I’ve caught her at it again. Eleanor Catton is breaking the rules. In The Luminaries, I celebrated her for practicing authorial intrusion, for blatantly jumping in and manipulating her characters in time, space, and temperament without the slightest attempt to keep her managerial hand out of view of the audience. She not only makes her manipulation work in The Luminaries, but makes it central to her creation.
So wonderful was that Booker winner, I hesitated to pick up her first novel The Rehearsal, for fear of being disappointed not only because it might not measure up to the other, but because the book jacket drew such a banal picture of the situation and action. A music teacher at a girls school gets himself involved with a student and we are to spend an entire novel exploring the implications not only for the couple but for all around them. “Teenage yearning and adult regret” as one soap operaish phrase puts it. I hope the description sells some books for Catton, but it falls way short of describing this extraordinary work, which bears as much relation to that hackneyed description as a light bulb does to the sun.
And as for those rules I mentioned. This time, Catton most remarkably pays no attention to age, gender, or even the identity of her characters. She gives them lines they couldn’t possibly speak:
“I’d lie,” Julia [15 years old] says. … “I would make up silver lies studded with shards of perfect detail like mosaic splinters, sharp and everlasting, the kind of tiny faultless detail that would make them all sure that what I said was true.”
At other times, she blurs the lines among plot, subplots, and parallel characters. Putting into the mouths of youngsters names and events of adults and actions they couldn’t know. But we know them, and we know that the lives these teenagers are living will lead inexorably toward the lives like those of the adults around them. Same impulses, urges, mysteries.
All of this Catton wraps in the artifices of music and theater. A saxophone teacher is a link among several of the girls, hearing confessions, dispensing advice, lecturing on the special nature of the saxophone, its renegade history and declasse status in the musical world. How only certain kinds of people–especially females–are suited for it and its outlaw nature.
There’s a drama academy across the street from the girls’ school. Those students catch wind of the scandal and decide to construct a play around it for their semester project. Thus, the creation of this imaginary version of the book’s instigating incident becomes a metaphor for an entire community’s response to it. “When I look at you, I imagine things,” goes one repeated line. It applies to the play as well as to everyone’s perceived version of what happened between that teacher and that student, an event that creates the potential for other such events for both adults and students.
By the end, which is not a conventional end, but merely the place at which Catton chooses to cease describing actions which will continue way past the last page of the book, we understand something more of our interconnectedness. As if we were all part of a single organism, and whatever happens to one, affects all.
I think I should end with a word about sex. You’ll never read a novel that treats issues of sexuality more deeply than The Rehearsal. Who’s gay, who’s bi, who’s not, and what those concepts might mean are interwoven throughout. Even the images of the saxophone–its undulating curves, and the way it modifies the body of its player, especially the females when the neck strap separates the breasts–play into how the characters relate to one another. Yet, like so much else in the novel, all this is nuanced, metaphorical, not at all explicit. Not a hint of pornographic anything. Also like so much else in the novel, you go away uncertain about what happened and what was imagined and wondering, somehow, how much of a difference it often makes. A mystery. And a mystery The Rehearsal will help you explore in the hands of its most expert author/guide.