“[Y]ou will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole”

I ended my last post on The Luminaries lamenting the way a cascade of seemingly small details shook my faith in the novel. To be more precise, it shook my willing suspension of disbelief, and that’s a real problem.

Aside from what I’ve already discussed, it left me confused about how to regard certain characters and events. Walter Moody, the original focus of the action—he inserts himself accidentally into a meeting of a dozen men who eventually let him in on their mystery—plays a familiar role. More Hercule Poirot than Peter Wimsey, Moody presides over the group. And as they are beginning to think they are putting things together, he puts them off:

“I am wondering whether I trust Mr. Lauderback’s intentions, in referencing the name of that goldfield so casually to Mr. Balfour this morning.”

“What do you mean by that, Mr. Moody?”

“Don’t you trust him—Lauderback, I mean?”

“It would be most irrational if I mistrusted Mr. Lauderback,” Moody said, “seeing as I have never met the man in my life. I am very conscious of the fact that the pertinent facts of this tale are being relayed to me second-hand—and, in some cases, third-hand. Take the mention of the Dunstan goldfield, for example. Francis Carver apparently mentioned the name of that field to Mr. Lauderback, who in turn narrated that encounter to Mr. Balfour, who in turn relayed that conversation to me, tonight! You will all agree that I would be a fool to take Mr. Balfour’s words to be true.”

But Moody had misjudged his audience, in questioning so sensitive a subject as the truth. There was an explosion of indignation around the room.

“What—you don’t trust a man to tell his own story?”

Surely a man as intelligent as Walter Moody has a better way

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“[A]n enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat”

Yesterday, I said I had broader problems with The Luminaries than just some historical inaccuracies and sloppy writing. My problems are of two basic types, explained concisely in David Sexton’s London Evening Standard review (nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award, but not, according to the kind David Hebblethwaite, as good as my own hatchet job):

The prose style is annoying, a pastiche of the omniscient narrator, a confident “we”, a device used successfully by some great 19th-century novelists but which now seems an intolerable affectation.

Catton never shows, she tells, wagging on in the most officious way. She has a particularly dismaying habit of telling us what the characteristics of every personage are, before then making them conform to them, a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity.

At least, if you add to the “intolerable affectation,” the fact that Catton doesn’t actually do this well (see yesterday’s post—and yes, this is important; I’ll get into why).

Most of the reviews I’d read of The Luminaries didn’t actually say very much. The novel was a “Gothic cathedral,” something about a tail beating you over the head, lots of images like that—but no detail, and no explanation. Presumably, at least some reviews wanted to avoid spoilers in a piece on what is ostensibly a mystery story, but it was just the sort of thing to keep me wondering, indefinitely, whether there was any there there or not.

But since Hebblethwaite is usually such a reliable source, I thought I ought to seek out his own review, well worth reading in its entirety. I agree with every point. Not believing in astrology, I simply don’t care about that conceit, but I agree that it “set[s] up some of the novel’s main subtexts.” It’s just that, I

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Shining a different sort of light on The Luminaries

I have Real Things I want to write about. Serious things. Mostly involving the centenary of the Great War, and how my greatest intention for the year is to completely kick the ass of that never-actually-done project, not to mention re-reading Parade’s End. The first four chapters, by the way, are so good I’m almost afraid to keep going. I may end up in an infinite loop of reading Some Do Not and watching the first episode of the miniseries, over and over again, before I even get to the second volume. (what do you want, when they case the most beautiful man in the world to play the role of the best man in the world?)

But since I just can’t seem to struggle out of my alternating sense of awe and retreat into Dorothy Sayers mysteries in order to write something halfway worth reading, I thought I’d dip a toe into the water with something much easier: a hatchet job. Oooh, I’m rubbing my hands together already!

The victim, this time around, is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries—that’s right, it’s last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, and the subject of my most recent Read This Then That column (hint: the Wilkie Collins is way better). As I read this doorstopper—and I read it voraciously, too, I should add, because it’s that kind of book—I found myself marking here, there, and everywhere, the kind of thing that makes me ask: “Was this copy edited? And, if so, who should lose their job?”

I’ll ignore completely the narrator’s propensity to tell rather than show as a matter of taste (and part and parcel of the faux-Victorian package). I’ll ignore the fact I’m skeptical of that faux-Victorian package to begin with, because problems only arise if it isn’t skillfully done

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“[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei

I’ve never had a very long list of living authors I liked well enough to reliably read their books on publication. Even Haruki Murakami, faithful as I was to him since high school, has fallen by the wayside, an unread copy of 1Q84 on my shelf. These days, it seems, Tao Lin is the only such writer left.

I never expected to like Lin’s work; when Shoplifting from American Apparel first came to my attention I assumed it was all annoying hipster gimmick that might be fun to make fun of. I believe I was wrong about that, but two novels later, the Lin-hate can seem almost reflexive.

Lydia Kiesling’s review of Taipei in The Millions, for example, makes clear her total revulsion at Lin’s writing right in the lede:

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

This was Kiesling’s first experience with Lin, and she did not like it. After a brief summary of some of the hipster-annoyingness in the novel, she gets down to business: she hates Lin’s style. Which is good for me, because it’s what I love.

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting

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Last Friends by Jane Gardam

In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.

War vs. war

The Tournament of Books kicked off this week with a preliminary round featuring three books about the Iraq War. You’ve probably seen this list dozens of times by now so forgive me for noting once more, they are The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.

I have yet to read the first of these books, and at this point the likelihood of my doing so is pretty low, but before completely burning out on the subject mentally (because, of course, I’ve written hardly anything on it—primarily this discussion) I wanted to respond to the selection of Billy Lynn as the round’s winner (and, less specifically, as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction).

Billy Lynn seems to be a general favorite among the three books, and in many ways I can see why. Billy himself is a likeable protagonist. His fellow soldiers are fun, and their relationships genuine if not untroubled. These kids are real; they have been through the real shit; and they are going to keep it real at the positive madhouse that is a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.

US army officer and writer Nathan Bradley writes at the ToB that he “want[s] to know what the ‘road meat’ thought, what they felt and feared when, limbs still attached, eyes still bright, they were deployed to a country gone unhinged and blood-crazed. Neither Fobbit nor The Yellow Birds does so.” Billy Lynn certainly does, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad place to start. But I’ve been left for a while wondering what exactly Fountain’s novel offers beyond this. The end of the novel, which is supposed to offer some kind of

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Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard

I want to blog only in grand runs, posts daisy-chained together by a theme or place or time or whatever else, attacking one or a few books for a while so that out of a few hits I can land one or so and feel good about it. But if I keep waiting to get organized enough for that I’ll miss completely telling you about some of what I read in my long quiet months that I do want to write about.

Richard Beard’s 2012 novel Lazarus Is Dead is one such. I read it for a very simple reason: I was looking for a Europa Editions title that wasn’t translated from a language I read. If you haven’t been with me long enough to know that’s how we pick out books over here, there it is. The front-cover blurb was from Philip Hensher, which can’t hurt, and taught me that Beard was “one of the most ingenious, resourceful and entertaining novelists in England.” I can’t exactly vouch for the superlative, but Lazarus Is Dead is ingenious, resourceful, and entertaining.

It tells the story of Lazarus, but not, of course, quite the story you already know. Oh, the main points are all the same—there’s just a lot more added in. Beard embroiders the biblical tale, fleshing out the narrative and openly speculating about history, exegesis, and the meaning of the Lazarus story. There’s romance, there’s intrigue, there’s a thriller element complete with Roman spies. It’s titillating, it’s disgusting, and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Just as Judas can be seen less as betraying Christ and more as fulfilling what the story had to be, Lazarus too is a stepping-stone on Jesus’ road to messiah-hood, an actor in a different scene of the same play.

If words like “contrived” and “pomo” come to

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“We are only one case among hundreds”

Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” was published in 1888, and its origins are, sadly, autobiographical. It tells of young siblings Punch and Judy, who live a happy, near-carefree life in India with their young, loving parents—until it’s time to go Home.

First the idea of going Home must be introduced. Neither Punch nor Judy (several years younger) really understands—and certainly they don’t understand they will be left there. The story is told from Punch’s perspective, and he doesn’t really understand “Mamma’s passionate appeal to him never to let Judy forget Mamma,” though he promises to do his best on this front. When Papa and Mamma have actually left the two children at Downe Lodge, the foster home where they will spend the next several years, Punch and Judy are bereft.

When a matured man discovers that he has been deserted by Providence, deprived of his God, and cast, without help, comfort, or sympathy, upon a world which is new and strange to him, his despair, which may find expression in evil-living, the writing of his experiences, or the more satisfactory diversion of suicide, is generally supposed to be impressive. A child, under exactly similar circumstances as far as its knowledge goes, cannot very well curse God and die. It howls till its nose is red, its eyes are sore, and its head aches. Punch and Judy, through no fault of their own, had lost all their world. They sat in the hall and cried; the black-haired boy looking on from afar.

Claire, who is young and impressionable—and easier to forget Mamma—quickly becomes a favorite of foster mother Aunty Rosa, who frankly despises Punch and makes him into a household scapegoat. The formerly spoiled young Sahib now finds himself caned for no offense at all, berated with Aunty

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“We were all damaged even though we became endurers.”

Filth himself engages with history from a conservative, though self-effacing, perspective. “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.” He may be bitter, at times, but he also recognizes he’s an old man now, that his time is past. But the Filth books are far from nostalgic for Empire, just as Filth himself is conflicted about it. The books are, in large part, an elegy for one particular casualty of Empire: the Raj orphans.

As the British sent hundreds and thousands of officers and civil servants to India and the other colonies, so too went wives and families. Marriages contracted, babies born, and eventually they would all reach the magical age at which it was quasi-officially time to send them “Home”—that is, back to Britain, a place they had never been. As babies and toddlers, children would remain in the bosom of the family, if looked after by an ayah or amah. But somewhere around age five they would have to go Home, either to family who agreed to take them in or to foster families, many of which existed semi-professionally for this purpose.

After years spent abroad, with little to no contact with parents, children often became adults with various emotional problems. Old Filth outlines, in several places, several different possibilities. When missionary Auntie May shows up to tell Filth’s father that it’s time to send little Teddy Home, the elder Feathers remembers how he was one such Raj orphan himself, and what it meant for his personal relationships.

“He seems well and happy,” he said. “I have never seen the need for him to go Home. It’s not the law.”

“You know perfectly well that it is the custom. Because of the risk of childhood illnesses out here. You went Home yourself.”

“I did,” said Alistair. “So help me God.”


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I’ll be your mirror

The coelocanth that is Sir Edward Feathers does more than just look full and lovely on the page. The fact of his being a coelocanth gives him the ability to reflect back to the reader a wide slice of history—and the reflection is from a surface that many readers will be familiar and comfortable with because it is like a pure Englishness outside of time, a reflection that doesn’t go blurry or wobbly because we know where we stand with coelocanths. They have been around for a long time.

When Feathers dies, basically in the present time, he’s nearly 90 years old. That means his life, and the books about his life, have coincided with a great number of historical events both familiar and unfamiliar. The late Empire in Southeast Asia, the interwar period back Home, WWII in Europe and Asia both, and everything that happens afterward: the slow rebuilding of Europe, with much new rising from the ashes, and the rapid expansion of money and power in the East, where Filth can still make a fortune though everything is already changing. Filth, never changing, is the perfect filter for all this upheaval.

Of course, this is painful for Filth himself. The world he grew up in is long gone, and the world he built an adulthood in is fast crumbling. After his wife’s death, driving across England to visit a long-lost cousin, he has an onrush of the grumpiness of elderly people driving mixed with a much more profound sense of complete loss of his place in the world:

Seemed to be a great many foreign buggers driving the lorries, steering-wheels left-hand side where they couldn’t see a thing. Matter of time no doubt when they’d be in the majority. Then everyone would be driving on the right. Vile

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