The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
When published last year, the debut from 22 year-old Eleanor Catton strongly divided opinions. After finishing it it is not hard to see why. The novel is split into two narratives, both completely (and perhaps unnecessarily) non-linear. One following the fallout of a teacher-student sex scandal at a girls’ school, half gleaned through lessons with a somewhat anomalous saxophone teacher. The other following the awkwardness and trepidations of a group of first years at a nearby drama institute who decide to put on a dramatisation of the highly publicised scandal. The novel culminates at the girls’ school’s end of year band recital and the performance of the drama school’s showcase, which we flit between.
It is evident, even to the readers that loathed this book that Catton’s scope and concept is certainly impressive for a first novel. It opens its pages out to themselves in a truly post modern ‘show what you are showing’ Brectian analysis of truth, performance and story telling. We never forget that the characters are merely words cloaking ideas about adolescence and yearning, as they speak in a mixture of heightened poetic soliloquies, teen-speak and true-to-life dialogue, often all jumbled up together in the same scene.
The author is certainly clever, but is this the work’s undoing? Too many ideas and not enough, well, novel? I have read lots of reviews that suggest that it is ‘all head and no heart.’ Anyone who has read it and experienced the uncomfortable, ill-fitting lives of adolescents’ can only disagree. A heart certainly beats within the main characters of Isolde, the younger sister of the girl involved in the sex scandal, and Stanley, the newcomer to the drama institute who we follow on and off the stage. I know these feelings, as, evidently so does Catton. However, for me, this is where the confusion lies. I can understand and feel a story about thwarted sexual desires, teenage angst and lust, uncertainty, guilt and alienation. Likewise, I can comprehend a work of literature that seeks to show me the clear nature of the medium – I can comprehend the ideas that the characters are not really real and I know the author knows and through knowing this I question the authenticity of performance, and storytelling and the contrived aspects of human social behaviour. Don’t worry, I get it. But when it all comes together in this blur, like (to use one of Catton’s metaphors) a mosaic of pieces, cut up and then slotted in next to each other regardless of the coherence of the final picture, I can only think; really? Is this what you were going for? Confusing your audience so much that the ideas whirl around in a series of tableaux that bear no relation to each other but vaguely recollect some kind of artistic existential awareness?
Perhaps it is. After getting used to the style, (which I must admit took me nearly half the book), I enjoyed it and found it driving and interesting to read. But after finishing it I feel tricked. As with many works of art designed to show up a mirror to itself (I am thinking specifically of the works of Milan Kundera, expect a post about his books next) one inevitably finds oneself stepping back from the characters and their situations, not wanting to be duped into feeling anything for something that the author clearly regards as no more than a metaphor or an experiment. I felt this periodically with a wry ‘I know what your up to’ grimace in my head and then a ‘oh god, I know exactly how he feels!’ But the problem I found here was that they just jarred too much. There was no artifice to be ripped away in the closing paragraphs. No rug pulled out from under me to make me really feel duped. But instead, continually I was nudged in different directions, spilling out across the shards of mosaic, each with their own voice and idea behind the voice – and worse, mirror to reflect the idea of the voice. OH GOD!!!!
I certainly admire it and (I hope) understand the ideas that thread through it in the poetics of fumbling in the auditorium or the probing intimacy of a saxophone teacher. Unlike some reviewers (COUGH! AND THEIR SIMPLISTIC, TWO-DIMENSIONAL CRITIQUES) I am excited and interested by Catton’s passionate literary intellectualism. But, for me, it strikes me as an idea that might already have been done. Most memorably by someone as far flung as Andy Warhol, keeping the microphones in shot in Blow Job or Poor Little Rich Girl to let us know that Edie Sedgwick is not an actress, that she is real, that her tears and running eyeliner are real and unplanned and smack of the authenticity of the Human Reproduced. It certainly tackles the subject of the medium a thousand times better than the infinitely dull and obvious Life of Pi, which to my mind at least must have slipped past the Man Booker judges by some hideous mistake. Perhaps it lulled them into acquiescence with its total lack of interest, falling into the Winner pile as they dosed off on the tenth page.
As you might have guessed, I cannot make up my mind, and perhaps that is enough. The lurid prose and setups of fracturing characters lit up against a dark theatrical background will certainly stay in my head, full of light and dark like a Caravaggio painting. But I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I admire it in a way, but I also hate it for its pretence and its jumbled nature, which I really think added nothing other than to disguise the lack of plot. But that can be fine. There doesn’t have to be a plot, or real characters, or a narrative structure at all necessarily. But I feel that you can’t have bits of all these things along with a fairly overriding concept on realism and falsehood. They just make a mess of good bits that ultimately make something not quite as good as the individual components. It’s kind of like when you put in a really great scarlet, a sublime azure blue, and brilliant white, and a deep emerald green – you invariably arrive at brown, through which tiny glimmers of the former colours can just about be spotted, but only just.
To summarise this (which is now nearly as long as the book itself – see, I can do it too! I know that I am writing this and I know that you know. But you don’t know that I know that you know that I know you know….) it is an interesting debut with an original style of prose. Every other review says the work itself is original, but I think in concept the idea is about as worn out artistically as Duchamp’s urinal is in art school studios across the Western World. It's kind of like saying Lady Gaga is original, when really she is just a louder combination of already provoking or mind-boggling ideas. There is no integral reason to the coalescence - but then, maybe this is all originality can be? It does, however, come from an interesting author who is sure to produce something else very startling.
So yeah, basically, what’s next?
If you’ve made it to the end of this review and have read The Rehearsal, please comment about it. I AM DYING TO HEAR WHAT ANYONE ELSE HAS TO THINK!