Monday, June 17, 2019
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE LUMINARIES” by Eleanor Catton (first published 2013)
Let me begin with the expression of a mild grievance. Early in 2013, I was asked if I would review, for Landfall magazine, a novel I had never heard of called The Luminaries. At that time, few other people knew about it, either. Landfall appears twice a year, and like other periodicals which appear in such circumstances, it has a very long lead-time for its contributors. I set about diligently reading this very long novel, and was very impressed with it. I wrote a review which said so. But between my submitting the review and the date the review was published, months went by. And in those months, the novel was first given dismissive reviews by two elderly New Zealand literary figures writing in London newspapers; then it gained momentum and won international praise, whereupon it also received positive reviews in New Zealand; and finally it won the Booker Prize and received hosannahs. And only then did my review appear. So I was slightly miffed that my review might have been taken as jumping on a bandwagon by praising a book that was already loaded with honours. And I feel like asserting that I got there before the bandwagon was in motion. Oh well. Heaving a sigh, I here present you with my review of The Luminaries, unaltered from its appearance in Landfall #226, Spring 2013.
In a famous passage in his autobiography (which I quote per Walter Allen’s venerable The English Novel), Anthony Trollope discussed the working methods of the mystery writer Wilkie Collins. He wrote:
“Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his [novels] that he not only, before writing, plans everything on paper, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing that does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful. But I can never lose the taste of the construction. The author seems always to be warning me to remember that something happened at exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning; or that a woman disappeared from the road just fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone. One is constrained by mysteries and hemmed in by difficulties, knowing, however, that the mysteries will be made clear, and the difficulties overcome by the end of the third volume.”
With great accuracy, and especially in the phrases “the taste of the construction” and “constrained by mysteries”, Trollope catches the effect of mystery novels upon many readers. Those long Victorian detective novels, whether by Wilkie Collins or by the undervalued Sheridan Le Fanu, place a special strain upon readers. In order to make sense of them, you have to hold in your head much factual information and remember specific connections between characters in ways that are not necessary when reading other sorts of novel.
I mention this in reviewing Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for two obvious reasons. First, it is essentially a story of mystery and its construction is indeed “most wonderful”, linking a large cast of major characters and many minor ones. Second, it is set in the Victorian era (the 1860s) and, at over 830 pages of text, is at least as long as anything the Victorians penned. I admit that in reading it, I often had to check back to remind myself who was married to whom, or who was a business partner or enemy of whom. The chart of twenty characters printed at the beginning was both necessary and a great help.
In the way it establishes itself, The Luminaries has the hallmarks of a classic mystery. Young Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika at the beginning of 1866 hoping to prospect for gold; but he first puts up in a hotel, where he finds himself in the midst of a conclave of men discussing a mystery that seems to involve them all. From most of them in turn, Moody hears a version of events. Collectively they give many different and overlapping perspectives, Rashomon-like. The mystery involves the disappearance of young Emery Staines and the death in his shack of the hermit Crosbie Wells. At stake is a fortune in gold belonging to Wells, which is one reason why so many people are interested. Crosbie Wells was somehow connected to the ship-owner and criminal Francis Carver and his wife the fortune-teller and whoremonger Lydia. Crosbie was discovered dead by the rising politician Alistair Lauderback, and the situation involves the prostitute Anna Wetherell, the pushy law officer George Shepard and the Chinese goldsmith Quee Long.
Who has a right to the fortune in gold, where exactly did it come from, how has most of it been secreted, and why are all these men interested?
So, through 360 pages, Walter Moody hears the views of the shipping agent Thomas Balfour and the pharmacist Joseph Pritchard and the greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare, and the Methodist minister Cowell Devlin and the local tycoon and brothel-keeper Dick Mannering and others. All this testimony – all 360 pages of it – is given on the same day in January 1866. I offer no “spoilers”. If the chief appeal of a mystery story is the unravelling of a mystery, then it is not the business of reviewers to broadcast the solution (or – in the case of this polyphonous novel – the solutions). Be it noted, however, that significant details include the backstories of families and unsuspected blood relationships; blackmail; the use of opium; confidence tricks to increase the sale value of diggings by “salting” them with nuggets; legal chicanery; illegal violence; and the smuggling of vital items sewn into the lining of dresses.
By the time Walter Moody has heard all this testimony, and as we approach page 360, we are considerately given a recapitulation of all the evidence lest we have lost our bearings. And it is after this point that we rapidly realize the novel does not quite inhabit the territory we thought it did. For if The Luminaries were no more than a pastiche of a Victorian mystery novel – albeit with a New Zealand setting – then Mr Moody would draw all the threads together and explain neatly how everything fitted into place, the way Mr Cuff or Inspector Bucket or Sherlock Holmes do when all the witnesses have spoken and all the motives of characters have been ticked off. A rational order would have been restored. Indeed, such rationality is signalled when we are told (p.359) “Moody had no religion – and therefore did not perceive truth in mystery, in the inexplicable and the unexplained, in the mists that clouded one’s scientific perception as the material cloud now obscured the Hokitika sky”.
But neat rational deduction is not what happens in The Luminaries. Time resumes in the remaining 472 pages of the novel, new events are piled on old, and despite two long courtroom scenes, the motives of characters become more, rather than less, opaque. Some mysteries are resolved. They have to be if the novel is not to become a gigantic tease. Yet what begins as a rational explanation of diverse, but connected, events, ends as fragments of experience. It culminates in a long series of flashbacks to events from the year prior to the novel’s opening, which re-cast characters in ways quite at odds with our earlier impressions of them. This a-chronological order is foreshadowed in an early sequence (pp.105-06) where Te Rau Tauwhare translates the name Hokitika as meaning “Around. And then back again, beginning.” This is the method of the novel itself.
Some nineteenth century novelistic conventions are observed throughout The Luminaries. These include those brief synopses of the action that serve as headings to each chapter (“In which Gascoigne repeats his theories, and Moody speaks of death” etc.). But by the end of the novel these conventions are being parodied and subverted. The chapter headings become longer and longer and the chapters themselves shorter and shorter, to the point where the synopses are telling the story while the ensuing “chapters” are giving us mere impressionistic moments of time.
In this way, and without cheating those who expect answers, The Luminaries moves from being a pastiche of Victorian detective novels to being a deconstruction and critique of the whole notion of rational detection.
Would it be too much to call it an anti-mystery novel?
If The Luminaries were no more than this, it would be a remarkable literary achievement. But it is considerably more. By Catton’s choice of leading characters, by her exposure of their suspect motives, and by the mixing of ethnicities, the novel also gives a detailed picture of a raw, volatile, exploitative colonial society; a “frontier” society still based on the myth of wide-open opportunity and the realities of extractive industries and fierce competition for capital. The time is specifically the moment when the Otago goldfields are running out, the West Coast looks the likelier prospect, and “West Canterbury” is about to become (briefly) the province of Westland. The connection between an excess of males and thriving prostitution is obvious, as is the connection between prostitution and the wide use of opiates. Along with the British, Maori and Chinese characters, there is also a German Jew (the newspaper editor Benjamin Lowenthal), a Frenchman (the law clerk Aubert Gascoigne) and one New Zealand-born Pakeha (the banker Charlie Frost) who, paradoxically, is more ill at ease in this frontier world than the assorted immigrants are. The diverse reactions of all to this new country are what make The Luminaries a convincing social mosaic.
It is historically right that much of the novel’s backstory involves dirty criminal doings in old Sydney, the cross-Tasman connection being a huge factor in all New Zealand gold rushes. It is also historically right that there is a tension between the lawlessness of the frontier society, and the propriety of language that is often used to describe it. (This was also a major theme in Charlotte Randall’s West Coast-set Hokitika Town). A real achievement is Catton’s refusal to repeat current stereotypical conceptions of Victorian-ness. For example, a number of men look longingly at the whore Anna Wetherell, seeing their own feelings as chaste and their motives as the pure ones of wishing to “save” her. This type of situation has often been the cue for satirical dramatizations of Victorian “hypocrisy”. Eleanor Catton chooses the harder course of showing the depth of the men’s feelings and the profound psychological and sexual effects of a society in which women are a small minority.
Judging by her prose style, Catton has apparently immersed herself in the writing of the era in which the novel is set. As an incorrigible pedant, I am always on the lookout for anachronisms in dialogue supposedly spoken by characters in a past age. The Luminaries has characters saying “heist” meaning robbery (p.37, p.253 and p.736); “class act” (p.64 and p.243); “taking me for a ride” in its threatening gangster-esque sense (p.103); the Americanism “john” for a prostitute’s client (p.228); the statement that “a lawyer would be able to join the dots” (p.539); a reference to “shoot-outs” (p.598); and the sneer that “you are becoming paranoiac” (p.740). I may be wrong, but I do not believe that any of these would have been common usage in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, I believe some of them were not coined until much later. That I have been able to compile only such a short list from 830 pages, however, is an indication that Eleanor Catton is usually pitch-perfect in her “Victorian” prose. This is evident in those neat paragraphs of physical and psychological characterization with which each person in the novel is introduced. It is also evident in her precise descriptions of place. Yet there is no sense of mugging up. If she presents us with some physical processes – how newspapers were then set up; the difficulties ships had crossing the bar at Hokitika’s river mouth; how young women were inveigled into prostitution – it is because they are integral to her story and not decoration for the sake of period atmosphere.
Thus far in this review, I have deliberately refrained from mentioning one element in The Luminaries that might be of central interest to a minority of readers and is evidently important to the author. This (from the title on) is its astrological symbolism and content. The separate parts of the novel are all introduced with astrological charts showing the planetary influences upon characters at each given date of the action. Chapter titles declare “Saturn in Libra”, “First Point of Aries” and so forth. I am tempted to dismiss this as mystification that adds little to the novel’s meaning, and I am not mollified by the specific exegesis of astrology that is given at pp.531-32.
But perhaps I should trust the author more, for there is one passage in the novel in which the stars become a potent symbol of the settler condition. Walter Moody turns his eyes to the skies at p.343 and finds “Orion - upended, his quiver beneath him, his sword hanging upward from his belt; Canis Major – hanging like a dead dog from a butcher’s hook. There was something very sad about it, Moody thought. It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here.” At this point, New Zealand is still what is alien to Europeans. Its otherness is read in the stars. Patterns of meaning and morality have to be re-negotiated.
This sense of a new, unfamiliar world is something The Luminaries shares with the best recent New Zealand historical novels, Randall’s Hokitika Town, Hamish Clayton’s Wulf and Paula Morris’s Rangatira. But its imaginative grasp is greater.