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
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.