Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Eleanor Catton, _The Luminaries_

A LARGE, OVERSTUFFED Victorian sofa of a whodunit thriller, set in the New Zealand gold rush of the 1860s, in a decidedly Wilkie Collins vein.

With a post-modernist, twist, however. Cotton has imposed a constraint on her narration in that each character is assigned to a planet or a constellation, and she uses the actual astrological charts of particular days her narration covers to determine which characters will be encountering which other characters. So it's more like Wilkie Collins joins OuLiPo.

The prose of Cotton's update of Collins has the same leisurely, show-and-tell, tending-to-overexplanation paddedness of Collins's own:

Gascoigne did not reply, but narrowed his eyes very slightly, and pressed his lips together, to signify there was a question in his mind he could not ask with decency. Anna sighed. She decided that she would not express her gratitude in the conventional way; she would repay the sum of her bail in coin, and in the morning.

Cotton's plotting is not so well-engineered as Collins's at his best, though. As the book opens, we have a man dead in mysterious circumstances. Even more mysteriously, the Young Male Lead and the Young Female Lead seem to live each other's experiences; when the Young Female Lead smokes opium, the Young Male Lead becomes intoxicated, and when the Young Male Lead is unable to eat, the Young Female Lead loses weight.

Hundreds of pages later, however, the murderer turns out to be the character whose scoundrelly behavior has made him a suspect since his first appearance, and the couple, it turns out, are joined as one because... they are in love.

Can't help thinking old Wilkie would have thrown us a few more curveballs.

I was hoping to get a sense of why Catton wanted to do a 21st century Wilkie Collins in the first place, but I never did. Pastiche for pastiche's sake?

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