A Constellation of Vital Phenomena?

FA Luminaries FA review tag

According to a seemingly sensible blog on astrology, Eleanor Catton was a shoe-in to win the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her second novel The Luminaries. Born in late September 1985 when the “Sun is conjunct Mercury in Libra,” Catton’s “destiny indicator” should have tipped off those making wagers at Ladbrokes that her “destiny based on prior life talents was about to blossom.”

It’s quite amazing when you think about it. Catton was born in 1985! And this is her second novel! The astrology stuff is pretty interesting too.

Eleanor Catton’s tender age and exceptional abilities establish her as someone who is quite literally peerless. If there was a “1 under 30” list, she would be the one. The Luminaries — one of the novels that made 2013 an incredible year for women authors, and a great candidate for your #ReadWomen2014 plans — is an ambitious book, and worth marveling at for the sheer effort that must have gone into its construction.  The question is whether the effort it takes to read the novel and navigate by its complicated cosmology comes to anything, or is even intended to come to anything, in the end.

I like complicated books, and I have no beef with ambiguous endings. But Catton hangs so much on the systems of The Luminaries that it’s difficult to accept that her machine may actually produce nothing, and it’s meant to be satisfying to watch its beautiful gears turn for 800 pages. There could be plenty of meaning I’m not able to detect, since I don’t know anything about astrology and don’t understand what is being communicated when a section is titled “Venus in Capricorn” or “Mercury in Sagittarius.” I just move on with the story.

Or I would if the story of The Luminaries wasn’t also tightly strapped to the wheel of the Zodiac. Each of Catton’s characters is given an astrological assignment, 12 “Stellar,” seven “Planetary,” and one dead man who is “Terra Firma.” The Planetary characters also have a corresponding “Related Influence,” such as Reason; Desire; Restriction, etc. The descriptions Catton grants each Stellar character, which at first appear to be deft sketches, turn out to be the general qualities of each individual’s Zodiac sign. As the story moves along (not always ahead, mind you), the 12 chapters are progressively cut in half. Chapter 1 is 360 pages. Chapter 2 runs to 180. And so on. By the twelfth chapter, the pages, and the amount of writing on those pages, has dwindled down to almost nothing. They wane completely into darkness.

FA ELEANOR CATTON

Is the Man Booker prize given in the form of Apple TV?

Within all this structure and complication, the plot itself moves along comfortably familiar paths. I was pulled through it forcefully on the strength of a good, old fashioned mystery. Catton’s rendering of the late 1800s New Zealand gold town of Hokitika is a grand blend of grit and wonder. If it weren’t for the sense that all of the events are supposed to mean something more, it would be a serviceable nod to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, set in the New Zealand gold rush.

But if the events are proceeding at the whims of celestial forces, it is hard to see humanity in action. We give meaning to the stars to bring them closer to us. But taking our meaning from them can create distance here on Earth. The heartbreak, betrayal, resentment and reconciliation we come across — what do they matter if it’s only fate?

It is possible that there are deeper riches hidden in the complex schematics of The Luminaries. But it is also possible that there is nothing there are all. Maybe Eleanor Catton wrote an extraordinary novel to win the Man Booker prize at the age of 28, or maybe it was just written in the stars.

– Michael Moats

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