ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Weston Ochse is a former intelligence officer and special operations soldier who has engaged enemy combatants, terrorists, narco smugglers, and human traffickers. His personal war stories include performing humanitarian operations over Bangladesh, being deployed to Afghanistan, and a near miss being cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His fiction and non-fiction has been praised by USA Today, The Atlantic, The New York Post, The Financial Times of London, and Publishers Weekly. The American Library Association labeled him one of the Major Horror Authors of the 21st Century. His work has also won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, his military supernatural series SEAL Team 666 has been optioned to be a movie starring Dwayne Johnson. His military sci fi series, which starts with Grunt Life, has been praised for its PTSD-positive depiction of soldiers at peace and at war. Weston likes to be called a chaotic good paladin and challenges anyone to disagree. After all, no one can really stand a goody two-shoes lawful good character. They can be so annoying. It's so much more fun to be chaotic, even when you're striving to save the world. You can argue with him about this and other things online at Living Dangerously or on Facebook at Badasswriter. All content of this blog is copywrited by Weston Ochse.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Luminaries - Organization, Construction, and Victorian Plot Devices - A Writer's View

As many of you already know from reading my blog, I most often read outside of my own genres of science fiction, horror and thriller. It's not that I don't love my genres because I do. I heart them magnificently. It's just that I want to see other styles and other voices and perhaps in the end bring something new back into my genres that wasn't necessarily there. But what books to read? Where do I go?

I cheat.

I look for award-winning books and read them to try and understand why the book won an award. I read Pulitzer Prize books and Man Booker Prize Books. I read National Book Award Books. I read books that are shortlisted. I read books that booksellers tell me are similar to books that won awards. For the most part, these books hold my attention. About half the time I can see and appreciate why the books won the award they did. And sometimes, like in the case of The Goldfinch and what has become my favirote book of all time, A Little Life, I find myself just overjoyed with the privilege of reading an amazing book.

I recently read Luminaries: A Novel by Elizabeth Catton which won the 2013 Man Booker Prize. This prize is awarded annually to the best book written in English and published in the UK. At 28, she is the youngest to have won this award.

Laura Miller of Salon.com breaks it down like Donkey Kong for us. "From the first five pages of "The Luminaries," it's evident that Catton's model is the Victorian "sensation novel," in which middle-class characters were suddenly confronted with alarming, inexplicable and uncanny events whose true causes and (usually scandalous) nature are gradually revealed in the course of the story. The best-known examples of these are "The Woman in White" and "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins, and it's safe to say that if you are one of Collins' avid modern-day fans, you'll be in clover with "The Luminaries." But if Collins' novels are rich in reversals and twists, Catton's is a veritable Gothic cathedral of plot, so complex and intricate that most readers will find themselves doubling back to make sure they've got it all straight. "The Luminaries" might have been written with the sole intention of disproving the canard that literary fiction is short on old-fashioned storytelling. There's enough plot here to fill four novels.

And there is. There's plot galore. Every character has their own complete arc and you learn, for good or bad, who they are, why they are, and what happens to them. Just look at the character map below. This means that the book is a big book. 

And it is. 

The question you are asking was did it drag. And that's an excellent question. 

To that I will answer yes and no.

Yes, it dragged because of two reasons. 1) I needed time to get into the writing style. The first third of the book is written in a Victorian style that gets its power from revolving narrators and their ability to dramatically deliver rumor and gossip. In fact, much of the plot is propelled by gossip, one character detailing what another character is doing and so on. Once into it, I found the narrative style both intriguing and engaging. and 2), also, because of the order that the author chose to present the plot-- basically the organization structure of the novel.  It took me a few literary moments to Grok what she was doing, but once I was, I enjoyed the way the plot was presented.

John Mullan of The Guardian asks: Has a novel ever been more strangely yet elaborately organised?  

I don't think so. What I do wonder is what the book looked like when it was turned into the editor. Was it the editors idea to organize it in such a way or was it the authors. I can almost see the novel presented for publication, only to have an editor with a grand scheme choose to reorganize it. In fact, you'll note that much of the action in the book goes in reverse.

Additionally, the book has been organized around astrological symbols. I didn't get this. Maybe I just didn't get that part of it. I didn't miss anything, but it appeared to be more of an organizational gimmick than was necessary. Of course, the idea of astrology and mysticism does buy into the Victorian ideal, so it was fitting as a plot device. I'm just not sure if it worked as an organizational device. 
Mullan goes on to explain: Some reviewers have been exasperated: how could such hocus pocus provide the ground plan for a serious work of fiction? (Though literary critics forgive Chaucer for organising Troilus and Criseyde by astrological principles and Spenser for using the zodiac in The Faerie Queene.) Others were admiring but befuddled: were we expected to comprehend the notes about celestial precession or work out which sign of the zodiac had been allotted to which character? Readers of James Joyce's Ulysses should know their way around The Odyssey; are Catton's readers expected to make narrative sense of the astrological charts that preface each part of The Luminaries?

Exactly. If I was expected to understand, then the failure was in the presentation, because it appears I was not alone. 

Mullan further explains, The astrological scheme also controls the novel's chronology ("In deference
to the harmony of the turning spheres of time"). The Luminaries is divided into 12 dated parts, spaced at almost monthly intervals. We begin on 27 January 1866, but in Part Four, dated 27 April 1866, we also go back to the events of a year earlier, and the remaining eight parts replay the events of 1865, moving phase by phase through the zodiacal pattern. This is the most elaborate machinery of all, because the decreasing lengths of the succeeding parts mimic the waning moon, each part being half
the length of the one before it.

After reading this last bit of Mullan's explanation, now I understand how the novel's chapters became shorter and shorter. In retrospect it made complete sense. Maybe I am coming to understand the organization after all.

My only issue with the novel was its lack of a sense of place; and maybe that's because I've been to many gold rush towns so I am not the common reader. In this case, the author who hails from New Zealand set the work in her home country. I thought I'd find the sense of place stronger, but I didn't. I think the failure, here, if it can even be called a failure--seems too strong of a word-- is that the sense of place was concentrated on a Gold Rush Mining Town rather than New Zealand. The town could have been picked up and placed anywhere on the planet. Everything about it would have fit in Deadwood or Tombstone with the exception of the shipping and tall ships. Intriguingly enough, I felt more a sense of place at sea in the novel than I did in the terra firma of Hotitka.

For readers, I'd give this a four and a half out of five Donkey Kongs.

For writers, I'd give this a five out of five Donkey Kongs. Not that you'd copy the style, but understanding that there are highly successful ways to organize the plot rather than straightforward narrative is worth the 848 page journey.

About the book's author: Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary and was named as one of Amazon's Rising Stars in 2009. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the Betty Trask Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Prix Femina literature award, the abroad category of the Prix M├ędicis, the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize 2010 and Stonewall's Writer of the Year Award 2011, and longlisted for the Orange Prize 2010. In 2010 she was awarded the New Zealand Arts Foundation New Generation Award. (Granta)

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