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The Luminaries

February 10, 2014

In which by means of thoughtful rambling I try to figure out what I thought of a book.

A common thing you hear about Eleanor Catton is that she is a big fan of box set TV shows. In fact, her second novel The Luminaries even has its own box set TV show planned. The Luminaries is, from one point of view, an exceptionally well done remake of the old murder mystery genre, maybe the HBO adaptation of Wilkie Collins.

So what separates The Luminaries from something like Game of Thrones? Even after the Booker starts allowing American authors, I doubt the judges are going to be waiting, Oscar-for-Return-of-the-King style, for GRR Martin to finish his series so that they give him his prize.

Part of the answer is that The Luminaries is deep down still intensely ‘literary’, in that it is self-consciously written in a certain limited style, but uses other formal tricks to create something much more modern than it appears at first. It can definitely be glossed as a complex plot-driven thriller with some weird astrology charts and chapters that get really short at the end. The plot itself, while complex in the sense of having a lot of interacting characters, isn’t in itself particuarly profound or new*. What I enjoyed most about the book was the way it creates a sense that there really is some sort of super-structure around the plot that is governing everything, although this is never really stated or explained.

The first part of the book, which is over a third of the length of the novel, is a really astonishing construction. It is ‘just’ a series of interconnected flashbacks explaining why the thirteen men in the scene happened to be meeting up on a dark stormy night. The way it is put together is a real feat of virtuosity, and reminded me of a fugue in which all the parts seem to magically fit into a unified whole. The narrator even makes overt remarks about how she has rearranged everyone’s stories to make them more comprehensible. Yet even though you are aware of the artificiality of this and are being told that it has all been carefully contrived to work together, the final work comes across as just a rollicking yarn.

The astrological charts and inspiration are at another remove again, where you know that if you wanted you could figure out how it has all been arranged. In the end it isn’t the details of this scheme that seem important to understanding or appreciating the story though, but the mere fact of knowing that the author forced the characters to behave in accordance with some predetermined system. When I finished this first section I could feel the plot opening out, but as soon as I was settling down, thinking “next, the undetermined future now that this flashback stuff is over”, I realised: the whole book is pre-determined, what makes me think the ‘future’ has any real meaning here?

Throughout the book I felt that I was supposed to be constantly aware of the artificiality of the plot. To me, the hints and asides in the narrative are clearly saying “these characters only exist to fit my design”. It isn’t simply a big complicated murder mystery, it is a game where everything follows an exacting, yet ultimately pointless scheme – pointless in the sense that the scheme neither explains nor is explained by the content of the book. Everything is determined by the scheme, but none of the characters knows anything about it or reacts to it, they simply react to the other characters and their actions in a realistic way (in the context of the style of the novel, which is also almost overt about avoiding modern stylings).

So what’s the point? Why not just write a story? Some of the reviews I’ve read talk about the lack of character development, but in context this almost seems realistic: it isn’t as if a lot of actual time passes in the world of the novel. Should characters be demonstrating deep themes, or should they just act naturally? Or are they just cogs in the mechanism of the plot?

I think The Luminaries is in the end very much about ‘stories’ and how they are told, rather than the characters and what they find out about life. Consider the ‘spark notes’ recap after the big machinery of part 1 ends – which is itself very winkingly self-conscious. Is it meant to be an homage/mockery of the old-fashioned style of storytelling where everything needs to be spelled out a few times for the readers (like on those old non-box set tv shows)? An ironic take on those super-detectives who can recall 300 pages of facts just like that and make sense of them, just as the reader is thinking “how the hell am I supposed to remember all those details?” Or just a writer pandering to lazy readers?

After the in-your-face ‘sphere within a sphere’ of the first part, we get the weird supernatural (or are they?) occurrences of the seance part. At first these are presented as actually supernatural, although the seance is attended by characters who’ve just spent many pages talking about how much of a scam these things are. We are eventually given non-supernatural explanations for everything which seem satisfying, but then the trial scene comes along. This seems to exist purely to demolish any sense that we know (or can know) the whole truth. Effectively we get another recap, which matches with almost all of the facts we know. There are a few things which the reader knows are false (and which various characters know enough of the whole picture to understand as well), but since everything else matches, it made me wonder: what if my own understanding of the events is just like this? I can see a slightly larger picture, but that picture is itself only a small part of the true big picture…

The last couple of hundred pages are another great magic trick. Instead of continuing the story, we are taken back in time to uncover the real back story that nobody knows. The conclusion is where I felt the real pay off from the machinery came. Strangely it is only in these tiny, vanishing chapters that I really got much genuine emotional bite from the novel. As the fragments of the story shorten while the unknown expands, I got the sense that I was trying to capture as much information as I could from a pile of pages burning before me. Only when the author’s scheme forces the chapters to become brief, poetic fragments of dialogue did I feel like there was enough room for emotions to escape from the clockwork. And of course nearly all of this gripping part has ‘already happened’ – we are being narrated to from the world as it was before the faux-detectives and their mysteries.

So after all that: The Luminaries is a book that on the one hand seems to bash you over the head, spell everything out, and revel in technicality and cleverness, but all the while it gradually crumbles around itself, finishing before it starts, and as it diminishes, after 800 pages I felt it was the gaps and white spaces which contained the only authentic and eternal truths.

* I do have to mention, though, that one thing which is most definitely very modern about The Luminaries is in its treatment of history – the Maori, Chinese, and British cultures are clearly being treated from a 21st century perspective. So while it isn’t directly about our present age, it hints at taking a view on some of its problems.

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