Book review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Victoria University Press, $35.00

Reviewed by Michael Morrissey

Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well?

Her first novel, The Rehearsal, written when the author was virtually a child of 21 (or so) set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness, as well as including flashes of purple writing – understandable in one so young. Femmes were impressed; chaps less so.

The Rehearsal was published in 17 territories and 12 languages – an impressive achievement for one barely out of school uniform. The pensive-featured, marginally beautiful Ms Catton was made an adjunct professor at Iowa University. I was the first New Zealand writer to take part in the International Writing Program at Iowa University and they didn’t make me an adjunct professor, though I was awarded an honorary fellowship in writing. Possibly the two awards come from the same honorary academic page?

Catton, who is not yet 30 and clearly wastes little time on the iPad, iPod, iCloud or iClod, has produced the largest New Zealand novel in 110 years – since the monumentally dull dystopian novel Limanora by J. Macmillan Brown, grandfather of poet James K. Baxter, published in 1903. The clearly immensely talented and narratively inventive Ms Catton may well turn out to be our most obviously gifted writer, though personally I would place my bet on Lloyd Jones, our most sophisticated stylist to date. Or on Charlotte Randall, whose The Curate is the most perfectly composed New Zealand novel to date. Randall never seems to get as much limelight as she deserves.

Nor arguably has any New Zealand novel topped the magisterial The Chambered Nautilus by the late Graham Billing. Billing, who once referred to his “long loping stride”, was not only the finest New Zealand naturalist writer but also our grandest stylist. Though flawed by a degree of character sameness, The Chambered Nautilus is the only New Zealand novel to date that could possibly aspire to greatness. Needless to say, it has been totally ignored by our culturally retarded critics and academics who, it might appear, are most likely to encourage yet another thesis on the self-centred minor writer Janet Frame – or what is worse, on the hideously banal The Bone People, which caused one professor (who I obviously cannot name) to feel like throwing up. And if you think these opinions are merely those of a demented reviewer, check out The Western Canon by Harold Bloom.

The only New Zealand writer who made it was Katherine Mansfield. Obviously, Allen Curnow should have made it – but no one else. Those who think the canon is obsolete should be stomached up against the largest cannon and the fuse lit.

The Luminaries is even more impressive as a book artifact when the elegant dust jacket is peeled off to reveal an astonishingly obese tome, its sumptuous creamy glory resembling the frozen blocks of butter I used to stack nine high on Kings Wharf, circa 1960. Alternatively, it could be the model for a lego block of butterfat before it turns to yogurt.

Set in the sizzling gold-flushed town of Hokitika, at 25,000 the most populous in New Zealand in 1866, the wildest of the wild with 100 pubs, the scene is set for a hotchpotch of crises. If Kororareka was the hellhole of the north, why shouldn’t Hokitika be the hellhole of the south?

Unlike Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which had a mere two corpses, Catton weaves a rich tapestry of felonies: a fat cat prospector has vanished; a prostitute, opium-raddled naturally, attempts suicide; a drunk is found dead; and a la Dostoyevsky a large sum of money is discovered. Has anyone ever done a thesis on the importance of money as a plot device in the Victorian novel? And as always, someone believes they are entitled to the money. Only Dostoyevsky, the greatest of all time, was able to fuse sex and money together more artfully than the English Victorians in The Idiot, one of his great novels.

The fatal flaw of The Luminaries is simultaneously the apotheosis of whatever strength it may possess, put to me on the phone by C. K. Stead just before he swore at me and hung up – namely, that Ms Catton’s opus is a pastiche of a Victorian novel, or as I have chosen to express it, a retro-pastiche. And a retro-pastiche cannot take the novel forward. It can only play with previously known elements such as the multiple point of view, previously used by Browning, Kurosawa and others, or recollection of a single day. In the armoury of literary devices, such as these are bewhiskered. Likewise, the bonsai version of chapter headings “In which etc….” formerly a favourite device of Victorian giants like Dickens and Eliot.

Then there are the astrological frame ups. Eleanor, how could you have used such a geriatric turkey?  Apart from Jung, who put this Hellenic claptrap to good use, it is verboten for the serious writer. May I suggest tea leaves as a substitute? This formulaic folderol could have been replaced by alchemy or Chinese astrology, which I suspect might give more accurate character readings than its Hellenic cousin.

Returning to Stead’s important point, why shouldn’t contemporary readers read the actual great novelists of the 19th century – Balzac, Dickens, Melville, Eliot, James, Wharton, Twain, Stendhal – not to mention Tolstoy and greatest of all Dostoyevsky, instead of Catton’s ersatz and inferior version?

Inasmuch as The Luminaries is a detective story, it could be compared to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but if you compare it to Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, its 832 pages don’t really carry enough creative heft to propel it into the dizzy empyrean of greatness. If we browse the aggressively contemporary form of detective fiction magnificently embodied in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, one of the finest novels of recent times, The Luminaries does not measure up. Every which way it is relegated to a work of the second or even third order – a five finger exercise webbed together by the dubious dinosaur cement of astrology.

The novels of Lloyd Jones and Charlotte Randall are cut from a finer weave. The Chambered Nautilus never looked more handsomely masculine, its prose glittering like the back of a surfacing whale.

It is a question of psychological depth, dramatic confrontation, parenthetic narration melded into the central narrative which must be totally guilty of architctonic grandeur. Come in The Brothers Karamazov, your time starts or rather continues now.

Perhaps only its range of devices, its elaborate parade of characters bravely attempts almost successfully to rescue The Luminaries from the crowded dustbin of failed greatness.

Let us presently cast an eye over the contemporary novel – and indeed be grateful there is such a thing in this shallow electronic age. When young men say with pride “I don’t read”, they boast of an ignorance of history, art, science, medicine, exploration. What should be a matter of shame becomes the badge of an ersatz pride. With young men not reading, The Luminaries becomes a symbol of the continued decay of a general high culture into a gender-skewered one. That imbalance is already upon us.

Let me thank C. K. Stead yet again for reminding me, by reading over the phone the opening lines of Independence Day, how in self-consciously aiming for greatness, Richard Ford, once known for the economy of his Dirty Realism style, achieved the dread ornamentation of the American school of fine writing. Rick Moody is another example of the orotund school. Compared to James or Proust, the aforementioned are producers of perfumed compost.

Though The Luminaries could do with a tighten on most pages, it at least has a dogged neo-Victorian readability. Nevertheless Catton would do well to stiffen up the syntax by reading Martha Gellhorn, Isabel Allende and Anne Michaels for poetic gloss.

Let’s take a look around the spacious room of world fiction. The Turkish novel has Orhan Pamuk; the South African novel has Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee; the Nigerian novel has Ben Okri; the English novel has Jim Crace, Sebastian Faulks, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel and Ian McEwan; the Peruvian novel has Mario Vargas Llosa; the Mexican novel has Carlos Fuentes; the Colombian novel has the extraordinary Gabriel Garcia Marquez; the American novel has Richard Ford (early not late), Jeffrey Eugenides, Jim Harrison, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow and Jonathan Franzen; the Italian novel has Umberto Eco; the German novel has Gunter Grass; the Canadian novel has Margaret Atwood; the Chinese novel has a number of energetic small fry; the Australian novel has Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Tim Winton, David Malouf and Murray Bail; the New Zealand novel has Lloyd Jones and Charlotte Randall; the Samoan novel has Albert Wendt and the Maori novel has third rate Witi Ihimaera.

But wait, there’s more – the Indian writers are the best in the world today. It’s partly a numbers game. India is of course a democracy, China is not. India draws on Latin American magic realism and serves it up piping hot with curry. By 2050 India will reach a population of 1.7 billion. For India to overtake China can only be a good thing. It is true that One Hundred Years of Solitude remains the greatest novel of the last 50 years – indeed, Marquez’s biographer leads the claim that Marquez is the greatest writer in Spanish since Cervantes:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Catton: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.”

Catton is not too bad but you could hardly compare this to the switchback triple time sense of Marquez.

There is a bunch of Indian writers who lead the world. Among these are Vikram Seth, David Davidar, Hari Kunzru, and Vikas Swarup. Prince among these gifted fellows (and they are mainly fellows) is Vikram Chandra, author of The Sacred Games, the only novel of our time to mount a challenge to Dostoyevsky’s crown. I have to confess to a slight tremor of awe when this modest mannered literary genius took the stage at a recent Auckland literary festival. As always I was the first to ask a question – centred on Chandra’s use of Mumbai almost as a character, just as Dostoyevsky used St Petersburg, Dickens used London – and Catton used Hokitika, the Mumbai of New Zealand in 1866. By the next year Hokitika was already drifting toward oblivion.

Overall, despite prior (and pending) criticism, Catton is a considerable talent whose career has scarcely begun. Perhaps we are witnessing the gentle evolution of a giantess as opposed to the devolution of a retro-pastiche. Being young, she has plenty of time to develop her vast potential into something truly great. But she must think forward not backwards. Her future looks luminous if not numinous. And she must not let potential Man Booker (which will probably go to Jhumpa Lahiri) go to her thought-crowded head.

No more Mr Nice Guy. While some of the dialogue is excellent, other parts are staid Victorianese requiring massive jolts of coffee to prevent drooping eyelids from French kissing. Putting in the boot just a bit more, one could say…

Stop press! I have a wonderful idea for your future, Eleanor. There is talk of a plan to send a one way expedition to Mars – four lucky mortals fast tracked to immortality. Eleanor, you must volunteer. You may need to get a physics degree. Join the expedition. On your lonely sojourn, surrounded by red sand, you write the greatest novel of all time. Call it Martian Odyssey (Martian Chronicles has been used by Ray Bradbury). Man Booker? Nobel Prize? Chicken feed. Your sales will be in the billions. You read it here first.  

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