Review: Julian Novitzon Eleanor Catton

As above, so below: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

In his 1967 essay ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, John Barth complains about what he sees as the stagnation of contemporary fiction, arguing that ‘a good many novelists write turn-of-the-century type novels, only in more or less mid-twentieth century language and about contemporary people and topics’. I was reminded of this claim when reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which is now, after Keri Hulme’s The Bone People (1984), the second novel by a New Zealand author to win the Man Booker prize. As a number of critics have pointed out, The Luminaries is quite close to being a turn-of-the-century type novel, not just in its setting and subject matter, but also in its language, style and structure. Set in 1866 in the goldmining town of Hokitika on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Catton’s novel initially focuses on twelve very different men who are united by their desire to solve the mysteries surrounding the death of a hermit-like prospector, a smuggled shipment of gold, the recent disappearance of a wealthy young man, and what appears to be an attempted suicide by a local prostitute.

Historical fiction often seems to invite a variation on Barth’s objection. Past periods are revisited and explored using contemporary literary devices and techniques, usually with a slight formality of tone or style of narration that gives the text a gently archaic quality and helps us suspend our disbelief as we read a twentieth or twenty-first century novel set in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth century, or medieval Europe, or ancient Egypt. Similarly, contemporary themes and preoccupations are often explored in the plots of historical novels and contemporary values are often applied to the actions of their characters, who are inevitably understood from contemporary psychological perspectives. Hilary Mantel, for example, in her novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), draws on a wealth of research to create an interior voice for Thomas Cromwell that makes her protagonist seem a distinctly modern man. As Thomas Penn put it in the Guardian: ‘Her Cromwell is a figure whom we can imagine striding through modern corridors of power as much as those of Hampton Court.’ The great strength of Mantel’s revisionist account of Cromwell’s career is that her depiction of his rise from obscurity to prominence, and his thoughts and reflections along the way, comment so acutely on twenty-first century notions of power.

In The Luminaries, Catton offers a type of historical fiction that is outside this mode. Her novel is not only set in the nineteenth century; it appears to be of the nineteenth century, or as close to it as possible. It has the scope and length of a nineteenth century novel, and its central mysteries are established and explored in a nineteenth century style. Its omniscient narrator glides between the novel’s many characters, occasionally pausing to comment directly on the action as it unfolds at a leisurely nineteenth century pace, alerting the reader to a previously overlooked detail, or apologising for an abridgement or digression. Minor details add to the novel’s period flourishes: each chapter begins with a brief italicised summary of its content; expletives are coyly concealed with dashes (‘Well I’ll be d—ned, Charlie, I’ll be God d—ned’); exclamation marks are tactically deployed to emphasis moments of drama or surprise. Some reviewers have compared Catton’s narrative voice in The Luminaries to that of George Eliot or Charles Dickens. Others, perhaps most notably C.K. Stead, one of New Zealand’s foremost novelists and critics, have dismissed her work as a pastiche, a ‘precocious imitation’ of Victorian literary realism. As Stead put it in his review: ‘Every episode has its setting, decor, clothing, its period bric-a-brac, its slightly formal but often sharp dialogue. This is costume drama.’

Well, perhaps it is. Catton’s brilliantly conceived first novel, The Rehearsal (2008), also offers its readers a kind of costume drama, despite its contemporary setting. Revolving around an affair between a female high school student and a male teacher, the novel focuses on characters at periphery of the scandal: a trio of younger girls at the school, including the student’s sister, who engage in furious storytelling and speculation, and the slightly older students from a local acting academy, who fix upon the affair as a subject for their end-of-year play. Drama, theatre and performances of all kinds become ways to examine adolescence as a state in which identities, world views and narratives are experimented with and discarded – a rehearsal for adult life. This is mirrored in the novel’s sudden shifts into a highly mannered theatricality:

‘I require of all my students,’ the saxophone teacher continues, ‘that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom … If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me …’

Free from the constraints of realism, the novel’s set pieces and artfully poised dialogue underscore the artificiality of adolescence, its affects and hastily erected façades. Similarly, in The Luminaries, Catton’s meticulous adherence to the style of Victorian literary realism gives her scenes and descriptions the air of elaborate theatrical constructedness that Stead objects to, drawing the reader’s attention to the gulf that separates this mode of writing from the conventions of contemporary realist fiction. In this regard, The Luminaries is reminiscent of Jorge Louis Borges’ short story ‘Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote’, in which a twentieth century writer composes a version of Cervantes’s Don Quixote that is identical to the original but which is read and valued in an entirely different way by virtue of the context in which it was created:

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

In praising the idea at work behind Borges’ story, John Barth suggests in ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ that while it is embarrassing when a technically out-of-date work is passed off as something new and original (like the ‘turn-of-the-century type novels’ he derides), it would be another matter if such a work were created with ‘ironic intent’ by someone ‘quite aware of where we’ve been and where we are’. Catton certainly fits this bill and it is tempting, at least initially, to read the novel as having been written in this self-aware, metafictional mode. Kirsty Gunn – another significant New Zealand author, whose most recent novel, The Big Music (2012), was the New Zealand Post Book of the Year in 2013 – appears to hold this view, arguing that The Luminaries is

not about story at all. It’s about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile 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? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction … There lies the real triumph of Catton’s remarkable book.

While praising Catton as an ‘extraordinary writer’, Gunn presents The Luminaries as an extended literary in-joke: ‘a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat.’

A wry metafictional reflection on the nature of storytelling is certainly a thread in the novel (‘One should never take another man’s truth for one’s own,’ says one of the central characters, Walter Moody, as he listens to the range of partial truths and speculations assembled by the twelve men in the first section). But focusing on this element of the text aligns it too easily with the claim that the close adherence to a Victorian style is simply a pastiche. The Luminaries delights in ironies, but irony is not Catton’s sole intent. She also keeps the language and the commentary of the novel as close as possible to that of the period to avoid the anachronistic psychology and contemporary judgements that are evident in much historical fiction. In a 2012 interview, she observed:

All too often, the arena of history is used as this really comforting flattering mirror to make us feel really awesome about how much more enlightened we are in 2012 than we ever could have been 150 years ago …  when someone acts how we would act, we see them as a ‘good character’. There are obviously exceptions to that; there are humane and inhumane characters. There are ways of being virtuous and upstanding in the 1860s that we might not see anymore; that we might see as stiff or beside the point.

Further complicating a reading of The Luminaries that treats it as a pastiche is the fact that it directly addresses a void or lack in the history of New Zealand literature, in that no major, or even particularly memorable, nineteenth century novels were set there. In contrast to the fiction written in New Zealand from the 1860s to the turn of the century (a mostly forgettable assortment of pioneering and settlement narratives, and adventure stories of the H. Rider Haggard variety involving Maori tribes), The Luminaries offers an idea of what a capable and ambitious New Zealand novel of the Victorian period might have looked like. Catton’s floating narrator is able to portray the diverse perspectives of the array of people drawn to the country by the gold rush, connecting their various desires, agendas and belief systems in a complex, shifting plot.

It perhaps at the level of plot that the complaints of Catton’s critics have the most validity, because it certainly is, as Stead remarks in his review, ‘shamelessly implausible’. It is a long chain of coincidences, miscommunications, misunderstandings and chance encounters that involves eavesdropping and, crucially, lost luggage, all of which brings the novel’s central mysteries out into the light with slow inevitability. Yet most plots of sufficient length and complexity will appear implausible upon close scrutiny, and the plot of The Luminaries is implausible in a wild, highly enjoyable Victorian manner. Its many twists and turns encompass a personal vendetta, a misloaded firearm, a mysterious will, a forged signature, imprisonment, as well as all manner of corruption and deception. Along with women of dubious morality, foul and cowardly betrayals, a long-lost relative and a borderline-mystical connection between two lovers, it also delivers some fantastic period set-pieces, such as a storm-tossed ship, a séance, and a trial featuring dramatic reversals and revelations.

For some readers, all this will be too much. But to my mind an eventful plot is better than an inert one and the plausibility that is sacrificed for the sake of entertainment is no sacrifice at all. (And, as Walter Moody says in another sly aside, ‘A string of coincidences is not a coincidence … And what was a coincidence … but a stilled moment in a sequence that has yet to be explained?’) Furthermore, the cool clear consistency with which Catton handles her characters – her unwavering commitment to their nineteenth century voices and perspectives – helps to ground these increasingly convoluted developments, as the characters respond to extraordinary circumstances in ways that are entirely in keeping with their established natures.

Interestingly, in other interviews, Catton has claimed long-form narrative television programs, such as Deadwood and The Wire, as equal influences on The Luminaries alongside nineteenth century literature, and there is certainly a similarity in the type of storytelling they offer (indeed, the judges of the Man Booker prize described the novel as ‘a Kiwi Twin Peaks’, a particularly apt comparison given the stagey hyperrealism of David Lynch’s dialogue and imagery). If the plot of an acclaimed television show, such as the recently concluded Breaking Bad, were examined from its first season to its last, its developments and complications could only be seen as hopelessly implausible; it is the strength and the suspense of the storytelling across its individual episodes and the consistency with which it handles its characters and larger themes that keeps the viewer invested. This new wave of programs has been described as television finding a form equivalent to that of the novel, and it could be argued that, by exploring how complex characters develop and come to be defined through extraordinary circumstances and external problems, rather than focusing on the internal and the everyday, they have more of an affinity the great novelists of the nineteenth century than the modernist writers of the twentieth.

In addition to its adherence to a nineteenth century style, the composition of The Luminaries has been guided by two connected structural restrictions that are worth reflecting on. First, the astrological calendar for the months in 1866 that the novel covers has been used to determine the nature of the characters, their connections with one another, and the development of the plot. Second, the novel has twelve parts, and each part is exactly half as long as the one that precedes it. The first is 360 pages in length, the final part is barely a page. These elements have passed without much comment in many reviews. Guy Somerset, reviewing the novel in the New Zealand Listener, notes their presence as a ‘creative writing exercise’ but fails to interrogate their significance. Stead is even more dismissive: ‘There is an astrological structure that I have permitted myself to overlook.’

I will admit that I do not understand the full extent to which these patterns guide the development of The Luminaries, despite the lists and charts provided throughout, and that my first inclination was to dismiss them as the kind of structural conceit that may drive and delight an author but has relatively little impact on a reader. However, as I was drawn deeper I discovered that what I had thought to be peripheral is, in fact, central to the novel. Each of the major characters is aligned with an astrological concept, either the signs of the Zodiac (Stellar) or one of the seven heavenly bodies known to the ancients (Planetary); all are set in symmetry with the Earth (Terra Firma). The reader begins the novel aligned with one of the Planetary characters, the aforementioned Walter Moody, but the focus quickly shifts when Moody meets and allies himself with the assembled Stellar characters: the twelve men who have united to discuss the mysterious circumstances that have befallen the town. Their voices dominate the early sections, and while they operate on the periphery of the novel’s action, their stories reveal that they have all been affected by it. Furthermore, each has played an unintentional role in setting it in motion. As above, so below; as below, so above.

It is customary in a murder mystery to frame the detective as an outsider (often a man or woman alone), who is looking in on some central human drama that has been played out before his or her arrival. The protagonist then works back through the tangled causal chain of motive, method and opportunity to arrive at the first cause: the point at which the movement towards death began. All twelve of the Stellar characters are very much men alone. Their families are either absent, estranged, distant or dead. The role of detective is diffused between them and, under the inverted stars of the Southern hemisphere, we are presented with an inversion of a conventional mystery story, one in which the investigators outnumber the suspects. In a colonial gold rush town, there is no shortage of lonely, peripheral outsiders.

As the novel progresses and contracts, the influence of the Stellar characters wanes and the Planetary characters (who are more strongly connected to the action) come into focus. The role of detective passes from the assembly of Stellar characters to the singular ‘rational man’, Walter Moody, and the culprits and accomplices to the novel’s various crimes and indiscretions are drawn into the light. But most of the Planetary characters also fall away as the chapters shorten, until, at last, in a flashback to the events immediately preceding the opening chapter, the narrator’s eye comes to rest on the novel’s primary forces: two quite literally star-crossed lovers, who represent the sun and the moon, the most important of the heavenly bodies and the ‘luminaries’ of the title, and the murdered hermit, Crosbie Wells (Terra Firma), around whom this whole glittering ‘network of fate and fortune’ revolves.

Examining the structure reveals The Luminaries to be a complex literary experiment, akin to the formal restrictions and mathematical patterns adopted by writers of the Oulipo (or ‘the workshop of potential literature’), such as Italo Calvino or Georges Perec. It is, without question, a creative writing exercise. But then all creative work begins with an exercise of some kind, whether it is setting out to write a novel without using the letter ‘e’ or a poem that will ‘justify the ways of God to men’. It seems short-sighted to dismiss this aspect out of hand, especially when it yields such impressive results. To my mind, aspects of the astrological structure reflect the novel’s nineteenth century preoccupations and themes. Though we are given a wealth of complex psychological detail about the characters’ mannerisms, beliefs, thought processes and ambitions, their connection to an astrological sign means that, though their material fortunes may wax or wane, their essential nature is fixed. None of them seem to undergo any significant internal change. The events depicted in the novel work to reveal deeper aspects of their natures to the reader (and, occasionally, to the characters themselves), but they do not shape or construct them.

Furthermore, the concepts at work in astrology – the idea that while there are hierarchies of order and importance, all of the individual elements are components of a whole and have meaningful effects on each other – also comment on the ordered constructions of realist fiction, where all of the characters and scenes contribute in some major or minor way to the plot. Like astrology, this type of realism is entirely untrue to the unbalanced, frequently illogical mess of our actual lives, but the harmony of the structure is beautiful to contemplate when it is so clearly exposed. In addition to nineteenth century literature, the fixed nature of the characters and the harmony of the novel’s moving parts perhaps also reflect on the form and conventions of murder mysteries (which, as Stead pertinently remarks in his review, have always been ‘indifferent to literary modernism’).

The experimental structure generates a powerful emotional charge that builds over the course of the narrative. We begin the novel with a vast richness of characters, description and information. Initially, it is almost overwhelming. As with any good mystery, we are uncertain as to which details or persons will prove to be important. Then, as we start to orient ourselves, the stars realign and the sections shorten. As characters play their predetermined parts and die or fade into the background, the pace quickens and the authorial commentary becomes briefer. The constant guidance and interjections may have felt unfamiliar and frustrating at first, but as we move from begrudgingly accepting their intrusions to appreciating and even relying on them, they start to vanish from the text. As the revelations pile up, one begins to question whether Catton can maintain her commitment to the full-bodied Victorian prose style, as she gives herself fewer and fewer words to work with. But she does, right up until the last pages of the novel, when the conceit finally breaks apart and those italicised chapter summaries start to outstrip the content of the chapters. In these brief, beautifully allusive final movements, which pass like heartbeats after the density of the earlier sections, we are allowed a tantalising glimpse of the truth that has been at work behind the novel’s ornate structure: that it is a story about love, not death.

There is, of course, a great deal more that can and will be said about The Luminaries. It is a novel with enough scope and substance to be argued for and against and with for a good time yet. For now, though, having begun with Barth’s ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, I would like to refer to that essay’s underappreciated sequel from 1980, ‘The Literature of Replenishment’, in which he states:

The ideal postmodern novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and ‘contentism’, pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction … My own analogy would be with good jazz or classical music: one finds much on successive listenings or close examination of the score that one didn’t catch the first time through; but the first time through should be so ravishing – and not just to the specialists – that one delights in the replay.

I strongly suspect that The Luminaries is playing the tune Barth requested. It is complex in its design, yet accessible in its narrative and prose. Its plot is engrossing in own right, but an awareness of the structure working behind it deepens one’s pleasure and absorption. As a satisfying murder mystery, it wears its colours proudly, yet it is not afraid to subvert and critique the traditions and conventions of its genre. Best of all, while maintaining a wry self-awareness about its borrowings and constructions, it is never a cynical novel. At times, it can be unapologetically romantic, in both its narrative content and its attitude towards the literary tradition it emulates. It is a novel that can be appreciated on many different levels, but which builds into a consistent and harmonious whole.

The reviews of The Luminaries from New Zealand writers and critics that I have drawn on have generated a fair bit of controversy in wake of the Man Booker announcement. I am not going to enter into the debate as to whether some of these might constitute ‘bullying’ as Catton has alleged (Ross Brighton though, boy, he just wades right in, go and read him), but they are worth reflecting on.

Reviews, of course, matter to all writers, at all levels of success, but they can matter more intensely in a country like New Zealand for a number of reasons. Firstly, New Zealand’s literary culture is very small and there is a reasonable chance of knowing your reviewer, or knowing people who know them, or meeting them in the near future, which makes the process quite fraught. (As a Christchurch native, I will admit now, in case anyone accuses me of an excess of objectivity, to having known Eleanor Catton’s family all my life, to having also known Guy Somerset for a good number of years, and to having once encountered C.K. Stead, who was perfectly pleasant to me, though I was unable to say anything much as I was in an abject state of awe and terror.) Secondly, there is the problem that there are so few reviews, and they are often so brief. A newly published New Zealand novel is lucky to get half a dozen reviews of reasonable length (more than 400 words), so there is little space for differing opinions on New Zealand literature, and few forums for debate. Every review counts, and if The Luminaries had only been published in New Zealand then these reviews might have been enough to sink it, despite its many excellent qualities. Fortunately, its success and acclaim overseas make it a novel that can sustain a diversity of opinion, which is, sadly, rare in the New Zealand context.

Once the excitement surrounding the Man Booker Prize starts to fade, matters that now seem peripheral may align themselves at the centre. Might it be possible for us, in the wake of all this, to have an argument about a novel? A proper argument? One that doesn’t immediately descend into empty snark, glib dismissals, or accusatory finger-pointing? Might this have an ongoing effect on the literary discourse and the reviewing culture in New Zealand? Perhaps we can now hope for a truly remarkable alignment of the spheres.


John Barth, ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’ and ‘The Literature of Replenishment,’ The Friday Book: Essays and Other Non-Fiction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984).
Ross Brighton, ‘Catton, Criticism, and the Great Cringe,’ The Pantograph Punch (23 October 2013).
Brannavan Gnanalingam, ‘Eleanor Catton on The Rehearsal,’ The Lumière Reader (6 March 2012).
Kirsty Gunn, ‘The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton,’ The Guardian (11 September 2013).
Thomas Penn, ‘Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is the man for this season,’ The Guardian (20 October 2012).
Guy Somerset, ‘The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton,’ New Zealand Listener (29 August 2013).
C.K. Stead, ‘The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton,’ Financial Times (6 September 2013).