The Dim-Post

October 17, 2013

On what the Luminaries is actually like

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 8:50 am

The Guardian has an interview with Eleanor Catton who won the Booker Prize yesterday. Here’s the precis of her book:

The novel has an entirely original organising principle: each chapter is preceded by an astrological chart and each character is associated with a heavenly body; the characters act in accordance with the actual movements of the cosmos as they were, starting on 27 January 1866. At the same time, the novel is organised in 12 parts, each half the length of the previous one – thus the novel itself wanes.

Every review I’ve read dwells on the astrological charts and the book’s odd structure, and that’s understandable because it is kind of odd – but its also not something you notice when you’re reading The Luminaries, at least until you get to the very end of the book when the chapter lengths are very short. It also makes Catton’s book sound very experimental, and the constant references to the size of the book make it sound very daunting and dense. But it isn’t. To me Wolf Hall seemed a lot longer than The Luminaries (possibly because there’s a lot of dialog in Catton’s book, and that makes for quick reading).  

Anyway, all this talk about the mathematical structure and vast size of the book and how avant-garde it is misses the point: that The Luminaries is primarily a very entertaining crime novel. It’s amazingly well written (which is one of the reasons it just won the world’s most prestigious literary award and not some crime-writing award) but it is, basically a mystery novel about stolen gold and drug-addicted whores and evil scar-faced ship captains. It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire. Deadwood because of the frontier goldrush town setting, obviously, and The Wire because Catton is interested in using crime stories to examine how the society she’s writing about really works in terms of power-relationships and influence.


  1. It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire.

    You “suspect”, or you’ve read this interview?

    We talk about the series that she loves – The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad – and an article she once read that explored “our fascination with these very strongly ordered patriarchal communities”.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 17, 2013 @ 8:57 am

  2. Actually, the Man Booker judges get it pretty much right in their assessment:

    The chair of judges Robert Macfarlane described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast”. It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery”. Each of its 12 chapters halves in length which gives the narrative a sense of acceleration. It is not, however, an extended exercise in literary form. Macfarlane and his fellow judges were impressed by Catton’s technique but it was her “extraordinarily gripping” narrative that enthralled them. “We read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary, its dividends astronomical.” The Luminaries is, said Macfarlane, a novel with heart. “The characters are in New Zealand to make and to gain – the one thing that disrupts them is love.”

    Will readers be put off by the book’s bulk? “No”, was Macfarlane’s emphatic response. “Length never poses a problem if it’s a great novel. The Luminaries is a novel you pan, as if for gold, and the returns are huge.” Although he did also point out that “those of us who didn’t read it on e-readers got a full-body workout from the experience”.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 17, 2013 @ 9:19 am

  3. I heard that it’s very good. Well done her! I am writing a lovely book about the British aristocracy. But it’s more than just that. It includes the Christchurch Earthquakes, the global economic recession, the financial and world turmoil that began in 2001 and 2002, so it’s set in modern times. I assume that it has a lot more sex scenes (at least four) than hers ???

    Comment by Daniel Lang — October 17, 2013 @ 9:38 am

  4. Unrelated, but Hell On Wheels is an AMC show in the Deadwood mould and is f’n excellent (and very addictive…).

    Comment by Chris Bull — October 17, 2013 @ 10:11 am

  5. More confirmation of the dannymc thesis:

    Catton does not own a television, but the pair do watch on the computer. One such series that proved influential on The Luminaries was Deadwood, the classic HBO series written by David Milch about the gold rush in America.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 17, 2013 @ 10:41 am

  6. SPeaking of experimental, avante garde books: Did you ever finish Infinite Jest?

    Comment by Exclamation Mark — October 17, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

  7. “possibly because there’s a lot of dialog in Catton’s book, and that makes for quick reading”

    Apprarent in the fact you’ve managed to discover and read the whole book between the announcement of the prize yesterday, and this morning.

    ooooer, bazinga.

    Moving on. Good to see that some controversial political reform in recent history contributed to the ability of a NZ’er to achieve such an accolade. Discuss.

    Comment by Andrew M — October 17, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

  8. “Each of its 12 chapters halves in length …”

    So chapter one is 4,096 times as long as chapter 12 then?

    Comment by Conrad — October 17, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

  9. The tributes in parliament yesterday were pretty funny.

    “We haven’t read it, but apparently it’s just like the All Blacks, so go Kiwi!”.

    Unfortunately our Prime Minister doesn’t know the name of NZ’s previous Booker Prize winner. Cunliffe enjoyed correcting him, thus clinching the librarian vote.

    Comment by sammy 2.0 — October 17, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

  10. So chapter one is 4,096 times as long as chapter 12 then?

    Yes (although it’s the 12 parts that halve, not individual chapters).

    That said, she does cheat a bit. Each chapter within each part has an old-school “In which … ” recap at the beginning of it. As the actual text gets shorter and shorter, these get longer and longer. So, technically the “text” of part one is 4,096 times as long as the text of part twelve, but she steals some extra words along the way.

    But that’s a quibble. It really is quite an impressive feat of writing skill – especially insofar as these last, shortest parts are the ones that stitch the whole of the story together in a comprehensible whole.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 17, 2013 @ 2:38 pm

  11. Huh, that’s kind of awesome, I’d thought it was just a mistake by the reviewer.

    Comment by Conrad — October 17, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

  12. Meh, the Guardian. Pfft.

    Comment by grant — October 17, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

  13. SPeaking of experimental, avante garde books: Did you ever finish Infinite Jest?

    Nope. This year I read ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’ though. Although I guess they’re not experimental, just long.

    Comment by danylmc — October 18, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  14. I just posted a review of it and admit to not mentioning the structure until the very end, as it is something of a distraction to intending readers, giving some cause for fear of approaching it, when it is as you describe, a fast paced mystery set in that interesting era of the goldrush and a gathering of diverse characters attracted to improving their prospects. The structure is important as a writing tool, and though it’s influence is real, it isn’t necessarily present nor does it in any way impose upon the reader.

    If you are interested, you can read my review An Auspicicous Ascendancy here at Word by Word.

    Comment by Claire 'Word by Word' — October 22, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

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