Serious fiction? Waste of time? Who cares?October 19, 2015
Eleanor Catton’s historical fiction book THE LUMINARIES is a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek parody of the overblown, overwritten, melodramatic 19th-century novel and a page-turning murder mystery, to boot. Like the gold it’s written about, the book dazzles the reader with a head-spinning array of characters and a running commentary on the darker aspects of humanity—as you’d expect. It is, after all, set during a gold rush.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, THE LUMINARIES employs the quainter, more theatrical conventions of the era it portrays. This makes it at once a fascinating read and a difficult one. At the worst, we realize how grateful we ought to be to Hemingway and his ilk for giving us the unembellished sentence. The best contemporary writing focuses our attention on characters and plot rather than on the writing itself; our eye can fly across the page. This book’s deliberately ponderous style slows us down, bogging us down in detail, much of it extraneous. At best, however, we can delight in Catton’s lush descriptions and exquisite turns of phrase, knowing that her ornamentation is conscious, and sly.
Taking place during 1865-66, THE LUMINARIES begins with a tableau: twelve men meet in the smoking lounge of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, NZ, to try to unravel the mystery surrounding a digger’s death, a prostitute’s apparent attempted suicide, a wealthy prospector’s disappearance, and the sudden appearance of a large amount of gold that everyone, it seems, lays claim to. The arrival of the thireenth man, attorney Walter Moody, is an accident—a fortuitous one, it turns out—but his objective point of view inspires the men to confide in him, each telling him the story of his own involvement in the narrative, and, in the end, inviting him to judge.
It’s not an easy book to get into. I first began reading it a year ago, but abandoned it 100 pages in, lost in the crowd of characters, none of whom I’d come to care about or could even keep track of. When I realized that THE LUMINARIES was intended as a parody, however, I began again eagerly, taking pleasure in the feeling of being “in” on a clever literary joke.
Not everyone feels this way.
“A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art,” critic David Sexton writes of the book in the London Evening Standard.
Kristy Gunn, in The Guardian, complains that THE LUMINARIES, for all its 834-page heft, weighs nothing in the end. None of it, she writes—not the characters, not the story, not the astrological charts Catton uses throughout—means anything.
To some extent, I agree. When we’ve turned the final page, we are left with no bigger questions to ponder and no deep observations to make. That may be the point of the book, if there is one. Near the book’s end, when we’re enmeshed in certain crises, we suddenly find them resolved summarily and our attention turned to new dramas. None of it, for all our interest, ever mattered much at all. Then again, what does, in this life? The question
seems as provocative a takeaway as any book might offer.
Here lies the secret to enjoying this great, sprawling tome of a book. Like the participants in the séance given by the canny widow Lydia Wells, readers can best approach THE LUMINARIES with a twinkle in the eye and a willingness to sit back and enjoy the show. The book is entertaining, clever, and gorgeously written. It reminds us how far we in the West have come, ethically, and how far we have to go. It offers a thrillingly complex plot, a riveting courtroom drama, and a moving, ultimately satisfying love story.
“The pages fly, the great weight of the book shifting quickly from right hand to left, a world opening and closing in front of us, the human soul revealed in all its conflicted desperation. I mean glory,” writes Bill Roorbach in the New York Times. THE LUMINATIES is an exhilarating ride of a tale best enjoyed and savored—but, like life itself, not taken too seriously. We are, in the end, all fools—and you know what that makes our gold.
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