Saturday 12 October 2013

Counting Down to The Man Booker: Day Four - The Luminaries

Past the half way point of our reviews and closer and closer to the announcement... Exciting stuff! Here is today's thoughts on The Luminaries.

A said: This is going to be the single book on the Booker short list I don't complete by next Tuesday, despite it being the first I started! I have read the first 200 or so pages three times and yet not been able to go further in this 800 page who-dunnit. It's an admirable read in many theoretical ways - it's Dickensian like in its feel with multiple well drawn characters in a really convoluted plot, probably accentuated by its setting in a Victorian New Zealand mining town. The narrator jumps around between characters and I just got bored, then lost concentration and lost the plot completely! I understand that it has a very special narrative structure that relates to the astrological infomration at the beginning of the chapters, and this dictates their length and content, but this passed me by completely as I didn't get past the lengthy chapter one! So I have to rate the book poorly as it felt unreadable this month, but maybe I will try again and do better in the future?

E said: Well, from a book of 104 pages to a book of  834 pages - the Man Booker this year is definitely diverse, if nothing else. Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is, essentially, a sort of Dickensian style who-dunnit, set in the New Zealand gold rush. There are many twists and turns; you believe one thing about a character which is then made to shift, you believe something about a set of events, which turns out to be wrong. The book is curious in its form: each "chapter" is half the length of the one before. So, the first chapter constitutes about 400 pages of the book, the second 200 etc etc. Within each chapter are a number of sections, coming from the various thirteen (yes, thirteen!) central protagonists points' of view. Most of the loose-ends are neatly tied by the book's finish, although there were a few things left unclear - or perhaps I miss them.

Let's start by a confession: I don't really get on with Dickens.

I have enjoyed Dickens in the past (particularly Great Expectations, Oliver and A Christmas Carol ie. probably the very easy read ones), but, in general, I find his style overally labourious, unneccessarilly convoluted and too overtly focused on the all-seeing narrator, leaving no sense of reality for the characters. So, me likening Catton's style to Dickens' is not my version of a compliment. I feel it can be excused by Dickens as a mark of his time, and his stories are generally very good, but why would a modern author wish to emulate this? And, in my opinion, less successfully?

As for the structure, I simply didn't understand it. The declining chapter lengths is a very interesting device, but as for serving a purpose to the novel? Well, sorry, I missed it. The first chapter was long. And I mean very long. I almost didn't get through it - I imagine that most people who give up on this book don't actually get to the second. Which is a shame: the pace picks up and it definitely does become more readable. But should I, as a reader, have to toil through 400 pages in order to get to something that I am deeming merely "more readable?" I would find it hard to be positive about that.

I am being harsh - by the end, I did wish to know how the story played out. But that's about as far as it goes. I was so confused by the immense number of characters and plot lines - thirteen is far too many central protagonists in my book - that I feel I must have missed things. By the second chapter, I was mostly able to distinguish between the characters, although not entirely. I was following most of what went on, but not entirely. I found myself picking up the book because I wanted to read, not just because I had to get through it, but not entirely.

It is not my kind of book. Maybe it will appeal to people who enjoy this sort of genre more. As I have said, I was sort of enjoying it by the end - and I did have some fun confirming some things with J that I was confused about. But, overall, not a book I would recommend. It's not my Booker. 

J said: I don't rate this book, having founds myself annoyed and resentful for the two weeks it took me to wade my way through the 400 pages that constitute its first chapter. It picks up after that, and I did enjoy the second half with its shortening chapters and sections, its increasing speed of plot and the fact that I now at least could distinguish between most of the characters. I had by then already resolved to give as my opinion that it was a BAD BOOK.

This resolution was confirmed when I heard Eleanor Catton damn herself in two radio interviews, when she was on a promotional tour in the UK. I guess these things are arranged many months in advance, and that once she found herself on the Booker shortlist it was probably irrelevant, but unavoidable.

She said mostly the same things in both interviews: she had had an interest for many years in the 1860s New Zealand gold rushes, and then had combined it with a (non-believers) interest in astrology. I'm guessing that this meant that when she found her first novel (The Rehearsal, 2008) successful and well reviewed, she felt she could follow the drive of a graduate of the Iowa School of Creative Writing to invent an arbitrary structure for her second novel. So she made up her characters by looking at astrological birth charts for dates of people who might have been involved in a story at this period, and then (a terminal mistake to my mind) chose to make the chapter and section lengths follow an arithmetical pattern. Each chapter and section is half the length of the preceding one. The obvious effect is that at the beginning they are very long (400 pages) and at the end they are very short (half a page). If this worked, I could see that it might be a little interesting for the reader, and satisfying for the writer. I can also see that one might imagine it would suit the pattern that many novels follow, especially whodunnits like this, that they start slow and descriptive, and then get faster and more compelling, driven by plot until they are unputdownable for the second half.

It didn't work. That first chapter is a complete killer. I persisted through it because I was given the task of reading the book to report on it. The only other thing it had going for it was the vivid evocation of cold damp that felt very true to the west coast of South Island. Not enough to compensate for the frustration of being lost in an endless meandering tale from twelve different narrators whose voices were indistinguishable. I think that the author was also meaning to write in a Victorian style with long ponderous sentences, and short summaries at the beginning of a chapter of what was to happen. Unlike many modern readers, I like Dickens and Hardy, the epitome of this style, very much and Eleanor Catton does not achieve it in an appealing way. In a more forgiving moment I did wonder whether when I am reading a real Victorian novel I allow that way of writing, making myself not bored by it, and that I wasn't prepared to give a current author the same leeway. I don't think so. Eleanor Catton's prose is not colourful enough to be worth reading in the slow and considered way that long sentences force.

Enough of my reasons for giving it my 2/5 rating on Goodreads! It's a shame to be so miserable about something someone has put so much work into.

What was good about it? Plenty really. I did eventually want to know what happened in the story (though not, interestingly to any of the characters; she didn't make me care about any of them), and I did enjoy what I take to be a pretty accurate description of that part of New Zealand at that period: the almost complete male dominance, the complex hidden undercurrents in a society consisting entirely of displaced people hoping for a lucky strike to fix their lives, and the non-understanding that groups of people coming from different backgrounds and parts of the world (China, Maori, the British Isles) would have for each other.

Unfortunately that reminds me to come back to something else I objected to: the sudden interpolation of modernist character analysis into the story, stepping outside to make remarks in a way that would only have been possible many generations later. This happens many times (once for each major character?), interrupting the flow and spoiling whatever sense there was of a character's point of view. This is something the real Victorians do well. Is this because they have a more secure sense of authorial authority, or because they always tell a story from the outside, from the God's eye point-of-view?

I haven't read Eleanor Catton's earlier and I gather very good novel, but I am prepared to believe it is good. She is clearly competent, and I hope she can tame her wish to write in structures that destroy what a novel must do to be worthwhile: tell a good story.

Read our previous reviews here:
Day One - A Testament of Mary 
Day Two - We Need New Names  
Day Three - Harvest

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