The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton.

The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto. 2013. Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F;07/14.

It’s a certain kind of author that produces a book that must have required her to work from a very complicated diagram of characters and events. And it’s a certain kind of reader that rubs his hands together in anticipation of figuring such a thing out. I’m not one of those, but fortunately for me having started this long book there is in it enough charm and style to hold interest, and even convince somebody who can’t be bothered to keep flipping back to who did what when, that the diagram is supposed not completely and neatly to hang together. This story is in the Infinite Jest and A Book of Memories genre although not in their league, but I can certainly see why it won the (Man Booker) prize, and I liked it, mostly.

Catton obviously loves with deep but gentle irony the old 19th-century environment she’s chosen and the wild and woolly little gold rush town where the whole madly complex story rolls out. She manipulates the gears controlling a hundred moving parts of an orrery of the day complex enough to make indistinct the boundary between its mechanical guts and the shallow style of spiritualism it might be trying to mimic. Playful-serious astrology and communion with the dead in a séance don’t cut to the quick for most of us, but then a suggestion of secular transubstantiation reaching deep into the plot seems  for me closer to a familiar world as the two main (male and female) characters involuntarily influence one another.

I alternated between fascination and annoyance with the plot and archaic peekaboo involving at least 20 characters, a dozen of whom are an eclectic group at the start of the story which has assembled to try to make sense of a series of bizarre events featuring a mysterious death, a pretty opium-addicted prostitute, an ex-convict sea captain, a sly manipulative fortune-telling madame, and a huge fortune in gold (I couldn’t pin down the modern value of the 4000 pounds worth of “colour” but considering other statements of value it seemed to be in the millions of modern dollars). Uber-protagonist Moody stumbles on the jury of men and makes of the pat twelve a sinister thirteen.

So what happens? It’s hinted at, then told in part, then pulled to pieces again and addressed in flash-back sequence, and finally I think divulged at the very end. But still when I googled what went on most of the blog conversations ended in question marks.  The gold gets sewn into a lady’s dresses, shipped around in trunks on sailing vessels, melted down and made into ingots, promised and revoked, lost and found. The details of the plot form around the influence that the origin, covert transportation, inheritance, hiding, turning up, disappearance, and eventually distribution of all that golden money has on all those people. Pretty hard to to resist that kind of stuff  as the success of a hundred TV series proves.

I like Eleanor Catton’s post-modern unsentimental psychological description which you’d never find in Dickens or Eliot and you don’t get on network TV either. Moody is very familiar with his reflection in the mirror. But lest we take the characters and ourselves too seriously, their names provide a more archaic style of insight. Moody. Wells, Mannering, Shepard, Carver, Frost.

Moody the lawyer discusses his profession’s version of the contingent nature of truth. There is no whole truth, only all the truth pertinent to the matter at hand. The pertinent truth of this book reminds me of The Hours: Edwardian people and events seen multiply in a postmodern way through (or past) the modern stream of Joyce and Woolf. But if an author can manage to hint at some respectable and generally-accepted truth, it makes me happy that we are nudged a bit to wonder about metaphysics. Writing fiction, that doesn’t occur by mistake.

Why isn’t The Luminaries one of my best-of-all-time favourites? I guess I wanted Eleanor Catton’s recursive messages to look close to effortless like Cunningham’s or Ondaatje’s. I hope she keeps at it and develops that ability, or maybe shows she could’ve, and doesn’t. 8.7/8.7.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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