Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!