“I do not come out of a literary tradition,” said the Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan in his acceptance speech after winning this year’s Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. “I come from a tiny mining town in the rainforest in an island at the end of the world.”
And with those words, he seemed to banish—for now, at any rate—the latest in the Booker’s long history of “controversies,” a history that dates back to 1972, the fourth year of the prize, when John Berger, having won with his experimental work G, used his acceptance speech to lambast the Booker company’s exploitation of Caribbean laborers in its sugar business, before announcing that he’d be sharing his prize money with the British Black Panthers.
Unlike Berger’s attack, though, this latest “controversy” didn’t come out of the blue. The year 2014 was famously the first time that American authors have been eligible for the Booker, alongside those from Britain, the British Commonwealth, and Ireland. It was a change of rules that had been discussed for years, but when the decision was finally announced, the reaction was not—I think it’s fair to say—wholly positive. The 2011 winner Julian Barnes called it simply “a bad idea,” while Philip Hensher, former judge and shortlistee, wrote a piece in The Guardian headlined, “Well, that’s the end of the Booker prize, then.” Just days before this year’s ceremony Peter Carey—who lives in New York, now holds dual US-Australian citizenship, and is one of the prize’s few double winners—lamented the “particular cultural flavour” that will be lost: “There was and there is a real Commonwealth culture. It’s different. America doesn’t really feel to be a part of that.”
Of course, lying behind some of the objections could well have been a fear of American domination, maybe even a mild case of cultural cringe. Once exposed to US authorial might, could Brits and writers from their former colonies even be sure of making the final shortlist of six? Would the prize ever again go to a writer from the remoter parts of the English-speaking world, as it did in the good old days of 2013 when the twenty-eight-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton won with The Luminaries? Well, now we have our answers—and in both cases they’re an unequivocal, if slightly anti-climactic, “yes.”1 No wonder that the mood among the Man Booker administrators following the announcement of Flanagan’s victory appeared to be one largely of relief. Even his subject matter, the experience of those captured Australian soldiers forced to build the Burma railway by the Japanese during World War II, is unimpeachably Commonwealth-related.
But as the dust settles on this year’s prize—which, however reassuring its outcome to the traditionalists, has felt historically significant—it’s not too late to remember and reconsider The Luminaries, a book that made Booker history of its own in 2013 by being the longest-ever winning novel by the youngest-ever winning novelist.
Another “controversy” of recent times has been one that will be familiar to readers from all countries: How entertaining should we expect literary novels to be? On the whole, whenever a Booker winner has proved particularly punishing, the British press has reached for such words as “elitism,” “ivory,” and “tower.” When it’s been more populist, the preference has been for the likes of “dumbing” and “down.” Yet faced with The Luminaries, London’s newspapers were understandably uncertain which way to jump.
In theory, Catton’s book should definitely appeal to those who believe that a novel should tell a story: it gradually unravels a series of overlapping mysteries to provide an epic Victorian yarn of love, murder, and greed set during the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s. Nevertheless, this is not a book to gallop through—and not merely because the unraveling proves as complicated as anything in Victorian literature itself (including Little Dorrit, the plot of which, as Martin Amis once pointed out, hinges on someone leaving money to his nephew’s lover’s guardian’s brother’s youngest daughter).
On a more twenty-first-century note, Catton has acknowledged the influence on The Luminaries of long-form box-set TV dramas—themselves of course influenced by the Victorian novel. In at least two ways, the one that springs most to mind is The Wire. During a 2008 British TV interview, it was put to the show’s creator David Simon that his series was a little tough on the casual viewer. “Fuck the casual viewer,” Simon replied. The same attitude, perhaps more demurely expressed, would also seem to characterize Catton’s own feelings toward the casual reader. Certainly, this is a book that demands and repays full attention, as she drops in her clues with the undetectable aplomb of the best whodunits. One of the most important characters, for instance, receives his first mention on page 22—and I defy anybody not tipped off by this challenge to notice it.
Like The Wire too, The Luminaries is at its most merciless to anybody casual early on, as Catton spends 360 pages presenting us with just the basic setup. If the narrator of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time is right to call fiction “that clacking, crudely carpentered old roller coaster,” then The Luminaries devotes quite a lot of time to the slow ascent at the beginning.
But the intricately perfect plot is by no means the only aspect of the book that requires us to be on our toes. In 2008, Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, took the raw material of a traditional coming-of-age debut—the type of thing a more typical twenty-two-year-old writer might do—and gave it a thoroughgoing twist. At the center of the book was a relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and her teacher that became the talk of their unspecified neighborhood. Yet we could never be sure whether we were reading about the actual reactions of her friends and family, or a version of the story being performed by a group of local drama students as part of their course.
This ambiguity, obviously deliberate as well as brilliantly sustained, carried the central theme of the novel: because adolescence is itself a performance, to make a distinction between “acting” and “reality” is to miss the point. There’s a similar ambiguity in her second book, but this time its purpose feels less clear. Put simply, is Catton just performing a Victorian novel—and if so, does that matter?
Admittedly, even for those of us tempted to answer both questions with a definite “probably,” it’s impossible to deny how dazzling the performance is—right from the moment that the novel begins with not one, but two archetypal openings. On a dark and stormy night, a stranger walks into a bar. Like everybody else in the book, Walter Moody—an Englishman newly arrived in the town of Hokitika to try his luck as a digger for gold—is then introduced in a deft impersonation of nineteenth-century prose (this is the first paragraph of two):
Moody’s natural expression was one of readiness and attention. His gray eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against the skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. His brow and cheeks were square, his nose straight, and his complexion smooth. He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigor that conveys neither gullibility nor guile. He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler, and as a consequence was often drawn into the confidence of the least voluble of men, or invited to broker relations between people he had only lately met. He had, in short, an appearance that betrayed very little about his own character, and an appearance that others were immediately inclined to trust.
Moody, it soon becomes clear, has interrupted a meeting of twelve local men, all connected in some way to what’s shaping up to be a damaging scandal. A fortnight before, a hermit called Crosbie Wells was discovered dead in his cottage, the town’s richest inhabitant disappeared, and everybody’s favorite local prostitute was found unconscious in the street after an apparent suicide attempt. Since then, the hermit’s cottage has turned out to have been stuffed with a mysterious hoard of gold—which should be good news for the man who bought the place (and who’s one of the twelve), except that a woman has just shown up claiming to be Wells’s wife and heir.
Moody’s trustworthy appearance now comes in handy, as the twelve men take turns—and those 360 pages I mentioned—to fill him in on the many background details. “What a convoluted picture it was,” Moody indisputably concludes. He also understands that this is “a confoundedly peripheral gathering,” because none of the people who hold the key to the mystery is present—among them, the prostitute, the wife, and the joint owners of the mine where the gold may or may not have come from. What he doesn’t realize, though, is that at this stage Catton is barely clearing her throat. By the end of the novel, not only has the trail of gold gone beyond the puzzles of Little Dorrit, but almost all the tropes of Victorian fiction have had a part, including a scarred villain, an opium den, a pair of long-lost siblings, a secret cache of letters, a consumptive wife, a mad wife, and any number of false identities and forged documents, not to mention one coincidence after another.
And all the time, Catton keeps up her unhurried nineteenth-century prose: the sudden exclamations (“How opaque, the minds of absent men and women!”); the coyness about swearing (“I’ll be d—ed if I could tell you how”); the explanatory chapter headings (“In which Walter Moody meditates upon the mystery at hand; we learn what happened on his journey from Dunedin; and a messenger brings unexpected news”); and above all, the assiduous introductions to everybody’s internal and external characteristics. Even when Moody’s father suddenly turns up on page 707, the initial description of him is as thorough as ever.
Since Catton is equally scrupulous in her attention to objects, buildings, and the practicalities of digging for gold, there’s also an insistent sense of time and place. Hokitika is a town where “everyone’s from somewhere else,” and sees itself at “the vanguard of the civilized world” as it struggles to build an essentially British society “out of nothing…out of the ancient rotting life of the jungle…out of the tidal marshes and the shifting gullies and the fog…out of sly waters, rich in ore.”
Only when it comes to the non- European characters does the narrator betray a suspiciously modern understanding of why a Chinese worker might feel a “pervasive kind of disenfranchisement”—and a suspiciously modern admiration for the one Maori character, who duly turns out to have a deep reverence for the earth: “Tauwhare could not respect a man who treated land as though it was just another kind of currency. Land could not be minted! Land could only be lived upon, and loved.”
And all that, you might think, is enough for one novel. Not, however, for this one. Catton has cited many influences on The Luminaries—among them, Martin Buber, Carl Jung, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, The Brothers Karamazov, and, perhaps more unexpectedly, J.K. Rowling. “The Prisoner of Azkaban is very much like part one of The Luminaries,” she told a British newspaper after her Booker win.2
Nonetheless, the most unexpected influence of all is extraterrestrial—because this is a novel structured around astrology. Offhand, it’s not easy to think of a less intellectually fashionable subject; but, as with the Victorian narration, Catton takes it on with a wholeheartedness that borders on the obsessive. Again, some writers might have been content merely to make the twelve men from the bar each represent a different sign of the zodiac—and to give them the characteristics to match. Catton, though, goes much further than that.
As we learn from the opening character chart, the eight other main characters all stand for a heavenly body of their own—six planets, the sun, and the moon. And from interviews and the novel’s closing acknowledgments it seems that Catton used an interactive sky chart to make sure that, at any given time, everybody is exactly where their celestial equivalents would have been in the night sky. So when the book begins on January 27, 1866, with a chapter called “Mercury in Sagittarius,” this is not only because Moody (representing Mercury) gets talking to Thomas Balfour (Sagittarius), who’s leading the meeting in the bar. It’s also because on that night in New Zealand nearly 150 years ago, Mercury really was in Sagittarius. Her aim, she has said, was to write a book “where the plot was patterned on the movement of the heavens.”
A crash course in astrology suggests that Catton’s method hangs together for the entire book. Yet as well as being impressed at the skill and effort involved, readers might find that one heretical question keeps nagging away at them about this meticulous structuring: What’s the point? Perhaps, as Catton has said, the idea was to ponder the issue of free will versus destiny. But if so, why isn’t that idea more present in the text itself? “Moody’s mind,” we’re told, “was an orderly one, and he was reassured by patterns of any kind.” So might it just be that Catton’s mind works in a similar way?3
The same reservation applies to the fact that the book—made up, naturally, of twelve parts—is designed to wane like the moon. After that 360-page opening section (as in the number of degrees in the whole zodiac) the second is 180 pages long. Each part then grows progressively shorter—although, uncharacteristically, not always by precisely 50 percent—until the eleventh and twelfth have respectively two pages and one. But while moons undoubtedly do wane, the plot of The Luminaries, happily, does not. So again, is Catton following a self-imposed challenge rather than serving the needs of her story? By the end, in fact, the chapter headings are longer than the chapters they head, as if she were suddenly satirizing the form that up till now she’s been treating with such seriousness. Either way, the effect is to introduce a note of inadvertent—or at least inapt—comedy just as she reaches the denouement.
Some British critics have suggested that the astrology can safely be ignored by anybody who wants to enjoy the rest of the book. This, however, is not easy—not when every section is prefaced with a chart showing which bodies were in which zodiac signs on the day it takes place. Or when most of the chapter titles invite us to make the connection. Or when astrology is the only explanation for a slightly jarring shift into magic realism toward the end. Or when the subject occasionally invades the storytelling, with perplexing results:
Aries will not admit a collective point of view, and Taurus will not relinquish the subjective. Gemini’s code is an exclusive one. Cancer seeks a source, Leo, a purpose, and Virgo, a design; but these are projects undertaken singly. Only in the zodiac’s second act will we begin to show ourselves: in Libra, as a notion, in Scorpio, as a quality, and in Sagittarius, as a voice. In Capricorn we will gain memory, and in Aquarius, vision; it is only in Pisces, the last and oldest of the zodiacal signs, that we acquire a kind of selfhood, something whole.
But whether you ignore it or not, the astrology adds another layer of unease to the feeling that The Luminaries is more a careful simulacrum of a great novel than the real thing. There’s no mistaking the almost frightening level of Catton’s talent. Yet in the end, does the book amount to any more than a vast creative-writing exercise—albeit one that’s superbly, and at times thrillingly, carried out? To fill 830 pages without any bagginess at all is undeniably a feat. But might this be just another way of saying that the novel doesn’t have much room to breathe?
Awarding last year’s Man Booker Prize, the chair of the judges, Robert Macfarlane, called The Luminaries “a novel of astonishing control.” Nobody who reads it is likely to disagree—but rather than an unalloyed strength, this is also the book’s main weakness.
In the event, only two American writers made it onto the 2014 shortlist: Joshua Ferris with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour and Karen Joy Fowler with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves—neither of which any commentators in Britain thought had much chance of winning. ↩
Catton also told another interviewer that “my editor says The Luminaries is essentially a children’s novel”—which can only mean that her editor knows some very clever children. ↩
In The Rehearsal, one of the drama students proposes a play based on a deck of cards where there would be “four acts, each with a suit name, or thirteen scenes that each have a card name in a particular suit.” At the time this seemed like a satire on the urge to complicate. Now it feels like an idea that could well appeal to Eleanor Catton. ↩