Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #3: A sphere within a sphere

So, the Booker shortlist first of all, as the announcement is tonight. Although I haven't read all the shortlisted titles, I feel fairly confident in saying that I would like A Tale for the Time Being or The Luminaries to win; both these books were not only better than the other shortlisted titles I've read, but have been among the books I've loved most this year; books so original and daring that they've lifted me out of a reading slump. Unfortunately, I also feel fairly confident in predicting that Harvest or The Testament of Mary will win; the latter would be a slightly less painful option, although I still don't feel it should have qualified for this award, due to length. In the meantime, Robert Crum, not my favourite book critic, has perfectly summed up the opposite of my thoughts in The Guardian; if you're a fan of the Crace or the Toibin, head over there for reassurance.

For now, I'm going to review the first 350 pages of The Luminaries. To my dismay, I have had to return my library copy as it's been reserved by another borrower, and so have only managed to read the lengthy first chapter of the novel so far. But what a first chapter it's been. This section was good enough that I still feel that The Luminaries is a worthy contender for the Booker, despite the fact that I haven't had a chance yet to see how it all turns out, because of the brilliance of the writing on display. Eleanor Catton has done something that I've often toyed with but never thought would actually work; she has written a truly excellent Victorian pastiche that echoes both Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. (Crum's comparison to Wilkie Collins is absurd, based largely on the subject-matter rather than the style of this novel; Collins's patchwork narratives of written accounts, diaries and letters bear little resemblance to Catton). It's difficult to describe exactly what she has managed to do, because the term pastiche is so often abused. For example, Sarah Waters' novels have been described as Victorian pastiches, which they are not; with no disrespect to Waters, who is a wonderful writer, I would suggest that her novels play with conventions of Victorian genre and style in a tongue-in-cheek way, while never intending to read like nineteenth-century prose. In similar vein, the restless, omniscient narrator of Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the While feels far too modern to be familiar to Eliot or Trollope. In contrast, one almost feels that a nineteenth-century reader would not feel jolted upon opening Catton. This is a statement that only goes so far, of course - whore and opium-eater Anna Wetherell would certainly receive short shrift in a Victorian text, rather than receiving the complex attention that she does here, and it seems less likely that the Maori and Chinese characters would take centre stage - but it helps to understand the scale of Catton's achievement.

Because of this, reading the reactions to this novel has been interesting. One of my major concerns about adopting such an approach as a writer myself (I've never tried to do so, so this is all purely speculative) is the worry that modern readers simply approach nineteenth-century novels such as Middlemarch or Phineas Finn with a different mindset. Safe in the smug knowledge that we are tackling a 'great classic', we allow ourselves to take time over the reading of it, and when we do recognise anything of ourselves in the text, we applaud the imaginative leaps made by the long-dead writer with far more enthusiasm than we would if we were reading a modern novel. Catton has received much critical acclaim for her debut novel, The Rehearsal, but she is still a relatively unknown young writer who is asking a great deal of her reader. I certainly think it's a deal that the reader ought to make, but it does open up a series of reflections on how far the writer can, or, should, signal the level of investment a reader needs to put into a novel before he or she opens it. To an extent, the novel must do this itself; I find when I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, for example, that I am naturally slowed to the pace of her narrator's meditative reflections. In an introduction to the new edition of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco demands this level of attention of the reader explicitly, asking that they slow themselves to the pace of life in a medieval cloister, but I'm afraid such a statement by a writer read to me as arrogant, despite Eco's undoubted success. To return to The Luminaries, however, it strikes me that critics of its length, like Crum, seem unwilling to cut it the same slack as they would were it really a nineteenth-century novel.

To an extent, Catton is imprisoned in the form she has chosen. I'm yet to find out whether the incredibly strict structure of the novel pays dividends, and it seems surprising to me that a writer would wed themselves so closely to something so rigid. More broadly, her pastiche can become, at times, a little repetitive and formulaic. She uses the third-person omniscient to perfection, giving us insightful and interesting descriptions of each of her major characters, but as the novel moves from one man's account to another, it's almost possible to predict where these little paragraphs will pop up. Accurate as they are, I'm afraid, like their nineteenth-century counterparts (George Eliot includes a truly formidable info-dump about our hero in Daniel Deronda) it's possible to see why the novel has largely moved on from this type of introduction, effective as it is in some scenes, such as the first few pages. There are also annoying stylistic tricks that again stem from her literary models. Anna is referred to as 'Anna', 'Anna Wetherell' and 'the whore' in the space of a few sentences, for example. These are quibbles, but I am concerned as to how the style will develop now that the initial set-piece has been completed.

On the plus side, Catton is masterful at pacing, and I read this section swiftly, despite its length. The introduction of the ghastly apparition glimpsed by Walter Moody at the beginning of the book is an irritating hook that keeps us reading on, but we are also gripped by the separate stories that diverge from Moody's tale, and satisfied when all the threads come together at the end. Crum sneers at the short summation at the end of this section, but I wish more authors were wise enough to know when to recap. And it is genuinely rare to be so gripped by a story that is very complex and confusing. I can't say that I have all the characters straight in my head yet, which is one of the reasons I'm glad that my copy has gone back to the library - I may re-read from the beginning when it returns. The reason that I put such faith in Catton's ability to tell the rest of the story well is simple, however: she has convinced me that reading this story so closely is worth it. This is something that few authors achieve.

Update: see this post for the second half of my review of The Luminaries.

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