Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton (2013)

By now most avid readers would know at least something about Eleanor Catton’s mammoth Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries. Catton is the youngest writer to ever win the award and at 830 pages it is also the longest winning novel. The Luminaries is set in the 1860’s on the west coast of the southern island of New Zealand during that era’s gold rushes. It is a complex novel, with a large ensemble of characters coupled with an innovative structure. These attributes may put many potential readers off, but rest assured The Luminaries is well worth reading.

The Luminaries
is such a long and complex novel that it is futile to try and describe its plot and structure in any great detail. Perhaps uniquely the novel manages to be both backward looking and innovative at the same time. Catton writes in the Victorian narrative style used by many authors at the time in which the novel is set; however the novel’s structure is a modern contrivance built around the signs of the zodiac and the movements of the planets. Twelve of the characters are associated with the zodiac and are assigned to the Stellar section of the character chart at the beginning of the novel. Another eight are in the Planetary section and are given related influences such as reason, desire and force. The first chapter, entitled ‘A sphere within a Sphere,’ is as long as an average book (360 pages) and like the cycle of the moon, each successive chapter wanes until the final group of chapters are only a few pages long. Fortunately due to the novel’s other quality attributes the reader can get by without paying much attention to its convoluted form, which is something that I mostly chose to do.

One of The Luminaries great strengths is Catton’s ability to write believable characters that live and breath on the page. When coupled with the mysteries at the novel’s core, it makes for strangely compelling reading. I say strangely compelling because at one point it occurred to me that despite the novel’s slow moving narrative, fragmentation and complexity, I found myself completely drawn into the world inhabited by the characters and the mysteries they were grappling with. This is masterful story-telling coupled with beautiful writing and it is no wonder the judges of the Man Booker awarded the prize to The Luminaries.

Considering the amount of research and planning that must have gone into writing the novel, winning the Man Booker Prize is a just reward for Catton. It is, however, a novel that requires intense focus on the part of the reader. Fragmented across time and told from multiple perspectives over a complex narrative structure, it demands a certain level of commitment. After I finished The Luminaries I wondered what the average reader would make of its conventions and pretensions? My book club members, for example, mostly appreciated the novel, even if they didn’t all necessarily enjoy it. As serendipity would have it at the same time a work college referred me to an essay called The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real), written by Will Self, in which he discusses the decline of not just what he calls the paper oriented ‘Gutenberg mind,’ (as opposed to the digital mind - my words, not his) but also of the novel as a living medium (it’s a zombie art form, moribund since Joyce's Finnegan’s Wake (1939) according to Self) and in particular the ‘difficult novel.’ Self puts forward that the novel as an important medium is in terminal decline and serious literature will become the domain of the minority, both in terms of authors and readers. Is a novel such as The Luminaries a way forward, or merely the last gasp of a zombie art form with declining readership? Do people want to read novels like The Luminaries any more, or is it just going to be vampire romance and about a million shades of grey?

Such questions once again bring to bear the worth of prizes such as the Man Booker. No doubt there has been huge sales of The Luminaries since it won the coveted prize, but just how many of them would have been read all the way through? Is the Man Booker making things worse by rewarding a difficult novel that may be unpalatable to most readers? Or will it inspire people to reach beyond their comfort zone and help keep alive one of the most important cultural artifacts humans have ever devised? Personally I thoroughly enjoyed The Luminaries and am confident that the so called difficult novel has a bright future beyond this era of wizards, vampires and all those shades of grey. I believe that there will always be enough people intent on exploring the limits of literature and be willing to go beyond their comfort zones. As the demands on our time is taken up by more and more frivolous digital pursuits I believe that serious literature will come to be appreciated much more readily as an antidote to cultural superficiality. Self may be pessimistic about the future of the novel, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a spent cultural force just yet. If you are one of those people who put aside The Luminaries after a few hundred pages then prove Will Self wrong by picking it up again; you will be rewarded for your efforts.

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