I typically do not read 800-page contemporary novels, reserving such time commitments to Victorian baggy monsters and triple-deckers. When I learned that Eleanor Catton’s recent neo-Victorian title, The Luminaries, was over 800 pages, I initially doubted that it would land on my reading list, in spite of its winning the Man Booker prize, which I religiously follow every year. Yet, here I sit having just finished The Luminaries, after squeezing in chapters almost daily over the past month.
It’s hard not to admire Catton’s novel, set in the gold frontier of mid-nineteenth-century New Zealand. The intricate plotting of events, doubling of characters, weaving of past and present, and intermingling of viewpoints are dizzying. Then there is the gold around which much of the plot and characters twist. Following the gold’s changing ownership—who has found, stolen, or earned it; its location—disappeared from a safe, re-scattered on a gold field, woven into the stitches of dresses, or hidden under a bed; and transformation—from dust to bars—is mind-boggling in itself. Of course, the sensation-novel aspects of the plot consume a reader’s attention: murder, prostitution, shipwreck, identity theft, forgery, opium consumption, séances, coincidence, etc. So, perhaps one can understand why some recent reviewers have called Catton’s work Dickensian and inspired by Wilkie Collins. No doubt, my reading of these reviews, several of which are astute, compelled me to order the book and read it.
Neo-Victorian, yes, Dickensian, no. Wilkie Collins, perhaps, but not really. It’s clear that Catton’s plotting owes much to the mid-Victorian novel, especially those by Dickens and Collins, but also George Eliot and likely the rest. The Luminaries gains little by calling it Dickensian, except to void that descriptor of relevant meaning. One cannot call Catton’s text Dickensian simply because it is long, character-filled, or sensational. She doesn’t employ a Dickensian approach to characterization, nor does she adopt a Dickensian style, nor is there Dickensian sentimentality. As for Collins, I really don’t see his method, either, although one can see Catton relying on aspects of The Woman in White and The Moonstone, in their emphasis on multiple points of view. But the interesting textual seams in Collins are absent.
There is little of the Victorian novel’s social comedy in The Luminaries. Catton’s nineteenth-century vision of the gold-mining town Hokitika is serious, and living there is difficult, violent, and dirty. As an historical novel, it powerfully imagines place and the pressures of environment and circumstance on a diverse cast of characters (at least twenty major figures), none of whom really emerge as protagonists. Although we see occasional psychological probing, it’s not really sustained, because something else is going on with the form of the novel. Indeed, it is the structure of The Luminaries that is significant, its handling of characters who wax and wane as the narrative progresses. Catton takes inspiration from the sky and charts her characters’ actions alongside their astrological signs. This dimension of the novel is far more complex than outlined here, and at times becomes baffling, because the astrological charts and chapter headings often escaped me, even upon some Googling. One easily sees, though, that behavior and motivation appear irrational and actions unexpected, because they parallel the movement of celestial bodies. (See Jenny Hendrix’s Slate review, which provides a brilliant explanation of this complexity.) Collectively, a puzzling chain of events is complicated by numerous actors, fueled by the constant flux of the firmament. Is there causality in human affairs? This is a fascinating approach to the novel as a narrative form, and it is here that Catton transcends her Victorian inspiration.
Bill Roorbach, in his New York Times review of The Luminaries calls Catton’s novel a “lively parody of a 19th-century novel . . . a novel for the 21st, something utterly new.” One can certainly read for the twisting murder plot, and be compelled and gratified by the story, even though many questions go unanswered and much appears unresolved. The newness of Catton's novel, though, has less to do with its being a neo-Victorian sensation novel than with its sustained formal experimentation. We should nonetheless admire that this experimentation depends on a lively engagement with the past and a reworking of its artifacts.