I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam — which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing.
What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! — or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him — which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned.
I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration.
Most of my reading this year — and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now — was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming.
I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about — 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick — the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists.
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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.
My first novel was published in Italy a couple of months back, and a short time later a list of questions from an Italian journalist appeared in my inbox. Most of the questions involved the plot, imagery, themes, etc., and then came one that I’ve been thinking about ever since. The journalist referenced a line she’d liked from the book, concerning a troubled character’s suspicion that the world might eventually prove to be either a mirage or possibly an elaborate hoax. She followed this up with her question: “Do you believe, or fear, that the world is a mirage, or a hoax?”
Of course the first instinct is denial, because doesn’t one always want to look like the absolute paradigm of mental health when there’s a journalist involved? Especially when said journalist is about to translate your answer into a language you don’t speak, thus exponentially increasing the odds of misinterpretation? I do, anyway. So no! Not at all! Of course I don’t think the world is a mirage or a hoax! What an interesting question, but that was just my character talking!
And yet the question stayed with me in the weeks that followed. I don’t believe that the world is a mirage or a hoax. It did occur to me a few days ago that there’s something in the question that speaks to the process of writing fiction — these mirages that we’re always trying to write.
But I don’t think it’s just my profession. I don’t think the question lingers solely because I write fiction. I think there’s something in the question that brushes up against the fleeting interludes of disorientation that I suspect most adults are susceptible to. Those odd moments when you look up and think, “Is this really my life? How did this happen?” (“Can you believe we have a kid?” a friend asked a few years ago, when we came over to see a new baby for the first time. “Can you believe this is us?”)
Or the moments of alienation. “I’m a stranger in a strange land,” someone close to me said once, drunk late one night in the country where he’d been born and raised, and I understood what he meant. The way the entire world can seem foreign sometimes.
The question made me realize that I’ve read a great many books these past few years where reality was either malleable or in question. Without further ado, here’s a slightly disorienting reading list:
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
An interesting and slippery novel concerned, in part, with the idea of life as performance. A scandal has erupted at an all-girls high school. One of the students has had an affair with a teacher. The local drama school decides to turn the story of the scandal into their year-end show, and this is where the lines between theatre and reality begin to blur. Catton keeps us on our toes: some sections read as though they’re really happening in the world of the book, while other sections are blatantly theatrical — the same cast of characters, but with exaggerated dialogue and background music — and in others it’s difficult to tell, at first: scenes that seem as though they might be real, whatever real means in the context of a novel, are interrupted by lighting cues.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I picked this book up one early evening when I was home alone, thinking I’d just read it for an hour before dinner. I was still reading at three a.m. I went to bed for six hours, then got up to finish it. Cline presents us with an extraordinarily bleak future. It is 2044, and civilization is in a state of collapse. Most of the population spends most of their waking hours plugged into OASIS, a virtual reality that’s considerably more pleasant than real life. Wade Watts is a desperately poor teenager who only feels alive when he’s plugged in. But he becomes increasingly immersed in solving a series of puzzles that the creator of OASIS hid in the program, and reality and OASIS begin to overlap.
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
David Pepin loves his wife, Alice. Also, he dreams of killing her, and when she turns up dead he’s the prime suspect. Mr. Peanut is a truly harrowing vision of marriage; not just the Pepins’, but the marriages of the two detectives assigned to the case. David Pepin, the detectives discover, may have ties to a mysterious and sinister hitman named Mobius. But David Pepin is writing a book; in the book, which doesn’t have an ending yet, there’s a Mobius and an Alice and a David too. What really happened to Alice? Is Mobius real? Reading Mr. Peanut is like falling down a rabbit hole.
Luminarium by Alex Shakar
Fred’s twin brother George has been in a coma for six months. Before George was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma and slipped into unconsciousness, they were co-CEOs of a software company that created virtual reality disaster simulations for a military subcontractor. Their younger brother continues their work, creating increasingly real-looking simulations of disasters, while Fred keeps watch over George in the hospital. Fred’s limbo becomes stranger after he begins to receive emails that appear to come from his comatose brother.
Image via Iragerich/Flickr