Saturday, December 21, 2013

130 pages into The Luminaries, and...

I'm a 130 pages into The Luminaries and am tossing up whether I want to spend another longish patch of my (reading) life on the rest of it. The character who opened the book has made no further appearance for getting on for a 100 pages, or so, and the character who took over from him, (Balfour) ostensibly telling his story with interruptions, somehow managed to tell a story long enough to last the entire night, and yet little real time passed.

At present two more characters have appeared, and are discussing yet another facet of the mystery that pervades the book, but I'm a bit lost as to what the mystery is actually all about because each new character adds another mystery to the original one, and I'm losing track of what belongs where. This would be okay, perhaps, if there was only another 100 pages to go, but at this rate I'll sink deep in the mire of mysteries without being able to make sense of a thing. Perseverance may help, I guess. I'm a bit concerned to read in one of the reviews that some of the mystery elements are left hanging loose by the end. That doesn't grab me, if I've waded through 800 pages, and find not enough explanation. Perhaps Catton is hoping I'll have forgotten about these loose ends by the end. I remember in the first of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland St series that there was a very odd little patch where he seemed to be interested in a man walking around on the outside of a building (the details have grown a big vague), and the action seemed to be connected to one of the main characters. But then this aspect of the story was dropped completely, and never heard about again. No one mentioned it in passing even.

Then there's the astrological stuff, which apparently gives considerable structure to The Luminaries, and has been commended by some reviewers (I've been reading more reviews of the book today than the book itself, trying to see if it's worth continuing on). So far I haven't figured out how the astrological stuff makes any difference to the story as a whole, though one particular reviewer seemed to have it all worked out. (Don't ask me who...I'd have to go back and find it again.) The same reviewer lauded the idea that each successive section of the book should be half the size of the previous one, and while this may have something to say about the book as a whole I can't quite see that it adds anything to the story. When I was first trying to write novels I used to think it was great to have some such structure behind everything, either because someone else had done it, or because it proved my literary worth and would no doubt impress publishers. In fact these things usually got in the way of actually writing the book. Now Eleanor Catton may have much better motives for what she's done - being a much more intelligent writer than I am (she has to be: she's written a complex 830 page book for starters, something I couldn't conceive of attempting, and has invented epigrammatic sayings which give the appearance of deep thought about the human condition) - but I'm struggling a little to see the point. Maybe, again, if I persevere, I will.

Then there's the way in which she describes people's personalities, sometimes at length. (She describes a lot of things - clothes, rooms, the state of Hokitika - and describes them well.)  This works up to a point, but as many contemporary writers have found, characters tell us far more about themselves when they speak, and when they react to other characters, than when they're described. As soon as you start describing a character, not just their clothing and build, but their state of mind, I find I switch off - I want to discover the character for myself, and you have to have a very good reason to tell me lots of stuff about a character. If it's not immediately relative to the scene he or she is in, then I'll forget it before I've turned the page. This doesn't just apply to Catton's writing - it applies to any novelist who wants to give me a page of descriptive stuff before letting the character open their mouth. One of the reviewers says that as the book goes on, Catton describes less and less and gives us fewer and fewer of her epigrammatic statements about life. So perhaps I need to get through the first 360 pages before I'll discover a change of pace.

Some of the best writing in the book so far has been between Balfour and his politician friend, and then between Balfour and the clergyman. There's some cut and thrust at this point (still some epigrams and some descriptive interior stuff, but not quite so much), and at this stage it felt as though the book was moving forward. But other dialogues seem to falter, because we can't quite see the relevance. The dialogue between Balfour and the Maori, Tauwhare, seems included mainly to make a point about race relations, and however fascinating it may be, would Balfour really stand out in the pouring rain in order to have the conversation? Yes, it does add a bit of knowledge about the deceased person, Crosbie Wells, so maybe there's some point to it. I'm sure there's some point...

Well, I've kind of convinced myself to continue, and since somehow I managed to get a copy from the Library not that long after the book was published, perhaps I should make the effort.....


Post a Comment