mini-review of the year so far, as I’ve read so many great books this year that I’d like to highlight the best once again. So these are my top five reads of the year so far (all had their first UK publication in 2009), in alphabetical order (click the titles to read my reviews):
Keith Brooke, The Accord
Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal
Rana Dasgupta, Solo
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia
An honourable mention goes to Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is my favourite pre-2009 book that I read for the first time this year. All six books are excellent, and I woud urge you to seek them out.
(Of course, I don’t just blog about books on here; so, for the sake of completeness: my favourite fiilm of the year so far is Franklyn; and favourite album of the year so far is Kingdom of Rust by Doves, which I will get around to blogging about eventually…)
Where to start with The Rehearsal, a book that fizzes over with invention and exuberance; that rummages through haystacks of artifice and returns with surprisingly many needles of truth; that demands attention from its readers, but pays it all back, many times over — that comes laden with praise, every word of it justified?
We could start with the plot, though that might be something of a red herring. There’s a scandal involving a girl at Abbey Grange school and one of the teachers there. The students at the local drama college decide to use the incident as the basis for a production; but it all gets too close to home for one of the actors when he discovers that he’s embarked on a relationship with the sister of the girl at the heart of the scandal.
That’s all accurate enough, but it tells you precious little of what The Rehearsal is actually about; and practically nothing of what the experience of reading it is really like. From the very first page, we understand that not all is as it seems. We meet a saxophone teacher who says this to the mother of a prospective student:
‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud…Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?’
She’s not the only character to speak in such a mannered way, and nobody bats an eyelid over it. With hindsight, the clues are there all the way through, but it took me a hundred pages to see what was happening (and I think I only really understood it in the final chapter): we’re witnessing a theatrical performance. But it’s not the same performance as the one the drama students are doing; and it’s no ordinary piece of theatre, because we’re privy to characters’ thoughts as well as their dialogue, just as in any standard prose fiction.
This is part of the unique atmosphere of The Rehearsal: Catton keeps it wonderfully ambiguous whether the scene we’re reading is what actually happened, or a later theatrical reconstruction, or something else. The narrative itself is non-linear (I didn’t bother trying to keep track of the true chronological order of events, but never felt disadvantaged for that); we often hear about key events rather than witnessing them directly; and sometimes we even get conflicting reports of what happened. In short, the novel is a maze of fractured realities.
If all this makes The Rehearsal sound like a cold, unreadable exercise of a book, let me assure you it is not — the pages fly by. Nevertheless, Catton has a very good reason for taking such an unorthodox approach to her novel. But, before I delve into it, I should step back and paint in some details on the generalities I’ve been describing.
The chapters of the novel alternate between two narrative strands, which merge in the last. The first strand concerns some of the girls at Abbey Grange, and three in particular, who all have private lessons with the same saxophone teacher: there’s Isolde, whose sister Victoria is the subject of the scandal; Julia, with whom Isolde eventually becomes friends (and perhaps more); and Bridget, who seems destined to be the eternal ‘other girl’. The second strand is set at the Drama Institute, and focuses especially on nervous young Stanley, who first meets Isolde when she stumbles accidentally upon a rehearsal at the college; and their relationship blossoms haltingly from there.
Catton has a sharp eye for characterisation. It’s presented unusually, to be sure: given the nature of the dialogue, the characterisation is often ‘externalised’, and even exaggerated (as the author reminds us, ‘theatre is a concentrate of life as normal’). But there are many insightful observations of human behaviour to be found here. The saxophone teacher (who often functions as a kind of twisted Greek chorus, saying things that I doubt most people would even want to think) sums Bridget up as ‘always wanting to be somebody else.’ Stanley wants to be an actor because he wants ‘to be seen…if somebody’s watching, you know you’re worth something.’ The most potent weapon that the girls of Abbey Grange have to use against each other is to define each other: who’ll marry first? who’ll cheat? ‘It is the darkest and deadliest of their arts, that each girl might construct or destroy the image of any of the rest.’
And these examples all hint at Catton’s main theme: performing, pretending, rehearsing. She is concerned with the myriad ways we put on performances in life, such as pretending to be what we’re not; telling others what we think they want to hear; putting the interpretation we want on different events; and so on. That’s the reason for all the elaborate games with form and structure: the text itself mirrors the theme — some characters are literally performing roles.
To elaborate on some of the other ways in which the theme manifests itself: we never do learn the truth of what happened between Victoria and her teacher.We don’t know if it truly was assault, or something more innocent; whether he was the predator or she the instigator. It could be either, and because it’s unknown, people can make whatever they want of it. And they do: the girls at Abbey Grange feel don’t feel supportive of Victoria; they feel betrayed by her, because she broke away from the group — at least, that’s what we’re told they feel.
Youth is ‘the rehearsal for everything that comes after,’ says the saxophone teacher. Well, adolescence as presented in this novel is a confusing time of not knowing quite who you are or who you want to be… Yep, that seems a pretty accurate view of it to me. Arguably, of course, adulthood can also be like this; and certainly there are adults, as well as adolescents, in the novel who are putting on a show. The teachers in The Rehearsal don’t receive names (actually, some of the drama teachers do, but they’re mostly referred to by titles), and remain largely anonymous; but two in particular — the saxophone teacher and the Drama Institute’s Head of Movement — seem keen to live vicariously through their students and/or memories. Both find different ways of trying to do that; neither seems, to me, to do all that well out of it.
Performance and artifice are, the novel seems to suggest, everywhere. It would be neat and tidy to view one narrative strand as the heightened, theatrical representation, and the other as ‘real’ reality; but The Rehearsal doesn’t permit such a simplistic reading. The drama teachers seem as outlandish in their own way as the saxophone teacher; and Stanley’s father (who suggested that his son could get rich by taking out a life insurance policy on the child at school most likely to die) feels no more ‘real’ to me than all the interchangeable mothers who are content to let the saxophone teacher insult them and their daughters.
Even the very last scene — which may be when we can trust most completely that what it says on the page is what actually happens in the ‘real world’ of the novel — ends with one character saying to another, ‘I’d be happy if you told me just enough of the facts so I could imagine it. So I could recreate it for myself. So I could imagine that I was really there.’ After reading The Rehearsal, one might well come to the conclusion that this is an impossible dream.
Have I nothing bad to say about this book? Not really — the features that would usually be considered flaws become strengths in context. So it’s undiluted praise for The Rehearsal from me — and I don’t give that out lightly. Eleanor Catton was 22 when she wrote her début novel, and the craft and artistry it shows are superlative. I think she will be one of the best and most significant writers of her generation.