Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton engages with the realist novel most obviously through its stable of peculiar characters and its sordid situations that together recall Dickens. But it also engages through its embrace of the supplement, an offering at every occasion of a more that suggests the plenitude of the world. The obvious reference for this technique is Balzac’s evocative lists of objects, but Jack London’s lists, which, in their too-muchness sometimes grind the narration to a halt, are worth noting as well.

Catton’s engagement with realism through the supplement strikes me as fundamentally post-modern and her realism, as an instance of miming.

The realist effect is perfect; the insight into the characters, the complexities of plot, the juggling of narration, they are all perfectly done. Yet (and I mean this) the too muchness of these perfections are also simply and plainly impossible. And so the novel glistens and sparkles as a perfectly accurate representation of a very old-fashioned kind of book that shouldn’t exist but does. This self-consciously perfect performance of something out of time seems to me to be the core of the book’s thought.

Catton is miming realism, and her novel reminds me of those late-century, transgenic, glow-in-the-dark rabbits. Just like those rabbits with their bits of jellyfish DNA, this realist novel has 20th century, modernist bones. There is the profound introspection and slowness of a novel like Sartre’s Nausea, as well as the narrative unreliability of a novel like Absalom, Absalom!. The book’s post-modernism emerges in the distance it maintains–a distance that reads as performance–of that brazenly perfect fusion of what we have taken as opposing approaches to narration.

This should all be exciting, but I found it exhausting rather than pleasant. And while I was stunned page after page by the skill and effort involved in making this book, I’ve walked away thinking of this novel the same way I think of the trompe l’oeil hanging in the corners or side hallways of museum galleries: it’s impressive but I’m unmoved and left cold.

Posted November 4, 2015