Monday, 26 May 2014

Eleanor Catton and a Path for the Novel

The Luminaries: good. (via

I was lucky enough to be supervised by one of the judges of last year's Man Booker Prize. When I found out, I joked, 'I hope you're not going to award it to Hilary Mantel again.' This joke was not met with much amusement, which, while bad for my personal and professional relationship with the judge, did seem to bode well: finally we would have a prize winner that wasn't boring. So, when Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries won, I was dismayed. Historical fiction, with all its ersatz details and descriptions of fabrics, is becoming increasingly turgid. Nonetheless, I read The Luminaries in October, and read it again in April, and am thoroughly convinced not just that it avoids being ersatz and turgid but that it's actually exciting and beautiful and offers a new path for the novel.

My case is one of genre and of aesthetics which is intimately related to the category of the historic novel and its various failings. It starts with my twin love of Dickens and of Pynchon, of their shared bulk and depth and heft, their shared interest in connectivity – and with my conviction that there is a greater similarity between the Victorian and the postmodern than is often acknowledged. For a number of decades there seems to have been debate in some literary circles which can be characterised as: what do we do after Thomas Pynchon, and Paul Auster, and Don DeLillo? David Foster Wallace writes about this in the early 1990s (in 'E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction', first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993), arguing that the American postmodernist novel of cleverness has exhausted itself and that its own compulsive self-ironisation is futile in the face of television's more effective, more popular, more totalising ironies. Wallace argues for a new bravery, in the form of postmodernists being sincere. Unfortunately for all the other aspiring sincere postmodernists, Wallace himself did this so imposingly well in Infinite Jest following his lead doesn't really seem like an option.

Zadie Smith, herself a Wallace devotee, takes up the argument in 'Two Paths for the Novel' (first published in the New York Review of Books and collected in Changing My Mind, 2009). Her early novels were, of course, savaged by critics like James Wood for their 'hysterical realism' and for being too obviously in imitation of Wallace and Pynchon. She is concerned that a 'breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked'; she wonders about authenticity. She contrasts the lyrical realism of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland with the poststructuralist formalism of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. She argues that at the crossroads of these two modes 'we find extra-ordinary writers claimed by both sides: Melville, Conrad, Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, Nabokov'. But with its focus on the lyrical realist path, the publishing world has rarely been less interested in the path of the experimentalists – and, by implication, rarely less able to finding the extraordinary writers who transcend the whole structure of roads.

My hope is that the historical novel might offer some compromise development in the attempt to create a new literature for our new century. Historical fiction by its nature avoids the problems of authenticity, or addresses them head on, by having no claim to being real. It is all dressing up and imagining: no one modern writer gains any privileged access to Tudor life. And it is by its nature ironised, its stories read in light of modern knowledge, its characters' attitudes and beliefs deliberately limited in their perceptions of the vast historical events that lurk just out of view. And yet the dominant mode is lyrical realism, and the dominant treatment of this irony is to ignore it, and the dominant response is to pamper and preen and praise author's research accuracy and fall in love with the movie with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in elaborate bodices.

With this context in mind, The Luminaries is revelatory. At first it seems to be another attempt at writing a Victorian novel today, the difficulties be damned. The first section, the longest, is dense and absorbent, full of the abundance of characters and plots that you might find in Wilkie Collins. But occasionally there are moments where – like in Borges's 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' – the narrator s peaks with that omniscient tone Victorian narrators so often use, interrupting in a way that lacks self-consciousness. This is Catton effectively mimicking James, or Eliot, or Dickens – but it is also a moment of incredible irony. As Borges points out, the context of the language or the form is not neutral, and to write what seems a perfect Victorian novel 150 years later is in this way to write a highly postmodern novel – a postmodern lyrical realism.

There are further disjuncts, notably in Catton's treatment of gender and race, which receive the kind of subtlety that can occur in a Victorian novel only when a twenty-first century author writes one. And so the first six or eight hundred pages of the novel go, the characters revolving, the lyricism singing, the historical in its place at last.

And then you come to the end, where the chapters start to diminish at an alarming rate, and most of the characters fall away, and only the luminaries remain, dazzling you with their love, and you are overwhelmed despite your cynicism at the shameless emotion of it all. To write a novel in celebration of love, and to create this elaborate structure for it, and this elaborate historical façade, only to drop it all away and to leave you to confront this one golden emotion, the light of which you see retrospectively illuminating all the plots of the novel, all the connections, all the sensation and genre play – this is what Catton aimed at.

I saw her speak in March in Oxford. She made a point of emphasising a number of the novel's structural elements: that its characters are based on the zodiac, and their movements forcibly determined by archaic starmaps for mid-nineteenth century New Zealand; that each chapter is half as short as the preceding one. She spoke about them not as if these were ingenious conceits on her part, but as limitation, deliberately self-imposed, seemingly for the play of it. She spoke of how the plot was emergent from these structures, of how she has the lucky ability to just sort of write and let the plot come naturally. She spoke in the face of the sorts of strange or banal or ignorant questions audiences have the space to ask at literary festivals: how do you write, do you research, 'my son got this for me for my birthday and I didn't understand any of those zodiac things you just talked about but I did sort of like it'. I took her foregrounding of the novel's semi-arbitrary structures as an assertion of artistic postmodernism, or something of the kind. An assertion that she was a conscious artist, and that the novel was a self-conscious artistic product, and that it was interested in exposing its own structure to the world because its skeleton is gilded and perfect and its flesh is subject to all of flesh's usual flaws.

My understanding is supported by Catton's first novel, The Rehearsal (2009), which is far more obviously a postmodernist work, about the intersection of life and art and the confusing overlaps of the two – the kind of novel where half the characters are acting most of the time and are prone to long theatrical monologues about playing roles and authenticity and fictiveness. It features a lot of drama teachers who advise their students that they cannot play roles, they must be roles. And so the book itself takes on roles and flits between naturalistic conversation and stage speak and perspectives like the frantic cross-cutting in the action scene at the start of Quantum of Solace in imitation of the Bourne movies.

The Rehearsal is a good book, enjoyable and wise and full of moments where Catton manages to adequately capture the whole experience of adolescence in a few sentences.[1] But it is improved on by The Luminaries in almost every way. The latter novel adds so much subtlety and poise and balance, and poaches the best traits of lyrical realism – accessibility, world creation, the creation of a literary artefact in which the reader can get happily lost – and roasts them over the camp fire in herbs until they are cooked to perfection. Cooked, but dead. Catton's two novels share a theme that I think is intractably opposed to how lyrical realism can function: that other people are unknowable. Both novels are revolve around a relationship (student and teacher, prospector and whore) that is never fully realised on the page, is always refracted through the impressions and confusions of others. As Catton herself said in Oxford, you can never hope to know how other people are with each other, at a distance. Their relationships are swathed in privacy that even the global media with all their zoom lenses and phone hackers can't effectively invade. They have a delicacy that remains inviolable. This seems important to remember in an age where relationships appear to be fully public of the examination of others, categorised on Facebook or commented on in newspapers.[2]

Catton might be at the crossroads with Kafka and Nabokov and the rest – and certainly she has created a work of fiction that credibly combines elements of realism and lyricism and historicism with the awarenesses and the metafictive play of postmodernism – but this alone is not enough. The case for her offering a new path for the novel (or rather paving an already extant path so others, less intrepid, can follow more easily) is that her book found itself in the right context to actually exert itself. She won that fabulous prize, and got placed at the front of bookshops' windows everywhere, and found her way onto the reading lists of people who no interest in any of the things I've just described. She may just have smuggled in a popular solution to the problem of the novel's next direction.

[1] “Stanley was disappointed with his life so far.[...] Stanley had expected to be savage and dissenting and righteous as a teenager – he had yearned for it, even – and grew more and more dissatisfied as his high-school years passed politely by. He had expected to drink whisky from a paper-bagged bottle by the river, and slip his cold hands up a girl's skirt in the patch of scrub beyond the tennis courts, and take shots at passing cars with a potato-gun from a neighbour's garage roof. He had expected to drink himself blind and vandalise bush shelters in the suburbs, to drive without a licence, to retreat from his family, to turn sour, and to frighten his mother, maybe, by refusing to eat or leave his room. This was his entitlement, his rightful lot, and instead he had spent his high-school years playing gentlemanly sport and watching family television, admiring form a distance the boys brave enough to fight each other, and longing for every girl he passed to lift her head and look him in the eye.”

[2] Catton has a beautiful line on this. I have a less beautiful article.

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