The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton, 2013)


Upon its release, The Luminaries was the subject of praise so effusive and hyperbolic that I wondered at first whether it would be the kind of book so impenetrable, conceptual, or self-serious that only a critic could recommend it. That is not, thankfully, the case, but I think that in their rush to congratulate an incredibly talented young author on a serious literary accomplishment, these critics decided to kindly play down the book’s weaknesses while expanding upon its (considerable) strengths. Ultimately the contrivance that lends the book such grandeur causes the narrative to implode – but it sure looks good doing it.

The book follows a loosely-associated group of men who, during the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-19th century, have decided that something decidedly rotten is going on in the camp town of Hokitika, and that they must put their heads together to get to the bottom of it.

It begins, then, as a compelling and circuitous whodunit: someone has disappeared, another is suddenly rich, another is acting strangely, and so on. From the first few pages, as the ostensible protagonist Walter Moody detects something not quite right about a secret convocation he has blundered into, the reader must be curious: what chain of events, what duplicity, what machinations could account for the series of events?

Catton’s engaging writing helps keep the reader turning pages. It’s very much in the Victorian style, complete with pre-chapter summaries of the Dickensian sort, and even blanks where the “amn” in “damn” should appear. Yet it’s still lively and inventive, Catton evidently having learned lessons that Dickens and Collins could have applied to the more slack of their chapters. Certainly a few anachronisms from a later age appear to have snuck past the author and her editors, but the very fact that they jar so is a credit to the completeness of the illusion of antiquity.

The structure of the book, on the other hand, is decidedly un-antiquated. It is here that The Luminaries truly sets itself apart – though eventually the weight of the conceit is more than a little detrimental to the book you thought you were reading.

Each character is associated with zodiacal symbols (planets, houses, etc), and charts have been cast (correctly, one assumes, though the fact checker likely did not second-guess these) that show, at the beginning of each of the book’s 12 parts, Mars in the house of Taurus, the moon entering Sagittarius, and so on. The characters, it seems, wax and wane and seek one another in accordance with these charts, which when you think about it is a staggeringly complex latticework from which to suspend a novel.

Unfortunately, the zodiac method ends up failing the book in three serious ways.

First, it fails as a rigorous structure because it is an easy one to manipulate. Imagine if you were told to write a story that took place over a day, but you could only write about events that were happening on the hour. All you have to do is contrive it so that all the important events happen to occur on the hour (sound familiar? 24 does this). And this, on a looser scale, is how I perceived the predestination (for it is as such we would be asked to understand it) mechanism in action. The moon in the house of Libra, for instance, may be interpreted so that Anna must be present in the courthouse. But it also may mean that the court’s clerk, Mr. Frost, influences one of her decisions at that time. The idea is enforced, it seems, if not arbitrarily, then at least capriciously – when it is needful that a certain conjunction be in place, it is in place, but when there is a similar conjunction elsetimes, it is not regarded.

Second, it fails as a narrative structure because the desire to accord the story to the sky and vice versa end up disturbing the natural pace of that narrative. The twelve parts are in descending length: the first consists of several hundred pages, the last of only a few sentences. Whether it was this that caused Catton to frontload so very much exposition or if that is just her style I can’t say, but what is clear is that the tyranny of her structure robs most of the characters of any permanence.

And on that topic a word must be said. Catton has a wen for delving deep into the motivations and histories of each character, and when when I entered on the third or fourth multi-page description of a man’s style of upbringing, his father’s personality, his early career, his vices, his accomplishments, his secret vanities, his person, his dress, and his style of speech, I was excited to see how these richly illustrated back stories would overlap, how their wildly different personalties would clash, how that seemingly insignificant detail comes back around to secretly reward the attentive reader at a critical moment. Alas, it was not to be.

The characters in The Luminaries are like finely carved chess pieces. Regardless of the realism with which their surface is executed, their actions are proscribed and unremarkable (though occasionally effective). The chemist, possessed of a tragic and unrequite love, provides chemicals. The banker, dandyish and hasty, settles accounts and checks the books. The shipping agent, a shrewd and newly-made man, frets about his cargo. The newspaper man, authoritarian and religious, takes orders for advertisements and prints them. The lawyer, a vain gentleman fleeing a disgraced family, dispatches the opposing lawyer. And so on. These complex inner workings produce very little other than normal functioning. Of course they have their affinities and make their mistakes, but so little they actually do is informed by their characters that the early descriptions don’t seem relevant – if you can even remember them, for they come in a rush at the beginning, and a couple hundred pages later you will find yourself struggling to recall which is which — because few of them act the part that was given with such flourish. It’s very much a literary example of why people give the advice “show, don’t tell.” Which is strange, because Catton is immensely good at showing everything else!

Only the characters who don’t receive extensive biographies seem to be players rather than pieces. One is always wondering why these interesting, active people are not given more space, or when their storied pasts will be illuminated by the selectively omniscient narrator. It would, of course, spoil the ending somewhat if we were allowed to peer inside the antagonist’s head from the beginning – but that leads us to the third failing.

The end of a book is, naturally, where it makes its final impression. And in the case of The Luminaries, the impression is one of compromise: a decision was made that the structure of the book was more important than the story (mild spoilers ahead). As the durations of the of the sections contract, the reader is accelerated and excited, as though hurtling towards a great revelation that promises to draw a line through the many stars with which Catton has spangled the page – but like most constellations, the final result is only a crude approximation of what it is supposed to be. The plot is discarded rather than concluded, and then the contrivance wheels faster and faster until at last, in an anticlimactic sort of aufhebung, it renders itself moot.

Imagine a Sherlock Holmes type story with, say, a locked-room puzzle. How did the villain escape with the murder weapon if the guard was right outside, or the like. Imagine hundreds of pages of speculation, red herrings, hints, and detective work by Holmes and a dozen more – and then imagine the solution proffered by the author is that the perpetrator is a ghost, and can walk through walls, and the narrator challenges you to question the relevance of all that work the characters just did. That’s the level of resolution The Luminaries provides for its plot, and at the same time asking whether there was ever a plot at all, or just a series of events roughly determined by these star charts you’ve been skipping half the time. If some took this for revelation, I found it cheapening: essentially copping out of very real expectations engendered by the rest of the book.

In a case like this, where a grand structure meets a grand story, the best possible outcome is that they both survive. In other words, you get the horse and the cart. In compromising the story, I feel that the cart has been put before the horse – not because the final product was bad, but because it should have been possible for Catton to pull this off, to make the story as satisfying as the way it was told. In a way, it’s only that the book doesn’t live up to the high expectations it creates in the reader — it falls short of its own standard. But the final impression is the strongest, and far from making me question whether the story is the most important thing in a book like this, it made me question the ability of the author to accomplish her implicitly stated storytelling goal.

So in performing the final sleight of hand, she drops the ball. Fortunately for Catton, The Luminaries has enough going for it that even with the serious issues I have with it, it towers over other contemporary literature I’ve encountered in both its prose and the complexity of its construction.