Monday, September 6, 2010

Feels detached, but in a good way

I love debut fiction. There's nothing like the thrill you feel when you discover a new author. Whoever said that the novel is dead must be delusional. Life of Pi, The God of Small Things, The White Tiger -- all of these are debut novels; they're all wonderfully satisfying reads as well. Reading debut fiction can be quite risky, too. You just don't have any comparison. We all have a list of writers that we are partial too, but with first-time novelists, you just don't know whether you'll like their work and ultimately decide they're writers to watch out for.

So after being terribly disappointed with Mockingjay (review to follow next week), I've decided to take a risk and read Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal. I've read so many things about this novel that I was challenged to read it. The Rehearsal is one novel that polarizes readers. One group would say that it feels oddly detached. Another would mention that it represents a departure from your traditional storytelling. Both are true, in fact. And I'm pleased to say that I liked The Rehearsal. It's the type of novel that makes you think.

The pivotal scene that drives the two narratives in The Rehearsal has to do with a scandal -- a high school teacher was discovered to be having a sexual relationship with his student. It is this context that we hear the perspectives of the main characters of the novel. Isolde, the sister of the sexually abused student, has struck an air of indifference on the issue; it is her classmates that express a strong point. Isolde continues on with her student life amidst the chatter and gossip of her classmates. The result is something analogous to living in a fish bowl, with everyone noticing and discussing Isolde's every move.

Isolde is also studying the saxophone, going frequently to her saxophone teacher for private classes. The saxophone teacher remains nameless throughout the novel. But ironically, it is her thoughts, dialogue, and actions that become the novel's most distinct voice. The sax teacher speaks to parents about different subjects, in a language that somehow feels unnatural because of their verbosity. It is the sax teacher that introduces Isolde to Julia, another high school student and encourages them to become friends. The friendship of Isolde and Julia again become the subject of malicious talk at school. It is only when Isolde develops a romantic relationship with Stanley that the novel takes a wonderfully uncomfortable turn.

The other narrative in The Rehearsal, which occurs as alternating chapters with the chapters on Isolde, is that of Stanley. Stanley is a first year drama student at a prestigious institution. As a student of the performing arts, Stanley comes off as unremarkable. He doesn't have any unique skills. One would only feel for Stanley because Catton writes him as a sensitive character. It made me ask though -- did Catton write her characters purposefully this way? It's as if Isolde, the sax teacher, and Stanley are mere observers, as conduits of people's thoughts.

The latter parts of the novel is where everything gets more interesting. As part of the requirement at the end of their first year, the drama students must perform a play that nobody has heard of. The class decides to choose the sexual abuse in the nearby high school as their subject. Little does Stanley know that he's dating the sister of the subject of their play. Isolde is also clueless about the play. Add to the fact that Stanley will be playing the abusive high school teacher and that Isolde's parents have been invited to watch opening night, you just know that everything will come crashing to a close, and in a big way.

If the novel feels detached, then I guess it is Catton's way of saying that we're all spectators of everyone's lives. Catton engages the reader in a very unusual way. Instead of letting her reader feel that he or she experiences the novel's scenes, Catton lets the reader view it at a distance. Here's an excerpt to illustrate. Note that it has the feel of an opening act of a play.
Isolde and Victoria are watching television. Isolde is curled in the cat-furred hollow of the armchair with her legs hugged to her chest and her head upon her arm. Victoria is lying on the sofa with one leg cocked and the remote control held lightly between her finger and her thumb. Their father has just come through the room and crumpled Isolde's toes in his big hand and said Goodnight, slugs. Their mother has just called out from the stairway, Bed by eleven please. Their counterpointed footsteps, light and heavy, have just dwindled away up the stairs, and they have just shut their bedroom door with a faint and knucked click.

So, Eleanor Catton is someone whose later works I will be looking out for. Who knows what kind of novel she comes up with next. The Rehearsal is so refreshing; I've never read anything quite like it. You read other people's thoughts about the same situation. It appeals to different aspects of our lives -- our need to express our thoughts about a scandalous affair, our fascination for the taboo, our indecisiveness as adolescents, our indifference to people we hardly care about.

If this review has made The Rehearsal seem like a pretentious piece of contemporary literature, then I would have to say that it is not. On the contrary, The Rehearsal is very readable, the dialogue crisp, and the characters people you can relate to. Read it, now.

Read this book if:
  1. You like plays.
  2. You love debut fiction.
  3. You've been the subject of malicious talk.


Stepford Mum said...

I've been eyeing this novel on Amazon, Peter, because I like debut fiction too! My favorite to this date (bought the book when it came out, before they made it into a movie) is still Josephine Hart's Damage. Best opening line ever, and I love her very sparse prose.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Stepford Mum! I got this at National. I believe Fully Booked has this novel, too, although with a different cover.

SariJ said...

Nice review. I believe you captured the soul of the book.
I too love debut novels. You just never know who will really stand out. Ruth Downie really blew my mind earlier this year with Medicus. Lucky for me her book was a hit and now she has two more. There is nothing worse than finding a new author to love only to find they never write another book.

Peter S. said...

Hi, SariJ! Thank you. I can't wait to read more debut fiction this year.

martine said...

Hi, thanks for your thoughts on this, we have this book part read on the shelf, my mum bought it for my daughter, it made a promising start but then be haven't gone back to it. I think we will give it another go.
much love martine

Peter S. said...

Hi, Martine! Give it another shot! It picks up along the way.

Mrs. B. said...

I tried to read this but I just couldn't get into the strange writing style. Maybe I should have persevered. You must read One Day by David Nicholls. YOu'll love it!

Peter S. said...

Hi, Mrs. B! I plan to read One Day next. I have a copy here somewhere.