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HomeEntertainmentEleanor Catton follows a messy, Booker-winning novel with a tidy thriller. That's...

Eleanor Catton follows a messy, Booker-winning novel with a tidy thriller. That’s a shame



Birnam wood

By Eleanor Catton
FSG: 432 pages, $28

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Neatness will kill a novel – smother it and slowly blow the life out of it. You know the markers: the characteristically named characters whose fates match their nicknames, the hammer-on-the-head foreshadowing, the dreaded Deus ex Machina. The literary thriller may borrow a few genre tropes, but in fact it’s the perfect place to ditch such clunky tools, to mess with conventions of morality and political ideology, to swirl together the various shades of gray of human behavior.

And yet, not always. Following the sprawling reach of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Luminaries,” her new sequel pulls into itself — not just in scope and scope, but messiness. The frayed edges are trimmed. The beautiful madness is immediately washed out. In “Birnam wood‘, everything is exactly as it seems. The bad guys are very bad, the goodies justly shredded, the speeches politically outraged or just plain hammy.

“The Luminaries” was almost baroque by comparison. It featured a cast as robust as one of those Vanity Fair ones Hollywood covers that unfolds into a three-foot-long portrait, with more and more flashy-dressed characters peeking around every fold. More than a dozen protagonists jostled against each other in a colonial gold mining town in 1860s New Zealand, kicking up dust, splashing guts and digging up the earth to seize its riches. There was a celestial rhythm to it – Catton structured the story around a particular astronomical alignment in the southern sky from 1864-66 – and that backbone held things in place as the story twisted and twisted.

“Birnam Wood” has a slightly more subdued premise, though the characters are just as concerned about the fortune-making returns of New Zealand’s magnificent rocks and soil. A guerrilla horticultural group called Birnam Wood (in some oblique connection to the famous marching woods in “Macbeth”) has been planting its crops along roadsides and unloved plots for years, barely making ends meet, let alone inciting revolutionary change.

Then the nominal leader, Mira Bunting, meets the enigmatic billionaire Robert Lemoine – founder of Autonomo, a nefarious security company – as he explores a vast estate next to a national forest for its potential as the group’s next planting ground. Lemoine has recently worked his way into ownership of the land and has his own designs on it, but he tells Mira he will invest a hundred grand in Birnam Wood to support the group’s mission – and, he admits, to help themselves secure New Zealand citizenship. and build a survival bunker.

The bunker is a bunk: Lemoine is actually mining a rare mineral that, if successfully excavated, will make him “by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who ever lived.” Not only richer, but also the richest. Superlatives reign in ‘Birnam Wood’.

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

He’s a figure closer to Lex Luthor than PayPal founder and libertarian menace Peter Thiel, who bought himself New Zealand citizenship and who has cited Catton as a model. Lemoine is a supervillain in the most subtle sense, with almost infinite money, insurmountable technology and maniacal plans for a grandiose world takeover. Just give him a hideout and a cluck.

Before his first meeting with Mira, Lemoine intercepts her phone’s signal and hacks into her data, turning the cell into his personal toy. He can monitor her texting and browsing, trace her whereabouts, and impersonate her in texting – the kind of superpower that saps all the fun out of their David-and-Goliath relationship. His financial stock is seemingly all liquid. He repositions drones like Jack Bauer from “24” and employs former special ops commandos who have all the autonomy of “Star Wars” Stormtroopers. When Mira falls even further under his influence due to an accident, Lemoine pushes the plot even further into the absurd.

Catton writes it in large block letters: VILLAIN. And she narrates in a close third person, explaining motivations to the atom and shutting down any curiosity of her characters about themselves. Lemoine admits that he “liked to present as a riddle” (what billionaire doesn’t?), that “it made his self-analysis all the sweeter to know that he was outwardly inscrutable, a puzzle to which only he ever held the key.” And yet, “there was a key. There was a secret in his nature, a clue that explained everything about him, a single eight-week period in his very early adolescence that in every sense forged the man he had become. Unsurprisingly, the “key” is childhood trauma – and it involves both the CIA and a reluctant father.

Lemoine is the fixed point in a loveless triangle; moving the trio to more acute or obtuse positions are quirky but innocent Mira and her former romantic interest Tony Gallo, a former Birnam Wood member with a heavy chip on his shoulder and delusions of journalistic grandeur. Both are eminently confident and foolish to the point of ridiculousness.

Catton’s great theme is plunder, and her millennial crusaders are as ardent in their protection of New Zealand’s resources as Lemoine is determined to dynamize and exploit them. Though their prose styles dance to very different rhythms, Catton has a Sally Rooney-esque determination to embellish her characters in their political mantras, particularly left-wing do-gooder millennials. The Gardeners use the name of one of the members’ mother as “a kind of shorthand for the many evils of the baby boom generation, a despised cohort of hoarders and plunderers.”

At a Birnambos hui (that is, a gathering – a term the gardeners adopted somewhat gingerly from the Māori), Tony unleashes a diatribe against the group’s ideological weakness, bellowing at them for nine pages about “the relation as the basic socio-economic unit”, the joylessness of the political left and how “nobody wants to use the language of morality anymore”. He finally stomps out and goes into the woods around Lemoine’s land to investigate what the billionaire is up to and ” to prove to himself that he wasn’t just another Marxist intellectual cliché.” He is, and Catton knows it. But the problem isn’t cliché; it’s politics as a substitute for personality.

Tony is the combative seeker of truth, Mira the naive do-gooder. For all of Catton’s rigorous psychologization, the characters never step out of their boxes to become human beings. After Tony moves into the woods and Mira gets caught up in a cover-up, “Birnam Wood” makes an even more difficult shift to the absurd. The novel splits its pants – the worries are mundane but the results are stratospheric, the devices are bizarre but the plot twists are starkly predictable.

Sure, by the end of “Birnam Wood” there are real, gory consequences – a muddle of flesh and bones. It’s finally messy, but not quite the mess a novel needs. One character points out that guns are almost never carried in New Zealand, and yet bullets whiz through the final pages of the novel as if Robert Ludlum stepped in as Catton’s co-writer. Characters are shrugged off, like early victims in a horror movie.

And what’s a critic to do with a melodramatic ending that can’t be spoiled, but perfectly captures the novel’s primary flaw? Let’s put it this way: if “Birnam Wood” were a movie (and it could just end that way), its final minutes would feature a slo-mo crawl, a high score, a sacrifice for the greater good. Neat and tidy, as if someone brought a stiff broom to the lot and swept away all the wonderfully dirty corners.

Kelly’s work has been published in New York magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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