Delicious descriptions: More on Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

Rightly or wrongly, I try to keep my reviews to a reasonable length. When they start creeping up to 1200 words, I worry that readers will be discouraged from reading. There’s so much to read out there – so many books, so many blogs, so many articles. And so, when my review of The luminaries started to close in on 1100 words, I decided that it was time to stop. There’s always my Delicious Descriptions series I thought …

So here I am. I’m going to introduce my follow-up with another character description, this time of the young banker:

Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently. The air of cryptic strategy with which he often spoke was not manufactured, though he was entirely sensible of its effects; it came, rather, out of a fundamental blindness to all experience exterior to his own. Frost did not know how to listen to himself as if he were somebody else; he did not know how to see the world from another man’s eyes; he did not know how to contemplate another man’s nature, except to compare it, either enviously or pitiably, to his own. He was a private hedonist, perennially wrapped up in the cocoon of his own senses, mindful, always, of the things he already possessed, and the things he had yet to gain; his subjectivity was comprehensive, and complete.

An important aspect of the novel I omitted in my review was its relationship to the 19th century Victorian novel. I just couldn’t do it justice in a few words … Since writing my review, I’ve been roaming around blogs and reviews, reading various responses. I’m finding a fascinating array of ideas: it’s rich, it’s hollow, it’s tedious, it’s exciting, it’s innovative … and so on. Many discuss this 19th century novel aspect – and one of the issues raised is Catton’s characterisation. Some suggest, as I have too in other reviews, that the novelist should show not tell. They argue that Catton’s character descriptions, such as the one above, do too much telling. They don’t like it. I don’t see it that way, though. For me, it’s a matter of what you show and what you tell. No amount of her “showing” me Charlie Frost would result in my being able to describe his character the way she has here. I’m more than happy to read such delicious descriptions as this, and then watch the character acting it out.

Catton also invokes other stylistic features of the Victorian novel – the coincidences, the red herrings, the mixed identities, the large cast of characters, the gritty realism, and the omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator. Is Catton being anachronistic or has she offered a fresh take? I feel the latter. For one thing, there is no clear protagonist until, perhaps, towards the end when the chapters shorten and the focus narrows to the two who we realise are the luminaries. That’s a subversion of expectations. Maybe it’s this that creates the problem.  With no protagonist for us to hang our hat on, we feel adrift, uncertain. We thought the stranger, Walter Moody, would be our protagonist but he disappears midway after the trial. Furthermore, Victorian novels tend to have clear moral arguments. This novel has themes and moral concerns, but the conclusion does not, really, resolve them. That’s not particularly subversive, but it is more modern.

Another way Catton has nodded to the 19th century tradition is through using descriptive chapter summaries to open each chapter, as in “In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika …”. You need, with this book, to be a reader who reads such details. Some readers tend to ignore  features like chapter headings, seeing them as superfluous, but in The luminaries you ignore them at your peril. As the novel draws to a close, the “in which” chapter summaries become longer as the chapters themselves, following her waning-moon astrological structure, become shorter. By the last few chapters, these so-called summaries contain information that is not further elaborated in the chapter itself. If you don’t read them, you miss some plot. I liked this playing with the form, this reminder that the book is a holistic thing. It, too, is subversive.

However, I mustn’t be too holier than thou, because I didn’t put the effort into understanding the astrological charts, which represent another nod to the 19th century (though not so much to the 19th century novel.) As I understand it, astrology, an ancient school of thought, experienced a resurgence in the 19th century after being generally discarded during the 17th-18th centuries’ Age of Enlightenment (or Reason). Goethe, no less, was an enthusiast, as was, later in the century, Jung. For me, though, reading all the text in the novel is one thing; leaving the novel to go research astrological signs and their meanings is a whole different ball-game. If such knowledge added meaning to the novel, then I’m afraid I missed it.

All this brings us to one question. Why did Catton choose to write her novel in this style? Is it riff, pastiche, reworking, or homage? I’m not sure, but it sure seems to have got a lot of people talking. As for me … I’m still puzzling!

PS One of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of the novel is by Julian Novitz in the Sydney Review of Books.