Not All Man Booker Winners Are the Best

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

Man Booker Prize 2013

When up for nomination and then judgement in contest for a literary prize, the merit of the work is solely in the eyes of the judges. Just as any of us can and too often are, dazzle can win over substance. Which is exactly how we felt about the winner of the 2013 Man Booker. That’s not to say The Luminaries is a bad book, for Eleanor Catton has packed her novel with lots of interesting stuff. But it has many flaws, as our review pointed out, flaws you might not wish to see in a prize-winning and exalted novel.

The first thing you notice about The Luminaries is its style, an at first intriguing recreation of 19th century storytelling, both in the language and in the slow, calculated feeding of information appearing as sensational developments. Ultimately, though, it’s this focus on technique and mimicry that turns the book into a long crawl through the 19th century New Zealand gold rush community of Hokitika. What begins as fascination gets lost in wordiness. And while Catton populates the novel with a large and diverse cast of characters, none really strike you as compelling, the kind of person, good or bad, you must know everything about, and whom you care about what becomes of them.

People today certainly are pleased to read long novels but maybe not so pleased to read very longwinded mysteries filled with old style plot contrivances (try shot though a curtain unbeknownst to others in the room). That the world moves faster today and communication is more telegraphed (ironically a 19th century invention) are givens. It’s also that people read novels differently these days, in paper tomes or on electronic pads, the entire novel complete in hand. Dickens, and the like, spewed forth reams of pages; however, typically these novels first appeared serialized in the journals of the day, such as Dickens’s All the Year Round (in which Wilkie Collins’s three best known “sensation” novels appeared). Cliffhanging section endings were a necessity, as Dickens and the others knew they had to engage and keep the reader engaged to create desire for the next installment, much like today’s serial television dramas do. Later, the serializations appeared in book form with a ready audience.

That’s not to say the long novel has outstayed its welcome. Plenty of very good long novels, such as Donna Tartt’s compelling The Goldfinch, Joyce Carol Oates’s riveting The Accursed, and Tom Wolfe’s raffish Back to Blood, to cite a few, currently weigh down shelves or hold doors open. Despite winning the Man Booker, despite the dazzling writing style, and despite Catton’s impressive command of 19th century mining, shipping, financial, and settlement matters, the novel doesn’t engage you enough to propel you from page one to page 830 as the others do or as the best 19th century novels do.

The novel’s prodigious page count lays out roughly as follows: the first 600 pages present the mystery of the missing boyish millionaire, the dead hermit in the cabin, and the whore found near death in the street. Something is afoot here and we are to piece it together as the various characters receive and dispense vital information. From around 600 to 700 everything becomes clear in a trial that’s well done and perhaps the best part of the book. However, if things aren’t clear enough for you, Catton devotes the final 130 pages to retelling the story in linear fashion.

Whether you should devote the time to the novel is entirely up to you. You might wish to skim it first before spending several days, depending on the reading time available to you, to read it. It’s not that the novel isn’t good, it’s just that it’s more dazzle than substance. w/c


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