Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catton among the pigeons

Murray told me off this morning. He said he read The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton [pictured] because I was reading it as part of my blog Tea Fiction Cosy Challenge [which involved reading all the Montana Fiction Finalists], and he's been waiting ever since for me to say what I thought of it.

Murray's a teacher and he knows good teaching means following up. He wouldn't be the sort of teacher, as I sometimes am, who promises 'we'll get onto that later' and never does. I said this to him when he waylaid me this morning at the local boys' prep school where he teaches, and he laughed in a convivial colleaguey way as if he might just do that too, but I know he wouldn't. I've been in Murray's classroom, and it's super-organised and high-tech with confident boys in blue jerseys. I have no doubt if Murray says he's going to do something in class, he'll do it.

Which is why I'll write about The Rehearsal like I said I would. I feel a bit responsible, too, because Murray didn't love Catton's book. He thought it was clever, but he says he didn't always know what was going on. And he's not the only one. I got lost a few times and had to go back to make sure I had it right, and even then I'm not entirely sure ... And yes, it's clever, but Murray's tone suggested 'too clever by half', and while praising its genius, The Listener's Louise O'Brien called it 'a novel from and for the head' [not the heart]. She said, 'there is no possibility for empathy with or even sympathy for the characters.'

Okay, well The Rehearsal certainly wasn't a book that opened its coat and said 'take me', but that seems to be the whole post-modern meta-fictional point. This kind of novel makes the reader work to unlayer things and find the body underneath. Satisfying if you have the time and energy and commitment and like that kind of thing, but not if you need to 'chill' or want to read the sort of fiction that goes directly to the heart.

On the surface, The Rehearsal is a novel about a girls' school buzzing with a scandalous teacher-student love affair, a nearby drama school that acts out the scandal, and a saxophone teacher who teaches the schoolgirls and causes everything to collide. The Rehearsal of the title is the stuff the drama school does in preparing the play, but it's also what the school students and the drama students and the music students are doing to prepare for their real lives, and the sax teacher, too, for that matter. For when does the rehearsal end? And when does the performance really begin?

Catton writes her scenes as if they are rehearsals - with people in roles speaking lines that include monologues and soliloquoys. Just when a scene seems to be proceeding in a way you'd expect, a spotlight is cued or the 'scene' is replayed or a character proceeds to say the most unlikely things. The writing is incandescent at times, and the overall effect, for me, was perplexing, disarming, hilarious and, yes, eventually, moving too. The latter emerges through the 'playing out' of the self-conscious rehearsal for the real thing that is young love, and through the character of the sax teacher who watches these new shoots and remembers how it was for her, once, and considers the aridity of her life now. Truly, she is the most astonishing invention that, despite her strange role-playing reality, still manages to arouse sympathy.

'I require all of my students,' the saxophone teacher continues, 'that are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with silent fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.'

Kiss-kiss goes the snare drum over this silence.

'But she wants to learn the saxophone,' says Mrs Henderson at last, sounding ashamed and sulky at the same time. 'She doesn't want to learn the clarinet.'
Mrs Henderson leaves unsatisfied and a little later another parent arrives.
That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.

'Mrs Winter,' she says, ' You've come about your daughter. Come in and we'll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.'

She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can scuttle in. It's the same woman as before, just with a different costume -- Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.

They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
All 'stage' mothers of the world, nay mothers, read that and weep. And teachers, Murray, as we discussed, have surely never said it better.

You can get more of a taste of the genius of Eleanor Catton -- for genius it is, a gorgeous singular go-anywhere talent -- at google books preview. Or, better, just go out and buy the book. This terribly-young author is already a cat-like phenomenon in the Big Book Square of the World with its greening statues of the famous and host of perching pigeons. She's won Best First Novel here and a similar award in the UK, and is lined up for more. The book reviewers and writers' festivals love her. One UK reviewer picked The Rehearsal as the future face of the novel.

All I know is that I read The Rehearsal weeks ago now, but when Murray told me off, I sat down and wrote this post without glancing at the book once. This is unusual, given the number of books I read, as I usually need a quick refresher to get underway. But not this one. It's still there, stealthy and sharp-eyed and stalking me, while I gossip among the pigeons.


Rachel Fenton said...

I think it's an awesome book and I'm thrilled by your review of it. I think it's only a shame that so many people are frightened, for want of a better word, of literature that's hard, where you have to give to get. Personally, it's my favourite kind of fiction, to read and to write, but I totally get it that there are masses of people who want the book to carry them away effortlessly. For me, studying literature, and specifically the novel, ruined any chances I had of ever being able to be carried away by most novels, I just guess what's happening and see all of the devices coming.
Catton's is engaging and surprising and it's really encouraging that there are still so many tricks left in the bag for writers.

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks Rachel. You're right, Catton's novel is endlessly surprising and exciting and brightens up that tired old bag of tricks. I am glad to hear how much you loved it too. Thanks for this and all your other comments on my blog - I love the feedback!

maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I haven't yet read 'The Rehearsal' (copy beside my bed), but my book group just read 'Emotionally Weird', a comic novel by Kate Atkinson, published in 2000 - evidently inspired by her failure to secure a Doctorate at Dundee - it is wildly funny, terribly post-modern, and cocking a snoot at the postmodernists, the university (although a disclaimer that it is fiction)and creative writing classes.
Most of us found it terribly funny but very tiresome and we got bored eventually, and lost empathy for Effe, the main character - but, two of my book group, really liked it and thought the psychological development of Effe (related to her past), was spot-on (this woman is a counsellor) - so it's always fun to hear other views of a book you've loved or hated. I was most intrigued because it was Dundee...sae na more... there's a fabulous line in which a character called Shug, tells Effe (in the library where they are kissing) "I cannae shag you hen, Bob's ma pal." Bob, being Effe's hapless boyfriend. Basically you have three strands running through the novel - Effe and her non-Mother Nora telling each other their story (two voices, and Nora's interrupting Effe) and Effe's creative writing story interwoven - it is challenging, but in the end, I felt too tired to care and rise to the challenge (as did some of the others) - but the two who did, felt it rewarded them. So, that's my bit - and I know Murray - awesome teacher of the boys in blue.

Mary McCallum said...

Wow, Maggie, what a comment! Thank you for that. I have Emotionally Weird beside my bed - not least because it's set in Dundee where Kirsty Gunn teaches and her visit has inspired me to pick it up. Interesting what you say about the challenge of a book like that rendering you exhausted at times - certainly not a book to 'chill' with then! I'd love to hear how you find The Rehearsal.

Flossie said...

Great to read your thoughts - I have to say I LOVED this book. Although I can see why some readers might find it "difficult", I agree with Ellie's own view on the book that the "content dictates the form" - it's the most effective and interesting way of exploring the themes of performance and identity that are at the heart of the book. For once, it's possible to say a novel has done something REALLY different - which is an incerdibly exciting thing.

Also I think that sentence, "They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before" is one of my absolute favourite in the book.