Sunday, September 22, 2013

YOU may be familiar with the idea that readers are gravitating towards short forms of fiction, easily downloadable and quickly digested on tiny digital devices.

But is it true readers - and writers - are turning away from long forms? This year's Man Booker Prize judges certainly are not. The 2013 longlist included two huge novels: Richard House's 912-page The Kills (which expands further with multimedia components) and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, almost slim in comparison at 832 pages.

While House did not make the cut when the shortlist was announced on September 10, Catton did. At 27, she is the youngest writer shortlisted for a Booker, and the only antipodean on this year's list. (Born in Canada, she grew up in New Zealand, where she lives.)

Catton's first novel, The Rehearsal, a wry, formally experimental story of a high school sex scandal, won multiple international awards when it was published in 2008. The Luminaries, her second book, is a self-consciously long, convoluted, historical epic. It is so large and unwieldy that it almost demands to be read while stretched out on a sofa in the favoured reading position of one of its characters, the villainous Mrs Lydia Wells, who holds a novel "quite as if the book were an accessory to a faint".

The story takes place in NZ's 19th-century goldfields, where men and women from all classes, backgrounds and nationalities mingle, and fortunes can be transformed in an instant. Many of the familiar elements of sensationalist Victorian literature come into play: secrets of illegitimacy, cases of mistaken and stolen identity, forged signatures, opium dens, murder, blackmail, conspiracy and scandal, innocence corrupted, virtue rewarded, reputations ruined and redeemed.

Catton claims to have read only writing published before 1866, the year in which The Luminaries is set, for a year while she was writing the novel, to immerse herself in the style of the period. Yet she has not aimed to create a strict historical replica, and more pedantic readers will be annoyed by various anachronisms of diction and reference.

The result is a distinctive, archaic voice that makes use of some old-fashioned stylistic conventions: "damn" is never spelled out but rendered with a dash, and each chapter is prefaced with a summary of the action, "In which a stranger arrives" and so on.

But Catton signals her playful and ironic relationship to these conventions: the relation between these summaries and the text they preface, for instance, becomes gradually less straightforward until the final chapter, comprising just 95 words of dialogue, is preceded by a note more than twice as long, describing a complex array of peripheral events.

At the story's centre is a set of mysteries concerning the events of a fateful evening, including one man's death, another man's disappearance, a woman's unexplained collapse and the true source of a disputed fortune in gold. The novel returns again and again to these events, offering gradual explication.

The name of the town where the story is set, Hokitika, is a Maori word that evokes similar ideas of circularity; when Te Rau Tauwhare, the one significant Maori character, tries to explain it to Englishman Tom Balfour, he first draws a circle in the air, then says: "Around. And then back again, beginning." The story is replete with images of returns and repeating cycles, the spinning wheel of fortune, twins and mirrors, all reflected in the vast turning wheel of the sky.

The Luminaries is lengthy in part because of the complex mystery it presents and unravels. But its length results in practical terms from Catton's choice of a 12-part structure that unfolds according to the mathematical laws of the Fibonacci sequence, or the golden ratio, in which each part is half the length of the one preceding it, like the spiral of a coiled fern leaf.

The first part alone is about 360 pages, the size of a respectable novel, and the following sections diminish sequentially to a final part of little more than a page. In addition to this constraint, the novel is organised around astrological principles: each character corresponds to a star sign or other astrological element, each part is preceded by a star chart, and each chapter's title expresses a stellar relation. The plot is as intricate as a galaxy of constellations, and the moments when, finally, we are able to draw lines of connection and consequence between characters and events feel a little like it does when a figure in the sky satisfyingly coheres from a random smattering of stars.

The narrative invites comparison between the author's patterning of events and the "clockwork orchestration" of stellar and planetary motion, but it is an uneasy parallel.

When Scottish Walter Moody first arrives in Hokitika he struggles to orient himself under the unfamiliar sky with its inverted constellations, and eventually finds Canis Major "hanging like a dead dog from a butcher's hook". "There was something very sad about it, Moody thought. It was as if the ancient patterns had no meaning here."

The Luminaries may be an attempt to reassert the relevance of these "ancient patterns" - or at least to revel in their poetic possibilities - but in many ways this mathematical structure feels arbitrary and imposed, however cleverly conceived and pleasingly executed.

This is especially and uncomfortably the case when we consider the novel's explicitly colonial context. There is another, Maori, cosmology native to the place, which the narrative invokes only occasionally - enough to show some awareness of a different understanding of the stars but presenting no real challenge to the dominant pattern.

Catton has a talent for drawing characters swiftly, with sharply observed action. There is Charlie Frost the bank clerk, for instance, who resentfully supports his financially ruined parents back in England:

He shredded their letters into spills for lighting his cigars, cutting the pages lengthwise so as to occlude their import absolutely; the spills he burned with great indifference.

Joe Pritchard is one of the least convincing characters, yet the description of his thirst for "the underlying truth" of things sparkles:

Whenever the subterranean waters of his mind were disturbed, he plunged inward, and struggled downward - kicking strongly, purposefully, as if he wished to touch the mineral depths of his own dark fantasies, as if he wished to drown.

At its best, The Luminaries invites us to dive with him into the alchemical, unpredictable waters of imagination.

The Luminaries
By Eleanor Catton
Granta, 832pp, $29.99

Kirsten Tranter's most recent novel is A Common Loss.

Source: Theaustralian

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