on 31 January 2016
There was a point a few chapters into The Luminaries at which I thought: Wow. Wow. This author is going to pull off the impossible: to actually write a Victorian novel better than any novel the real Victorian age has left us. To combine all that we have learned since then about plotting, about literary technique, about lightness and less-is-more, with the commitment to storytelling, the sense of discovery about character, the sheer age-of-steam energy with which our predecessors invented the novel. She’s a Kiwi Wilkie Collins on speed, and this book is an artistic phenomenon, a parody that manages to beat the parodied genre at its own game even while sending it up … as Ruddigore did for Victorian stage melodrama, or Cold Comfort Farm for the pastoral novel. What does it matter, in the end, if it doesn’t ‘mean’ very much? A firework display doesn’t have to mean anything at all, and it can still leave you walking on air …
But, alas, the initial excitement faded away and the book seemed to run out of steam. The plot solutions strained credulity too far, and too many plot-holes were left gaping. Characters who had been set up for major reckonings or personal crises dropped out of the story, or were freed from their difficulties by a few lazy strokes of the pen. The astrological sub-text seemed quite redundant. On nearly every page the Victorian language, so beautifully sustained for the most part, was interrupted by some twenty-first-century Americanism – deliberate, perhaps, but it would have been so much more stylish to keep up the voice. The verbiage grew excessive – much more than was needed to convey the atmosphere; I felt that if nothing had been omitted but the descriptions of characters fiddling with smoking paraphernalia while they decided what to say next, there would have been fifty more pages to reward the innocent, punish the guilty and tie up the ends properly – instead of the chapter-summaries, so delightful at first, being called upon to wrap up the whole story at breakneck speed, with a general sense of exhaustion and deadlines having passed.
One of the chief delights of The Luminaries is its godlike, Tolstoyan, George Eliot-like snap judgements about characters, where it seems as if the author has seen to the heart of a truth about human nature, with all the confidence of that golden pre-psycho-analytical age. ‘In his evaluations of other men, Löwenthal first identified an essential disparity in their person, and then explained how the poles of this disparity could only be synthesised in theory, and by Löwenthal himself. He was fated to see the inherent duality in all things …’ Such élan! Only gradually do we come to realise that the author’s own evaluations of her characters proceed on the Löwenthal method; half the time we are presented with some profound insight about them only for their behaviour to contradict it blatantly within a few pages, if it has not already done so. Making it all the harder to remember which of them is which …
Now it may be that all this goes to show how immensely clever the author is, in a tricksy, post-modern way. Kirsty Gunn in the Guardian [11/09/13] saw through it: ‘an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat: for nothing in this enormous book with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it.’ And she went on, in that inimitable Guardian way: ‘That’s the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It’s not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want of them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worth while to spend so much time with a story that, in the end, isn’t invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing?’
Well, no, actually, Kirsty, I don’t think it is. Thinking and caring about literary characters can be infinite; wondering why you should care about them is something you need only do once, and even then it doesn’t take you anywhere in particular. It's sterile. The great majority of readers of fiction have not signed up to the post-modern project. They still believe in the old-fashioned bargain between author and reader: if the readers are going to hand over their money, they want the author at least to pretend that the story matters, until the end of the last page. Indeed there is lots in The Luminaries that really does matter, even by Guardian standards. For instance, the way that, by contrast with ‘real’ Victorian novels, the non-white characters, the Chinese and the Maori, have their say, and their backgrounds and individuality are given equal weight, seriously and credibly. Is it fair to them to bottle out, half way through the story, and say, in effect, ‘Just kidding!’? More generally, there is the sheer weight of historical knowledge that has gone into the recreation of this (to Brits) little-known and remote episode, the New Zealand gold rush. That the author wears her research so lightly – it reads as if she was there, seeing it all out of her window, not as if she had mugged it up – is deeply impressive. That she then seeks to imply that the whole thing has just been a trivial pastime seems to me to be selling herself short.
So I want to say to Eleanor Catton: don’t squander your brilliance. Next time, find a project where love and need are one, and the work is play for mortal stakes, and stick it to the blasted Guardianistas. But of course she doesn’t need my advice. At the very least, she can blooming well write, this lady.