Booker Brilliance; theme song for the day

As everyone who loves literature probably knows, Eleanor Catton was awarded the Booker Prize this week, for The Luminaries. Google has you covered for most of that coverage, or @fergusvup on twitter, or Bookman Beattie’s blog.

As mentioned previously, The Luminaries was on my must-reads before it got longlisted, but since that time I actually found the reviews themselves diverting enough for me to delay reading the actual book, allowing myself more time to digest the discourse around the novel to inform my reading.

As with 90% of most media products, 90% of “reviews” were drek – just recycled clippings of basic facts: long and physically heavy (work-out jokes), 832 pages, astrological system, intricately unfolding murder mystery, gold rush 1800s Hokitika NZ. More recent reviews, since The Luminaries made the shortlist and won (I’m thinking New York Times, and an Irish or Scottish paper? They didn’t grab me enough to bother linking) were more suggestive in terms of big themes and import: the value of love versus gold, although unsurprisingly with a novel this length and complexity, any review struggles to encapsulate this adequately. As author of a soon-to-be published long novel, I know this; we ask potential readers to take a lot on faith.

Aside from a review via dialogue from two Victoria University students, as insightful as capering Shakespearian fools, there were a troika of reviews, below, that struck me as most interesting as critiques, and it comes largely down to the novel’s design.

Now, I pity poor Catton, in one regard, because the first question it seems she ever got asked in any interview was “Wow – long book. Why?” Her response, naturally was to explain it as a product of design almost outside her control, with the astrological necessities creating constraints for her to work to and the twelve chapters diminishing by half the previous as progressed, and so on… and she is clearly satisfied and proud with how this panned out (by which I join the bad-pun brigade, sorry), and spoke on this at length. This was picked up and became the defining aspect of the novel in the press; if she did discuss any of the import or themes of the book, it was dwarfed by the coverage given to the book’s structure. The consequence being, because of our media’s blaring, echo-chamber effect,  that this intricate design became the summation of that pernicious beast, the author’s intent – the question then being, is this architecture, however perfect, all there is to The Luminaries?

For me, I think Guy Somerset raised this question in review, himself dubious of the answer; CK Stead asked it in his own way and found the novel lacking (The original title was “All that glistens”, from memory); and KIrsty Gunn did the same but came out with an emphatic affirmative of the novel’s worth.

All of which makes me think it is a question worth asking. A good critique should arm the reader with the tools – the right questions – to dig into the field of the text and find their own answers; a good review should at least tip who would be likely to enjoy a book (and not in a snarky way, or don’t review it at all).

Since winning, Catton appears to have hit out at such reviews as Stead and Somerset. Putting aside the tone taken by individuals (a hard thing to ask of any author, I admit), the impression I received across the strata of reviews was the book might well be a glory-box: beautifully, artfully made, designed to hold treasure, and bore the name “glory”, without much exploration of whether it was empty or full. Perhaps a metaphor that suits the pseudo-Victorian style… It is, of course, impossible, now, to write a 19th Century sensation novel; is it possible to even ape that mode so perfectly that the thinking of an author 150 years distant doesn’t seep through? Catton has apparently done her research, and her skills and will are formidable enough, and her design arbitrary enough, that I suspect she would be one of the few able to do it: if she chose. If she chose to crop away the modern-day, couldn’t what’s left feel somewhat hollow?

So I have enjoyed reading the reviews, puzzling over the conundrum of the post-modern Victorian sensation novel before I happily, finally purchased The Luminaries as an e-book minutes after her win, to celebrate – $20, the most expensive e-book I’ve ever purchased, but I don’t hold with the notion of any new book hovering round the price of a coffee or a hamburger. And my reader tells me I’m 9% in, and it’s a slow start, but I get the sense so far not of a glory box, but a monumental pyramid, building, aloof, but not yet sun-dazzled like Pharoah’s, and already the depths are showing, the hint of secret passages and labyrinthine twists. How many slaves laboured for how many years, for such a feat? Just one, for three years. (My own, quite different, long project, will have spanned 10.)

Beyond the novel, success at the Booker has given Eleanor Catton a profile, and I hope she works hard to make it one that truly reflects the person she is, the things she values, her depth of thought. The mainstream media is trite, superficial, and loves gossip, even the erudite sectors. She has already, by her own admission, tripped up talking too loosely to journalists (New Zealand lacking a culture of reviewing, she said), and she has to decide how to use the power the spotlight brings. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has not written a novel since The God of Small Things, but used her profile to fight for justice and sovereignty in India – duly ignored by the mainstream media (see how quickly Catton would become “that crazy astrology lady” if she starts banging on too much on the wrong topic – say, the impact of industry on global warming).

This is all the more important in a year the Man Booker has decided to open itself up to all UK-published works in English. In doing so it is undeniable that this institution has an agenda, a “growth” path for itself, in the corporate model, and it doesn’t appear to involve widening the platform to expose writing talent or even more cash. The only motivation seems a vain hope to aggrandise itself as the anointer of one champion of the writing world. And so not only has Catton won the Booker prize, but the Man Booker has awarded itself a dazzling young star to spearhead its charge on the USA – hoping Americans will notice. For 50,000 pounds? I’m not sure who got the better bargain.

I do know that prizes, while a lottery when you get down to it (comparing apples with oranges and bananas) are invaluable to authors at all stages of their career. The awards for my extracts were hugely motivating and gave a sense of purpose in a pursuit where you have no empirical proof of performance or improvement, not like sportsfolk, or even worth – sometimes not even once you jump that “last” hurdle, getting published. We should be making more prizes, not heading towards a unification bout between the Booker and National Book Awards.

Locally, I hope someone as appealing and articulate as Eleanor Catton can make an impact on the fortunes of the NZ literary environment, at least lifting the profile of NZ writers, if not encouraging more funding. Given, the current government’s bullying approach to public intellectuals and culture, she could be just the person to take them on.

On that note, some Radiohead. (Because why wouldn’t you?)

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