The Acid Tongue
Frozen Blocks of Butter
Selected By Cyril Wong
When Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 for her lengthy novel, The Luminaries, I knew there was going to be trouble. It wasn't difficult to find Michael Morrisey's review of her tome in Investigate Magazine, in which he opens with an invitation for debate, followed by some literary contextualisation (leaning a little upon Harold Bloom for some critical support) and initial, lyrical praise, before diving in for the jugular (while also managing a respectful nod to Dostoyevsky):
Eleanor Catton, it seems, can do no wrong, but is she doing anything right – apart from selling well? Her first novel, The Rehearsal...set a new hallmark in schoolgirlish bitchiness... Femmes were impressed; chaps less so... The Luminaries is even more impressive as a book artifact when the elegant dust jacket is peeled off to reveal an astonishingly obese tome, its sumptuous creamy glory resembling the frozen blocks of butter I used to stack nine high on Kings Wharf, circa 1960... Unlike Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which had a mere two corpses, Catton weaves a rich tapestry of felonies: a fat cat prospector has vanished; a prostitute, opium-raddled naturally, attempts suicide; a drunk is found dead; and a la Dostoyevsky a large sum of money is discovered. Has anyone ever done a thesis on the importance of money as a plot device in the Victorian novel? And as always, someone believes they are entitled to the money. Only Dostoyevsky, the greatest of all time, was able to fuse sex and money together more artfully than the English Victorians in The Idiot, one of his great novels.
Morissey cuts up Catton in broad strokes, cursorily introducing Jung, Balzac to tea leaves and Chinese astrology to make his points:
The fatal flaw of The Luminaries is simultaneously the apotheosis of whatever strength it may possess... Ms Catton's opus is a pastiche of a Victorian novel, or as I have chosen to express it, a retro-pastiche. And a retro-pastiche cannot take the novel forward. It can only play with previously known elements such as the multiple point of view, previously used by Browning, Kurosawa and others... Then there are the astrological frame ups. Eleanor, how could you have used such a geriatric turkey? Apart from Jung, who put this Hellenic claptrap to good use, it is verboten for the serious writer. May I suggest tea leaves as a substitute? This formulaic folderol could have been replaced by alchemy or Chinese astrology, which I suspect might give more accurate character readings than its Hellenic cousin... [W]hy shouldn't contemporary readers read the actual great novelists of the 19th century – Balzac, Dickens, Melville, Eliot, James, Wharton, Twain, Stendhal – not to mention Tolstoy and greatest of all Dostoyevsky, instead of Catton's ersatz and inferior version?
He gets more in-depth too, for sure; but only briefly, before soaring quickly out again to invoke Dostoyevsky in relation to everything:
It is a question of psychological depth, dramatic confrontation, parenthetic narration melded into the central narrative which must be totally guilty of architectonic grandeur. Come in The Brothers Karamazov, your time starts or rather continues now... [Catton's] elaborate parade of characters bravely attempts almost successfully to rescue The Luminaries from the crowded dustbin of failed greatness... The Luminaries becomes a symbol of the continued decay of a general high culture into a gender-skewered one. That imbalance is already upon us...
The critic, however, makes a dubious case for the greatest novelists working today, suggesting that "Indian writers are the best" even though "One Hundred Years of Solitude remains the greatest novel of the last 50 years" (he also claims), before suggesting — in a closing attempt to be kind and playfully optimistic — that despite "prior criticism",
Catton is a considerable talent whose career has scarcely begun. Perhaps we are witnessing the gentle evolution of a giantess as opposed to the devolution of a retro-pastiche. Being young, she has plenty of time to develop her vast potential into something truly great. But she must think forward not backwards. Her future looks luminous if not numinous...
The sarcastic ending of the review is particularly surreal as regards his hope for Catton's future:
QLRS Vol. 13 No. 4 Oct 2014
I have a wonderful idea for your future, Eleanor. There is talk of a plan to send a one way expedition to Mars – four lucky mortals fast tracked to immortality. Eleanor, you must volunteer. You may need to get a physics degree. Join the expedition. On your lonely sojourn, surrounded by red sand, you write the greatest novel of all time. Call it Martian Odyssey (Martian Chronicles has been used by Ray Bradbury). Man Booker? Nobel Prize? Chicken feed. Your sales will be in the billions. You read it here first.