The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I was in the Harvard Bookstore a little while ago (which, like, I know I mention it a lot, but I spend a totally normal amount of time in bookstores, not a weird, excessive amount of time, at all…), sort of wandering around the Fiction and Literature section, and I noticed a very pretty book with a bright blue cover and yellow letters.

It was called ‘The Luminaries‘, and I had never seen it before, and it was a big book, a hundreds of pages, and the weirdest part: it had won the Man Booker prize. It won the Man Booker in 2013, when I was hypothetically paying attention.

To be clear: prizes aren’t that big a deal. Prizes are merely the opinions of people, and so, like other opinions of people, they are a mixed bag. Some are better, some are worse. As prizes go, I like the Man Booker, especially since they expanded eligibility to include all English-language novels. A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but I think the Man Booker people reliably choose good and interesting books – I’m almost never left scratching my head over a Man Booker winner (which is NOT something can be said of the Pulitzer).

A prize is never a sufficient reason to read a book, but a Man Booker AND a really pretty cover? Why not?

So I bought ‘The Luminaries‘.

The Luminaries‘ is a murder mystery set in a gold rush town in the 19th century. En route to strike it rich in New Zealand’s gold rush, Walter Moody sees what he can only conclude is a ghost in a the hold of his ship the night before he makes land. Having a drink to calm his nerves in the smoking room of his hotel, he finds himself in the middle of secret meeting of local prospectors who have gotten together to puzzle over several strange, recent events.

Another local prospector, Crosbie Wells, a hermit working a useless claim, is found dead in his cabin, apparently of natural causes. However, when his cabin is examined, a fortune in pressed gold is found there. The richest man in town, Emery Staines, is missing. A prostitute, Anna Wetherell, has just tried to end her own life. And a gubernatorial candidate, Alistair Lauderback, seems to be in a dispute with the man who owns the very ship that Moody sailed in on. And the men in the smoking room of Moody’s hotel believe that all these events are connected.

If that sounds ornate and gothic, it is. Eleanor Catton has written a Victorian gothic novel, and then twisted it into something modern. She is clearly a student of the form – she clearly loves it – but her perspective is contemporary, and female.

She’s also a phenomenal writer. She’s got the gift of all great storytellers, the power of telling stories that make you completely forget that you’ve been sitting in your comfy chair in your jammies for two hours without moving and you can’t remember the last time you felt your legs and you have to pee. She has a particular gift for characterization: her character descriptions rise to the level of genius. They are complex and lovely and true-feeling, characters who seem somehow familiar while at the same time seeming unlike anyone you’ve ever met, someone utterly new and yet resonant.

“Walter Moody was not superstitious, though he derived great enjoyment from the superstitions of others, and he was not easily deceived by impression, though he took great care in designing his own. This owed less to his intelligence, however, than to his experience – which, prior to his departure for New Zealand, could be termed neither broad nor varied in its character. In his life so far he had known only the kind of doubt that is calculated and secure. He had known only suspicion, cynicism, probability – never the fearful unraveling that comes with one ceasing to trust in one’s own trusting power; never the dread panic that follows this unraveling; never the dull void that follows last of all.” (p. 18)

Eleanor Catton

“Shepard’s autobiography (a document which, if ever penned, would be rigid, admonishing, and frugal) did not possess that necessary chapter wherein the young hero sows his oats and strays; since his marriage, his imagination had conjured nothing beyond the squarish figure of Mrs. [Shepard], whose measures were so familiar, and so regular, that he might have set his pocket watch by the rhythm of her days. He had always been irreproachable in his conduct, and as a consequence, his capacity for empathy was small.” (p. 135)

“Quee Long was a barrel-chested man of capable proportions and a practical strength…The gaps in his smile tended to put one in mind of a child whose milk teeth were falling away – a comparison that Quee Long might well have made himself, for he had a critical eye, a quick wit, and a flair for caustic deprecation, most especially when that deprecation was self-imposed. He painted a very feeble picture whenever he spoke about himself, a practice that was humorously meant, but that belied, nevertheless, an excessively vulnerable self-conception. For Quee Long measured all his actions by a private standard of perfection, and labored in service of this standard: as a consequence he was never really satisfied with any of his efforts, or with their results, and tended, in general, toward defeatism.” (p. 258)

Maybe you didn’t think that the world needed an 800-odd page modern satire of a Victorian gothic murder mystery set in New Zealand and peopled with breathtakingly well-written characters – you were wrong. And here’s why:

Those old stories had one great virtue: they were entertaining. They were fantastically entertaining, which is perhaps the greatest virtue a story can have. But Eleanor Catton understands something about them: that underneath the entertainment they provided, those old stories missed so much about what was important about the world which was their setting.

They missed the lives of all the invisible people: all the poor people, the immigrants, the slaves, the ill, the whores, the women and children. All those people who just provide texture, color, to those old stories, who are just scenery. And that, even though those people never starred in those stories which we love, they were real, they had lives and feelings and hopes and griefs. And that, in any real world, they would also have stories.

And so she has written them in, not in an obnoxious, heavy-handed. PC sort of way, but the way the ought to be written: as a true and proper part of the world. And then, in the end, she reveals the whole point: that under the labyrinthine twistings of the plot, under the mechanisms and mysteries and villains and ghosts and buried treasures (and all those things are there, in this story), those humans, their human stories, were the point all along.

The Luminaries‘ is a love story which you don’t know is a love story until the very end. It’s a novel that reminds you that murders and thefts and betrayals and winfalls are all events that might happen in a life, but that the life is all that really matters. It’s engrossing through out, gorgeously written, sharp and funny, but, in the end, it’s beautiful, and I loved it.

Normal People

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

“If people found out what he has been doing with Marianne, in secret, while ignoring her every day in school, his life would be over. He would walk down the hallway and people’s eyes would follow him, like he was serial killer, or worse. His friends don’t think of him as a deviant person, a person who could say to Marianne Sheridan, in broad daylight, completely sober: It is ok if I come in your mouth?” (p. 28)

There’s a well-worn bit of folk wisdom, that the body knows what it needs. That if you’re iron-deficient, you’ll develop a sudden, strong hankering for, like, kale. Or if a cold is about to come on and you need the immune boost that vitamin C provides, you’ll suddenly crave oranges. That your body can sense its own mineral needs, and translate these needs into food desires below the level of your consciousness.

Ok, sure. Why not? The body is smart.

I wonder, though, whether there is a similar process to address emotional deficiencies. Whether, when we are hurting, or in deep need of solace or wisdom of a particular kind, our psyches know to reach out and get it, even before we have understood the trouble we are in.

I noticed recently that I have been reading novels. I have been reading basically nothing except novels. This is unusual for me: normally, my non-fiction to fiction ratio is about 1:1.

Weirder still, the novels I am reading are changing. My bookshelves reveal a historical preference: I am, as we have discussed many times, a bit of a traditionalist, and so my shelves are dominated by dead, old, white men (which is coincident with, rather than representative of, my literary values: I don’t think white men are intrinsically better than anyone else – I think they gave themselves an unfair lead). If I were asked to list my favorite authors, not a single living author would crack the top…ten*?

*(Although, in the spirit of answering the query honestly: one of the authors I love the most in world, David Foster Wallace, ought to be alive)

And yet, lately, I have been reading almost exclusively contemporary fiction. Weirdest still, I have been reading almost exclusively fiction written by women.

This is enormously out of character for me, but sometimes the heart knows what it needs better than the head. And I have learned that, when the body craves something, it is probably best to consume it. So I’ve been leaning into my emotional needs and reading whatever strikes my fancy, no matter how contemporary, unvetted, or estrogenic it may be.

A few weeks ago I read Sally Rooney’s debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I liked it – I thought it was a strong piece of work, but I didn’t feel nourished by it, particularly. I appreciated it, as an intellectual accomplishment, but I didn’t think that I connected with it, emotionally, at the time.

But I have felt the need to read her second novel, ‘Normal People‘, fairly urgently ever since. Like ‘Conversations with Friends‘, ‘Normal People’ made all the important literary people pee their pants, which of course made me not want to read it, but there was something that kept nagging at me. And so, this week, like someone with an iron-deficiency and a kale salad, I sat down and read ‘Normal People’ in one sitting.

Normal People‘ is the story of Connell and Marianne. Connell and Marianne know each other from school – Marianne is rich and unpopular; intensely smart and traumatized by a deeply fucked up family, she moves through the world almost totally alone. Connell is the son of her family’s housekeeper. He is popular and handsome; also smart, he is kind and everyone likes him.

In the afternoons when Connell comes to pick up his mother from Marianne’s house, he and Marianne will form a relationship that is both intense and secret. Her profound unpopularity makes Connell ashamed of her, an unkindness he will not really understand until they go off to Trinity together. There, as Marianne becomes popular and sought-after, and Connell is handicapped for the first time by his shyness and working-class background, both of them will try to discover if they love each other and whether they can be happy.

Conversations with Friends‘ is, at the end of the day, a story about friendship. It is a love story, but it’s about how love hides in friendship. ‘Normal People‘ is a love story, a story about great and transformative love. But it is written in the same spare-and-yet-unsparing style as ‘Conversations with Friends’, which makes it feel disorienting and scary and painful, sort of like being in love.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I find Rooney’s writing extremely effective. I thought at first that her severe lack of style was a little over-stylized (if that makes sense), but I’m completely on board now. The lack of authorial voice forces you into the perspective of the character, right up against them. It’s forgiving and present. Which is a particular accomplishment because ‘Normal People‘ alternately takes the perspective of both of its main characters.

I think it really comes down to why people read novels in the first place.

There are many valid reasons to read novels. People read them to be entertained, or because they are assigned them in school, or to make themselves seem smart.

But why do people read novels like this, as adults, when no one is watching? I think, and maybe I am only speaking for myself, that people read novels to learn about how other people feel, to understand their own feelings, to learn whether their own feelings are normal, to make sense of the world around them, to try to see the world through other people’s eyes and to see whether they are, in fact, part of a common humanity. They read them to see the great range of human emotional possibility, and to fit themselves within that range. They are maps for our hearts.

Sally Rooney

Which doesn’t mean that goodness doesn’t matter. I’m not sure that writerly skill necessarily makes a novel more emotionally effective – in fact, it’s often inversely correlated (Joyce, Pynchon, Faulkner, Dickens, so many of the great writers leave people cold) – but when a well-written novel is emotionally effective, the two qualities become greater than the sum of their parts.

That’s what happened with ‘Normal People‘. The brutal bluntness of the prose, the unflinching eye Rooney uses to examine her characters, the keen ear she has for the subtleties of complex and contradictory human emotions, all combine to make her novels an immersive and moving experience.

I think I understand why I needed to read ‘Normal People‘ right now. ‘Normal People’ is about whether or not broken people can be loved, and that is a question I’ve spent a lot of my life asking. And it is the question I’ve spent most of the last year obsessing over.

I think that ‘Normal People‘ is a probably a great novel, but I’m not really in a position to judge because the only thing that I can think about is how it was exactly what I needed. I’m used to thinking about whether or not books are good; I am used to connecting with them intellectually. I don’t usually just let novels happen to me.

And, of course, ‘Normal People‘ didn’t answer any questions, and didn’t solve any problems. I don’t think that was the point. And I didn’t feel better per se, but I did feel more connected. More normal.