My Deeply Imperfect Recollection of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries

(SPOILER ALERT) So there is a fortune, a literal fortune in gold that a guy (call him Guy #1) dug up. Before too long, the fortune gets stolen and smuggled to a second location, but lost on the way. A hooker finds the loot (it’s complicated), but she may not know that (1) she found a fortune; (2) she is a hooker. Subsequently a Chinese fortune-seeker (Guy #5—there are a lot of guys) finds and steals the fortune while the hooker is passed out from drugs. In a weird illegible moment that follows, the money is stolen by another guy (Guy #2), and buried.

(STILL IN SPOILER ALERT) For a brief moment, Guy #1 has the money again, but he is not doing so well, and yep now he’s dead. Another guy (Guy #3) gets the money (rumors swirl that he might have been involved with Guy #1 prior to the intercession of Guy #2). Discussions about testate law occur. At some point, the idea emerges among various interested parties (there are several parties) of Let’s give half the money to the hooker.

(STILL NOT DONE SPOILING) So then there is a trial and somehow the money goes back to Guy #2. The second guy is mostly a sweetheart (he was missing and presumed dead for a while, but it turns out he was just really high on opium and wandered off). Anyway this Guy #2 is mostly fine but he is not really a character but more like a half of this fallen women/rising man Piscean monad, along with the hooker/not-a-hooker (they’re in love, you might have guessed). There are also all these Guys 4 through 17 or so, at least half of whom are also in love with the pseudo-hooker (“Her wretchedness was, she knew, extremely reassuring”). There is some monkey business and one of the guys bashes in the skull of another prominent guy.

(ALMOST DONE I PROMISE) All of the foregoing is related backwards, starting right about the moment where Guy #1 dies via a julienned hash of perspectives courtesy Guys 2 through n. Guy #1 mostly is dead, although he does get to say a few things at the end, which is actually the beginning. Probably you could revisit these events and find a different route to the end, like a relatively easy maze.

(LAST THING) But so all of the combinations of scenes and characters that make up the novel have been determined by a star chart from 1865-66, with each guy a Zodiac sign, and the other characters are planetary signs, and it turns out that Guy #1 was “Earth” (get it, because he’s dead and buried and also he dug up the gold). But when Guy #10 (Capricorn) has a weird, mostly pointless conversation with the character who represents Venus, it’s because of the star chart. Also, get it, it’s like fortune has two meanings or really just the one, but it’s not the one we started with. (OK, DONE)

All of the preceding is my deeply imperfect recollection of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winner The Luminaries, and probably contains at least one misremembering of what happens in the book. That said, it’s mostly what happens in the book. I am fairly sure that you could start the novel seconds after reading five paragraphs of spoilers and not have your experience diminished one bit.

Part of the considerable pleasure of Eleanor Catton’s acclaimed second novel is working out the relationships between characters and their corresponding symbolic freight. A chart at the very front spells out the symbolism, and a star map at the beginning of each of the twelve chapters gives a crude map of how the signs will interact in the pages that follow.

But short of flashcard-drilling, no reader will be able to juggle the symbolic with the literal in real time. Over the course of twelve progressively shorter parts—the first is the length of a novel unto itself—Catton unfolds a chopped-and-screwed Victorian potboiler set in the New Zealand Gold Rush of the 1860s. The story flirts briefly with mysticism and ghosts, but ultimately resolves into a comparatively buttoned-down revenge-murder-mystery. The fortune hinted at above amounts to an inside-out MacGuffin. It’s just a pile of gold, really, as the narrator tells us: “Gold was not a treasure… Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory: its drift was always onward, away from the past.”

Catton’s imagination and control are dazzling. She expertly reproduces the style and tone of a classic nineteenth century novel’s omniscient narrator, right down to the serial-style pre-caps at the head of each of the book’s twelve parts:

In which Anna Wetherell, lost to meditation, tallies her obligations, a project that gives rise to such disconsolation that her mind averts its eye, so to speak, and casts about for another, lighter subject, alighting, inevitably, upon the smiling, bright-eyed form of Emery Staines.

But the traditional, mannered voice is paired with a distinct postmodern structure. The book funnels toward an end, each of its twelve parts shorter than the last.  The “In which” self-summary for Part XII runs 232 words; the part’s lone chapter itself is ninety-five words.

Catton doesn’t lack for traditional dramatic muscle as a novelist, as she manipulates a small army of characters deftly. Even minor characters are sometimes favored with insightful and rewarding lines like, “Charlie Frost was no great observer of human nature, and as a consequence, felt betrayed by others very frequently.”

The author is deeply at home with the rudiments of a novel: character, sustained plotting, a thorough plot. This represents a marked improvement from her brilliant but stifling debut, The Rehearsal, a book that’s nearly as hard to read as it is to summarize. The Rehearsal was Catton’s MFA thesis, a set of plays within plays loosely spurred by the alleged molestation of a student by a Mr. Saladin.

This faint plot is mostly a prod for Catton to power through scales and riffs, which she does with both humor and blazing insight. In more than just its title, Catton’s first book was a practice round for The Luminaries. It plays with the same shuffled chronologies and layered plotting. The first novel also evinces some of the same fascinations with telling, re-telling, and gradually remaking the same tale. But as a whole, The Rehearsal is a chore, an unpolished jumble of potential.

The Luminaries is a far more accomplished entertainment, and infinitely more enjoyable to read. There is a cinematic sprawl here: A rugged slice of coast crawls with gold-crazed Victorians in muddy waistcoats, murder and moral turpitude ensue. In fact a television adaptation is already in the works, and it’s easy to see why. The book will show up well on screen—something like a New Zealand Deadwood spiced with the lite mysticism of True Detective.

The Luminaries is slated for development as a series, not a one-off feature, and with good reason. It would be impossible to fit all of the characters and contortions of plot into even a three-hour film. Simply outlining the origami’d plot takes a solid five minutes. But 832 pages can hold more than a great many words, and the tale sags noticeably in the middle. Readers who love structural pyrotechnicality may hardly mind the shaggy length and occasional droughts of meaning. Catton’s Victorian voice-throwing, studded with parenthetical asides and £5 adjectives, occasionally underscores just how little is actually going on, and turns things into a bit of a slog.

The use of the star chart to shape the plotting is a nifty trick—in the right light it scans as a feat of synthetic naturalism. But in the midst of the sloggy parts, wondering why Capricorn and Venus need to have this entre nous, the plot-by-astrology can feel gimmicky. The Luminaries is a great bit of craft, by any standard, oversaturated with literary invention. At points, all that invention can stagger under its own weight. The richness will be its own reward for some readers, while others will toss Catton’s tome to the side. Even chucking the book will produce a resonant thud.

This duality—simultaneous success and failure—is a higher irony of The Luminaries, which announces itself from the very beginning as concerned with “the Age of Pisces, an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” The book is at once brilliant and suffocating—though the brilliance outweighs the airlessness. The accolades showered on The Luminaries can be debated, but there is no denying that it’s a substantial achievement. This is a remarkable performance for a writer still shy of age thirty, neither haute-pulp nor didactic, a novel with a satisfying, bardic roundness. The Luminaries amazes, frustrates, bores, and comes very close to a triumph. You have to admire Catton’s ingenuity, even when you can’t keep up with it.

Pete Beatty lives in a part of Brooklyn that is not cool or sexy.