by Daniel AlarcónBuy at Powell’s »
Rachel Fershleiser: Before I started The Luminaries, all I knew about it was that it was very, very long and had recently won the Booker. I also thought it was called The Lumineers until maybe yesterday.
I had a vague sense that it would be difficult, deeply intellectual, and abstractly philosophical. That if I didn’t like it, it would be because I didn’t get it, and the commenters would call me a stupid internet girl and we could all go home.
Instead, The Luminaries is an immensely old-fashioned book. It is a Dead White Guy book. (Yes, I know who wrote it. We’ll get to that.) It’s the story of gold prospectors in New Zealand in the 1860s, Moby-Dickish in its attention to the minutia of shipping containers and captain’s logs, goldsmithing and banking and estate-sale commissions.
It opens with 12 men having a secret meeting in a hotel smoking room to discuss some nefarious goings-on in their town: a dead hermit, a prostitute arrested for attempting suicide, a missing gold field owner. Each, we soon learn, has been asked here because he’s involved in some way—a sort of gold-rush Clue: The Movie.
In turn, each man’s story is told, but not before we’ve been given a full physical description and 2-3 assertions about his character. “Clinch was a tall man, forty-three years of age, with sandy-coloured hair and a harmless, pleasant look. He wore an imperial moustache, greased at the tips, a handsome accessory that had not silvered at the same rate as his hair—which was likewise greased, parted in the middle, and cut to the level of his earlobes. He had apple-shaped cheeks, a reddish nose, and a blunted profile.”
The men speak of finding connexions, of going to gaol, they say “D—n you!” when they “utter an oath.” In fact, they utter an “oath” no fewer than 26 times, according to my ebook search function, which pale beside the 48 times something happens “presently.” Each chapter opens with an “In which” preface, in which we learn that exposition and explanation will be far more central to this narrative than characters that breathe or writing that sweeps a reader away.
I read a lot of what we’ve come to call “literary mysteries.” I love a murder as catalyst for a story that’s really about the ultimate unknowability of truth, how we can never fully understand the inner world of another person, or even know what we ourselves are capable of.
I think that’s what Eleanor Catton was going for here. She has her characters announce as much, with lines like “Gentlemen, I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths—and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective.”
But she tells us what she means without showing it in the story. During the action, important discoveries come about like this: “Suddenly Balfour realised that Lauderback knew exactly the nature of the twinkle by which Frank Carver had him tied. He could not have explained how he arrived at this sudden realisation—but all at once, he knew.”
In my experience, this is not what it feels like to unravel a complicated situation. We don’t sit down, two by two, admitting small transgressions to each other until, by George, the right number of pages have passed. Life is messy. The Luminaries is not.
The structure, then, is what makes this book special. It opens with a note about the stellar and planetary positions vis-a-vis astrology and the vernal equinox and a character chart listing 12 places, seven “related influences”, and 20 people, of whom two are women: the mistress and the whore. Next comes a hand-drawn star chart, plotting men against signs of the zodiac. The whole thing is impressive. If it sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, I think it’s fair to say faint praise is what I have for this novel. It’s not bad. It’s not even boring. It’s well-constructed.
Hill William is about growing up in rural West Virginia. It’s about boys, and how boys kill deer, throw rocks at each other, do drugs, and look at porn. It is no closer to passing The Bechdel Test than The Luminaries.
It’s a slim small-press book in every implication of the phrase. Just over 200 pages with an unusual trim size and wide margins, it’s episodic and plotless, an inextricable mix of fiction and memoir, with a narrator who shares the author’s first name and frames the stories. The style is usually straightforward—the opening sentence is “I used to hit myself in the face.” At times it becomes strangely grandiose: “She started crying, except she was still trying to smile and show me that nothing was wrong. She was smiling and crying at the same time like her face couldn’t decide whether to cry or smile. I knew this was the story of the world.”
But Hill William feels alive. It is violent and visceral and dark as fuck. It chronicles the becoming of the kind of people who don’t usually become people who write books: very poor and very rural—the hillbillies of the title’s pun.
Most of what happens in Hill William is deeply ugly—a lot of “faggot” and “cocksucker,” a lot of broken bones and tortured animals, a lot of sexual abuse of both boys and girls, perpetrated both against and by our protagonist. I wouldn’t say I liked this book. But the things that happened felt honest and earned, played for realism more than shock value and not without indelible repercussions.
After making news for being the youngest-ever Booker winner, Eleanor Catton did so again for “lashing out” at male critics, saying they treat young female writers unfairly and unseriously. Believe me when I say: I could not agree more. I am starving for more widely acclaimed books by young women, taking up the causes and ideas that are important to us, expressing our humanity, our lived experience, what we think about and know to be true. I just have a really hard time reconciling that desire with a fussy book about men and their money and their honor and their prostitutes and their ships. Catton can and should write about whatever she likes, but I’ve read about these guys before. I want to read something new.
I wish I had loved one of these books. I wish I had a real you-must-drop-everything-and-read-this-immediately horse in this race. Instead I have a sense that my choice is between the archaic and the untamed, which brings to mind a line from McClanahan: “And sometimes, I think to myself that the mountains look like graves, and then at other times I say, no, they’re not graves, but pregnant bellies, full of babies, waiting to be born. Who the fuck knows?”
John: So, that Scott McClanahan sure stirred the pot on the opening day of the Tournament by apparently trying to “drop out” of the Rooster via a cryptic Facebook post. I think we were all scratching our heads over it, and anyone who remains curious can check out the recap from former ToB judge Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times. Because of the incident, today’s judgment may rile some of the commentariat, but we should note that Judge Fershleiser made her call weeks ago. And besides, even if she hadn’t, so what? McClanahan was a little rude, I suppose, but we expect our judges to choose the book that best speaks to them in the way they like books to speak to them.
Kevin: I’m still not sure what McClanahan meant to say on Facebook, or even if he was serious, but it doesn’t really matter. An author doesn’t get to choose his critics, and as it happens, he got a favorable one today. So he won’t get his wish, if that’s what it was, to be dropped from the Tournament: this is an upset that will make neither writer happy.
Several weeks ago, I was watching a figure skating final in the Sochi Olympics. The skater who won the bronze medal performed his routine flawlessly. The skater who won the silver medal stumbled while trying to land a difficult jump. The skater who won the gold medal fell on his ass. Twice.
The explanation given for the upside-down scoring was that the skater who won the gold attempted a more difficult routine than the others. I said to myself (OK, I shouted at the TV), “It must have been a very difficult routine. BECAUSE HE COULDN’T DO IT!” I could go to Sochi and fail to successfully perform all manner of quadruple toe-whats. Would that get me on a Wheaties box? I do not understand figure skating. (”It’s not a skating competition anymore. It’s math.”)
Each year we discuss a first-round matchup with what appears to be “a gravitas gap,” where one writer is perceived to have more ambition, to have attempted a novel with a greater degree of difficulty. I think anyone just looking at these two books would give the nod in this category to The Luminaries. If, for some reason, you wanted to fuse all the pages of Hill William permanently together, I believe you could do this simply by placing The Luminaries on top of Hill William while you microwaved a Hot Pocket in an adjacent kitchen.
And yet Hill William survives.
I don’t want to give the impression that Eleanor Catton, while attempting to write a more demanding novel, fell on her ass in any way. I actually think The Luminaries is an excellent book. In fact, I preferred it just slightly over Hill William, which I also enjoyed. But Judge Fershleiser describes eloquently why she preferred the tighter and more perfectly executed novel by Scott McClanahan.
Although I liked The Luminaries, I’ll also admit to being worn down a bit by its shagginess. I actually put it aside three different times to read three other books before completing it. I never wanted to give up—I enjoyed coming back to it every time—but much of it consists exclusively of long conversations between a seemingly endless series of, as Judge Fershleiser calls them, “dead white guys.” (If you are attempting to read The Luminaries, all at once or in sections like I did, Book Riot’s Greg Zimmerman has generously made his reading notes on the novel public. Very helpful for keeping track of the characters and events.) Still, Catton is a lovely writer with truly impressive vision, and her world creation here was very convincing to me. I enjoyed spending, well, almost an entire month (off and on) in her version of old New Zealand. I just needed to take a few side trips for R&R while I was there.
In past years, the books on the heavy side of the gravitas gap have mostly sailed through the early rounds. But as Herb Brooks (who once coached Team USA in an Olympic ice sport I actually do understand) said in the movie Miracle, “If we played ‘em 10 times they might win nine...But not tonight.”
John: While writing this commentary, I ran across an essay from Eleanor Catton about “literature and elitism.” Catton challenges the notion held by certain readers that if they don’t understand a book, it is “elitist”—which, it almost goes without saying, must be a bad thing, because why would someone be using words other people don’t know unless she wanted to show off? Catton is both sharp and wise on this question, and ties these attitudes to the consumerization of our culture, where everything is a product meant to fulfill a specific need: if that need isn’t met, the problem is in the product, not the consumer.
As Catton argues, “These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion—not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.”
When a book does not bring pleasure, rather than revealing something about the character of the reader, it is evidence of a book’s shortcomings. To question this is to question our own identities, our own self-worth.
This attitude is not particularly new, but as Catton suggests, it is perhaps exacerbated by Amazon, Goodreads, and reducing our feelings about novels to ratings.
Kevin: The event that instigated the Catton essay was a Paris Review reader who objected on Twitter to a writer’s use of the word “crepuscular.” Because the reader didn’t know what this word meant, he/she accused the author of being elitist. I was rather shocked to find out that this reader was from New Zealand, as I had considered the phenomenon of calling someone elitist whenever you are embarrassed by your ignorance to be a defining characteristic of post-Palin America. In any event, an hour or so after you first directed me to Catton’s essay, I sat down to begin Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. And there it was on page one: “Crepuscular.”
Fortunately, I did not feel like Maazel was launching an elitist war on me because by that point I had known what that word meant for an entire 90 minutes.
John: I’ve long been in Catton’s camp. For the most part, when a book doesn’t connect with me, I usually believe it says more about me than the book. In the words of my grandmother, who I’m sure got them from someone else, “Only boring people are bored.”
All of this is prelude to saying that I didn’t read The Luminaries because I was worried that I wouldn’t “like” it. Catton remarks that literary art makes demands of its readers, and I never felt up to the demands of The Luminaries. When it won the Booker a spasm of obligation flashed through me, but I remember picking it up in the bookstore and realizing that it wasn’t going to happen. It felt like a betrayal, actually, because I like to think of myself as a “good” reader, someone who tries hard to participate in literary culture. I knew we’d be talking about it here and yet I couldn’t muster the energy I suspected the novel required of me.
I’m glad these novels exist, and I’m even happy to read some of them, but some of them offer climbs I’m not prepared to make.
Kevin: Laura Miller wrote an excellent companion commentary to Catton’s essay. Between the two of them they get very close to articulating a notion you and I have poked at for years during the ToB. The internet has made everyone into a reviewer, and while everyone knows the vernacular of the critic, they often employ it to different ends. A good critic is trying to tell you what she has learned about herself from the reading of a particular piece of literature. A bad reviewer is often trying to tell you how smart he is by declaring whether or not he liked a particular book. If he liked the book, then this is the kind of book a superior person likes, and vice versa. He might try to explain why he didn’t like it, but the review is really just a tautology. “I didn’t like this book because it is bad,” is equivalent to “This book is bad because I didn’t like it.”
By coincidence I happened to watch the amazing Johnny Knoxville-produced documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia right around the same time as I read Hill William. Both works did a similar thing for me: they managed to portray rural West Virginia as a bizarre alien landscape populated by people who frighten me, and then used that setting to make a cogent and shocking statement about what it means to live in contemporary America. (The movie does this with considerably more Hank Williams III and hillbilly tap dancing.)
Hill William is good stuff. It takes neither the dedication nor the mental RAM required by The Luminaries to be affected by it. Some readers will say that’s a bad thing. Others will prefer it, and Catton would urge you not to judge them.
John: It’s not as though Hill William makes no demands on its readers, but as you, me, and Judge Fershleiser have all noted, by virtue of its brevity, of its willingness to wear all of its emotions at sleeve level, the demands are less intense. I found it a powerful, visceral experience.