Illusions, games, role-plays; The art of mirrors and deception
I have re-read Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, to see if I want to embark on The Luminaries, and am still not sure.
The Rehearsal is set primarily in a Drama School of the ‘break the person down in order to get at their truth’ variety, and also in a girls’ school, particularly amongst a group of girls who are learning to be saxophonists.
It is the story of a sexual relationship between a fifteen year old girl and her male teacher, and how that story sets off reverberations within her family, her peers and the wider community of the two schools. The taboo relationship between the girl and the teacher is then used to explore sexuality, overt and covert, power, youth and age, seduction and who seduces and who is seduced, and how, sexual games and the whole cannibalistic, voyeuristic nature of performance.
As the ‘true’ story of the girl and her teacher gets used as the springboard for a play, performed by a group of First Year Drama Students, the wheels within wheels nature of this book, the simultaneous stories jumping backwards and forwards, dizzyingly, between the girls’ school, their saxophone lessons (and all the cultural accretion that instrument holds) and the drama school, becomes more and more tangled, more and more illusion within illusion. Catton constructs a house of deliberate artifice, a mind game between writer and reader
Catton is a remarkably clever writer, she is a conceptual writer, like a conceptual artist. A writer about, a writer who comments on the illusion of art, performance, writing itself. A writer who comments on the fact that we are all illusionists, mask wearers, performance artists.
Reading her work though I have that uneasy sense that conceptual art itself often brings me, where found objects, or objects and images which are generated by software writing, computer generated, fulfil one of the major functions of art – to make us notice – but lack some indefinable, energetic quality of the soulfulness, heartfulness in the direct transmission of the artist themselves creating something into being through the craft of their hands getting down and dirty and fine with brush, pen, colour mixing.
To put it another way – bread made in a bread machine – or something extra in bread made by hand.
What has this to do with Catton, who after all created the words, the idea, the story. And skilfully too? Somehow, as a reader, I found myself at a remove from her creation. Admiring of her craft, pondering the cleverness of plays within plays, characters playing characters, a veritable series of carefully crafted interlocking Chinese boxes. But what for me was lacking, despite her very very accurate unpicking of adolescent insecurity, that time above all else of the trying on of masks to see which one is the best fitting to grow into, was the sense of the real, visceral nature of her characters.
In a novel about performance, should there not be moments when suddenly one ‘comes real’? Despite the fact that I guess we all have a director in our heads, an observer of ourselves, we all, also, have moments when we are properly present, properly within ourselves, being. There is perhaps a little too much unremitting self-consciousness here.
Cool intelligence, clear observation, wit, invention, but no sense (for this reader) of Catton engaging inside the turbulent blood, guts, heart and viscera of her characters. Because I could not sense the writer being inside the feeling other, but only had the sense as of a clinical psychologist professionally disengaged, I, too, was not taken inside suffering or ecstatic humanity. An interesting mind game (there is a more earthy description!) but I stayed within my own cool head, ultimately disengaged from connection,
For this reader, MUCH to admire; little to warm-heartedly love. I recommend whole-headedly this from my Inner Cool Sophisticate, to yours. But if what you want from writing is that ‘only connect’ that transcends the tiny individual and gives that sense of expanded horizon, that greater understanding ‘felt in the heart and felt along the blood’, this is not that.