This 848-Page Novel Is Arranged Around the Signs of the Zodiac. It Totally Works.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 12:45 PM

What’s Your Sign?

A big, ambitious novel of 19th-century New Zealand with astrology at its heart.

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Throughout, an authorial voice chimes in to assist, warn, and regret. Part of its function is to force the novel’s parts rather blatantly into line: “We shall here excise their imperfections … we shall apply our own mortar to the cracks and chinks of earthly recollection, and resurrect as new the edifice that, in solitary memory, exists only as a ruin.” The “we” is hugely contrived, but then contrivance is what The Luminaries rests on. Lunar cycles mandate the narrative’s return it to its beginning; a full year of star charts races the last quarter of the novel through 1865; even the name “Hokitika,” which in Maori means, approximately, “Around. And then back again, beginning” is unequivocal. The introductory “Note to the Reader” (another period nod) even lays out the plot’s themes, associating it with the Age of Pisces and things “Piscean” in quality: “mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” Not just contrivance, but highly visible contrivance, underlies everything: Unlike, say, Bolaño’s similarly lengthy 2666, The Luminaries contains—nay, advertises—the keys to its own exposition.

Novelist Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal
Eleanor Catton

Robert Catto

The question this raises is what effect such structural contrivances have on a reader’s pleasure—whether what we call “novel” and especially “big, ambitious novel,” is supposed to exist at the level of plot, or sentence, or on this third, impositional plane. Yes, Catton’s language is beautifully tended-seeming, luminous in a mode appropriate to the 19th century cadence of her tale. There are no sloppy sentences, nothing that strikes one as unintentional or out of her control. Her observations too are astute, as when two men at a party bear “the distant, slightly disappointed aspect of one who is comparing the scene around him, unfavourably, to other scenes, both real and imagined, that have happened, and are happening, elsewhere.” So it’s possible to read the book with pleasure strictly on the level of what one might call its “literary merits”—or it would be, if only its author would let you.

She doesn’t. Neither are we allowed to fully engage on the level of characters or plot—the astrological contrivance is too shifty for that. Moody, for instance, represented by the planet Mercury, is initially placed to be a kind of go-between with the reader, following, as he does, just slightly behind the “stellar” players as they explain their involvement in events; Thomas Balfour (Sagittarius), a shipping magnate, seems set up as our central “explainer.” But then the heavens shift, Mercury moves out of Balfour’s sign, and these two are flipped offstage like figures in a paper theater while others pop up to replace them. In fact, once the structural conceit becomes apparent, every detail of the novel glows with such intention that it almost blinds you to the pleasures of story. One becomes obsessive: Is the divider, the Greek letter Φ, used for its symbolic affinity to the golden mean? Or does it stand for the constellation Ophiuchus, sometimes called the 13th zodiac sign? Catton never allows you to relinquish the impression that there are answers to be found, and that like a crossword, the novel might be no more than a sophisticated amusement.

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Whether one appreciates this point is the question that emerges, in its sly, interesting way, in and through the novel’s pseudoscientific groundwork. How and why, when so much care is manifest, do we feel manhandled? Do subjective responses suffer when an author—or the cosmos, in this case—dictates every element of the work to the point that even after 848 pages both character and plot can be drowned out by their own determinant structure? As in astrology, these questions have to do with relation, primarily that between the “warm” pleasure of emotional engagement and the “cool” pleasure of a game—pleasure as activity versus pleasure as state. That Catton has provided a “solution” to her novel might strike some as diminishing its ability to generate the jagged thrill of the big (usually male-penned) novels it draws comparison to by virtue of sheer bulk—Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses say, or indeed 2666. It may, by virtue of this, seem far less “serious” or worthy.

Catton, when The Luminaries was first published, was 27, and when I mention this to my group of 30-ish, novel-less peers, the reaction generally takes the form of whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is: from ugh and oh … so I hate her, to she’s the child of someone famous, and rich, and went to a fancy school, right? These are ugly, unfair (and some will inevitably say sexist) reactions, but ugly or not, they are worth acknowledging, and not entirely irrelevant either, it so happens. Because jealous displeasure with Catton’s age-to-successes ratio stems from the same root as our discomfort with something as perfectly formed as her novel: a longing, in the midst of being impressed, for that truth inhabited by things spontaneous, ragged-edged, wounded, or imperfect, for things that are granted the freedom to fail. This is the point The Luminaries makes, in the end, having gone so far to the other extreme—its seamlessness delivers us around, and then back again. Perhaps, as Catton’s Emery Staines explains, “True feeling is always circular—either circular or paradoxical—simply because its cause and its expression are two halves of the very same thing!” That’s because it is people who both make novels and feel things about them—and while we might be conceived in chaos, we tell ourselves stories so as not to be.

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Little, Brown.

Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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