At this point, Eleanor Catton has almost stopped caring whether she wins the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday.
"I am kind of desperately wanting the result to go one way or the other," she says over the phone from London, England, where she's spending the week leading up to the ceremony. "I just don't do very well in times of uncertainty. I've had a lot of trouble sleeping, and just generally feel on edge. I'm going to feel really relieved on Tuesday night at 10 o'clock. Just to know, you know? To stop entertaining all possibilities."
Whatever the outcome, Catton's possibilities have exploded in the past month after her epic-length novel about the New Zealand gold rush, The Luminaries, landed on the Booker shortlist – making her the youngest ever to score that honour – and was then nominated for a 2013 Governor-General's Literary Award.
The latter was made possible by the fact that Catton was born in London, Ont., 28 years ago, while her father was on a Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of Western Ontario. When she was six years old, he landed a position at the University of Canterbury, and the family, which included two older siblings, relocated to Christ-church, N.Z. She now lives in Auckland.
She has thus, understandably, been claimed by the Kiwis as one of theirs. And The Luminaries is, by one measure, a thoroughly Kiwi book. Set in the booming west coast New Zealand town of Hokitika during the mid-1860s, it is a beguiling murder mystery written in the style of the day, filled with colourful frontier characters (an opium-eating prostitute, a gold miner turned detective, a dead hermit, a Maori greenstone hunter, etc.), a treasure of unknown provenance, and a love gone awry.
But while The Luminaries is set during a key moment in the country's development, "I wouldn't really call it a New Zealand book in the sense that it's participating in a tradition that already exists in New Zealand," says Catton. "That, in fact, was one of the real pleasures in writing the book. In New Zealand, we just have no tradition of Victorian fiction really, at all." She says, rather, that the country's literature is typified by a 1939 novel called Man Alone, "a really great, bleak modernist fable" about a solitary figure struggling against a social structure in the midst of collapse.
Catton chuckles and adds: "Something like The Luminaries really doesn't figure on the New Zealand landscape. It's definitely not a Man Alone kind of book."
But even as The Luminaries apes the form of a Victorian novel – with chapter headings that spell out the events to come – it also sends it up: Toward the end, those chapter headings are longer and more detailed than the chapters themselves.
And then there's its primary conceit, inspired by the stars above. There are 20 central characters, 12 of whom represent the signs of the zodiac, seven of whom represent the orbiting planets, which in the Victorian era were visible to the naked eye, and one body, which does not move, representing terra firma (that would be the dead man).
Is Catton trying to legitimize astrology for our modern age, perhaps rescue it from newspapers' back pages?
"I do feel like I have a special fondness for any school of thought that is not fashionable," she says with a shy laugh. "It's just kind of a rebellious streak in me, and certainly astrology does not command a great deal of intellectual respect."
The zodiac, she explains, "is incredibly psychologically complex, I think. As a sequence, it makes a great deal of harmonic sense: You know, the 12 signs from Aries through to Pisces really are a 12-part story, and each sign kind of rejects the principles of the sign that precedes it. And reacts against them, in a funny kind of way."
As an example, she cites Aries, "which is understood as the objective principle; Taurus, the subjective, which is a reaction against the objective; and then Gemini, which is a kind of synthesis of objective and subjective, and moves freely between them. And so on and so forth, all the way around.
"So, yeah, I think I do find astrology really interesting as a kind of primitive or naive version of psychology, really. Or, like, a psychological schema."
Then she offers this personal anecdote. "The other thing I've come to notice over the years is that I always argue with my partner at the full moon," she says. "The argument seems so clear to me that I'm in the right and he's just being obnoxious. And then, a couple of days pass and we look up at the sky, and when we see the moon was full a couple of days ago, we're like: 'That was crazy!'"
Which is not to say that she believes the stars – or any other forces – control our destinies. And no, she has not been reading the night sky to find out what will happen at the Booker: "I have too much respect for free will," she says. But the stars must be dealt with – either embraced, rejected, or partially incorporated into our lives.
"One of the strong themes at work in The Luminaries is this tension that obviously exists in astrology between the self that you're given and also the self you make or create for yourself," she says.
Action, reaction, and synthesis of forces: This is the theme that recurs as Catton speaks. Writing The Luminaries, she allows, may in part be a reaction to her acclaimed first novel, The Rehearsal, a thoroughly postmodern work, which played with fiction and reality, private and public performance. She muses that her next novel may be a synthesis of the first two.
And though her fellow New Zealanders would see her as their own, she notes that her own personal identity – her dad's American, her mom's a Kiwi – is also more complex than that.
"I do feel that my Canadian identity growing up was something that was really important to me, especially as a child. Because I was the only Canadian in my family, I felt a special connection to the country."
She says she'd like to pursue that further some day. "I almost feel this is a way the world is moving more and more," she says, "that people's histories aren't going to be easy to define."
The night before our phone call, she had gone for dinner with the fellow Booker nominee Ruth Ozeki. Born in New Haven, Conn., Ozeki divides her time between Canada and the U.S. "She has a Japanese father, an American mother," notes Catton. "And the answer to, 'What do you identify as?' is: 'Well, all of it, of course.'"