Our second Catton review

The new novel by Eleanor Catton is at once deep and meaningless. It’s a thriller where just about the most thrilling scene is a debate, hard to put down but easy to walk away from once it’s over, a fast read with a serious intellectual core – in green parlance, it’s a hybrid. Green thinking is the book’s engine: Birnam Wood tells of the battle between good and evil, with the forces of good wanting to save and sustain the planet, and the forces of evil wanting to exploit and plunder it. Gosh that makes it sound tremendously boring and worthy but Birnam Wood is way too complex, way too interesting and also, crucially, way too funny for any kind of simple reduction. There’s a lot going on. It’s the work of a writer who is the smartest person in the room. Most every page crackles with thinking, with ideas, with knowledge. It’s all loaded onto a carriage of story which roars at top speed down the track. The pages fly by fast and take you towards a climax you will never guess that is at once totally shocking – Birnam Wood, a novel of contrasts – and completely insane.

Two women in their 20s, Mira and Shelley, direct a “frankly illegal scheme of trespassing and botanical vandalism”. They employ stealth and cunning to plant gardens without anyone noticing, and harvest the produce for those in need. The activist group is called Birnam Wood. It has two factions: “the ideologues, who were combative and self-conscious, and who cherished revolutionary aims; and the do-gooders, who were more reliably hard-working, but who were…more fixated than the ideologues on the ways in which any breaches of protocol ought to be policed”. But their harvests are small. Birnam Wood achieves nothing very substantial, and the group is headed for atrophy – until Mira seizes on the ambitious idea of occupying a large farm in the South Island without anyone noticing. Someone notices: an American billionaire, a venture capitalist. Let the battle between good and evil commence.

The setting is New Zealand, in 2017 – a New Zealand as Catton remembers it before she left the country, a time before the great liberal years of Ardern, a darker time of Key, his right-wing agenda presented as something soothing and good clean fun by media and business. And so there is a kind of settling of scores. Throughout, the author relays pious little old-hat critical homilies about the failings of the New Zealand character. “It was a point of national pride to be able to withstand discomfort or poor service without giving in to the temptation to complain.” And: “Tony was very proud to be well read, and had often railed against the defensive anti-intellectualism that defined his country’s culture.” Also: “Chivalric titles had been abolished in New Zealand in the year 2000, only to be reinstated nine years later by a moneyed politician desirous of a knighthood of his own. It was embarrassing whichever way one felt about it: the monarchists could not celebrate, as the resurrection only proved the Crown could be politically compelled, and the republicans could not protest, because to do so would be to suggest that there was something sacred about a monarchic code of chivalry in the first place.” What?

There may be faint traces of bitterness but there’s also a sense of fun. Both are at work in her most explicit attempt at a form of revenge: on Sean Plunket, the shockjock broadcaster who famously and offensively described Catton as “an ungrateful hua” in 2015. Her father felt moved to defend her in public. The insult clearly rankled; and lingered. And so she creates a small but perfectly devastating scene where the US billionaire meets a shockjock broadcaster who wants “to establish a right-wing media platform in New Zealand”. They have dinner. The broadcaster comes across as a braying jackass. The venture capitalist acts as the dummy to Catton’s ventriloquism as he rants against “these dime-a-dozen, grasping, self-important outrage-mongers, these obsequious nonentities, these small-time pseudo-pundits who traded in stupidity and called themselves subversive for shitting where they ate”.

Sean Plunket will likely relish the attention

Maybe it’s petty. Plunket will likely relish the attention. But it actually serves an important plot device; the American uses the faux Plunket in order to disguise himself as “simply a far-sighted, short-selling, risk-embracing kleptocrat…[a] libertarian…[a] misanthrope…[a] doomsday-prepping, New Zealand–citizenship-seeking, investment-opportunity-dangling billionaire”. It’s good copy and it throws Kiwis off the scent. He’s a lot worse than that. The forces of good in Birnam Wood are people beset with doubts, muddled thinking, various assorted tensions; the forces of bad, as acted out by the venture capitalist, are…just kind of like very bad. He’s a psychopath. He’s Halloween psychopath Michael Myers with money, he’s Nightmare on Elm St psychopath Freddie Krueger bringing his bad dreams to New Zealand. The difference is that I believe in Michael Myers and Freddie Krueger. They’re scary. They make you afraid of the dark. They’re random and inexplicable – they’re fear itself. I wasn’t afraid of Catton’s monster. His absolute full-on bland OTT evilness presents a serious problem to taking Birnam Wood seriously, to believing it, to enjoying it as a successful piece of brainy and entertaining escapist trash.

Much of it succeeds as brainy and entertaining escapist trash.. Birnam Wood is very, very readable. Catton has a jaunty and satirical style, which is to say a sense of humour. The book is fun, for a long time, and the character writing, especially the dynamics between characters, is first-rate, always. Her deep dives into the psychologies of Mira and Shelley are compelling. She bares their souls, as well as their anxieties, their drives, their complications. And their speech: Catton has a fantastic ear, and writes such good dialogue, picking up on habits like characters talking in satirical inverted commas, in italics and with repetitions: “Do you know her?” “I guess. I mean, I don’t know her know her, but yeah.”

One thing Catton omits is physical description. The reader has to see Mira and Shelley in their own mind. So possibly you might view Mira as sexy and charismatic; the only sighting we are given of her is “on the dance floor, turning her hands in the air above her head; Mira flushed on the fire escape, her eyes closed, pressing the globe of her wine glass hard against her cheek; Mira with an avid look”. And maybe Shelley is cumbersome and disguises her body; the only time Catton dresses either of them is to put Shelley in a “boiler suit and regulation steel-capped boots”. She writes later, “He had looked right past her, as likely many people did.”

The two main male protagonists receive only a brief female gaze. Tony, who several years earlier had a quick fuck with Mira and yet remains obsessed with her, is “a tanned, bearded man of around thirty, slightly round-shouldered, his long hair swept back from his forehead”. Robert, the billionaire, is one of the richest men on the planet: “in his forties, lean, smooth-faced, and wearing a navy tracksuit and an unbranded baseball cap….This man’s tracksuit was so ordinary and unassuming, and so simply cut, that Mira felt absolutely certain it was more expensive than any garment she had ever owned.”

Whatever. Catton is more intent, as in fully intent, on what people are thinking, and how they say what’s on their mind. There’s a stand-out 20 page scene where Tony has a debate with the Birnam Wood activists at a café. It’s dazzling stuff, the most intellectually alert piece of New Zealand writing I’ve read since Danyl McLachlan’s analysis of altruism in his 2021 book of essays, Tranquility and Ruin. You can hear their voices, the argument of liberals and intellectuals, people who are educated, passionate, ideologically fractured. Tony rants at them, “You’re still inside the paradigm. Can’t you see? You’re still treating people as consumers, you’re just saying that they should consume more responsibly and consume less. But as long as you keep talking in the language of the market, you’re never going to address the root cause of the problem…..If we want to mount any kind of serious challenge to neoliberalism at all, we have to go way deeper than just changing our spending habits. We have to change the way we actually think.”

He’s interrupted by one of the women in Birnam Wood but of course a woman’s point of view is no match for a male narcissist. Tony talks over her, “Like, think about the fact that nobody’s willing to use the language of morality any more. We can talk about power – all we talk about is power, who’s got it and who wants it – and we can talk about privilege, which is basically the same thing, entrenched power, but to use words like good and evil, or not even evil, just good and bad, when it comes to people’s behaviour, or their lifestyle choices, or their forms of self-expression – their freedom – that’s, like, totally taboo. Especially on the left. Where do you think we got that from? It’s the market…” And so on, and it’s exhilarating, far richer and better observed than any journalism could achieve, a little masterpiece.

Birnam Wood is essentially a genre novel and fits the streaming paradigm – thrills, kills, black humour for comic relief, awesome setting – like a glove

There are smaller, enriching moments. I make no apologies for once more pointing out that Catton is a really funny writer, mischievous and antic. There’s a scene where a character loses her mind on LSD. She’s taken to a van, and told, “I need you to count to five thousand. But you have to say every single number. You can’t miss any of them out. All right? It’s important.” Four pages later: “In the van, [she] was still counting: ‘A hundred and twenty-one, a hundred and twenty-two, a hundred and twenty-three…’” Very funny; and very Netflixian. Birnam Wood is essentially a genre novel and fits the streaming paradigm – thrills, kills, black humour for comic relief, awesome setting – like a glove.

In an interview a few years ago with Finlay Macdonald, Catton remarked that her research for Birnam Wood included reading encyclopaedias to learn about “practical things” such as knot-tying techniques and how to build a raft. No rafts were built in the service of Birnam Wood but the pages reveal an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants and gardening. “They chose hardy perennials, fast-growing annuals, or – if the ground was tilled enough – root crops that might from a distance be confused for weeds, and sowed them along verges and fence lines, beside motorway off-ramps, inside demolition sites, and in junkyards filled with abandoned cars…. They had planted Jerusalem artichokes in the abandoned earthworks of a stalled construction project out of town, and the crop had since run rampant….As she knelt down to feel the texture of the soil, Mira was suffused with a restless, excitable energy, already mapping out in her imagination where every bed and every crop would go”, etc. It takes you right there, just as she does when Catton updates the great bush scenes in John Mulgan’s 1939 classic Man Alone with several wonderfully physical set-pieces where Tony hides out in the bush, at first on a mission, and later when the stakes are more serious.

Or, to harp on, when it becomes difficult to take seriously. In 2017, when Catton gave her publisher Fergus Barrowman a 20-page outline of Birnam Wood, he told the Guardian, “Ellie told me a while ago she was reading Lee Child and I see that in there.” Child’s Jack Reacher books are told in short breaths. The sentences are small and hard. Commas are a luxury not worth taking. Catton knows her way around this kind of territory. “He might be sick in the head. He might be planning to kill her. He might be planning to kill the whole group.” It’s effective, too, in describing sudden movements. “Mira  heard a thud and a screech of tyres and then a crack.” And: “She heard a scream.” Also: “Then she froze.”

But her attempts at introducing violence are not exactly…subtle. The great crime writer Patricia Highsmith sometimes slipped in a murder as though she was passing the time of day. From The Talented Mr Ripley (1957): “Tom glanced at the land. San Remo was a blur of chalky white and pink. He picked up the oar as casually as if he were playing with it between his knees, and when Dickie was shoving his trousers down, Tom lifted the oar and came down with it on the top of Dickie’s head.” Similarly, from Deep Water (published the same year): “Vic picked up a jagged, off-white rock about the size of his head as if to examine it. Then he drew his arm back and threw it, aiming at Cameron’s head, just as Cameron turned towards him.” But Birnam Wood is more along the lines of a character in a horror movie yelping, “Behind you!” The yelping in Birnam Wood is signalled with the use of a ye olde breathless dash. “She was just forming this resolution in her mind when she returned to the airstrip – and a man stepped out from behind the plane.” And: “He shot out his hand to cover Mira’s mouth – but it was too late.” Also: “She looked up, squinting through the rain – and there at the edge of the field…”

No need to finish the sentence about what was at the edge of the field. Any review of Birnam Wood has to back away from the ending, and beat around the bush of what leads up to it, among the drones and the encrypted surveillance and the special mercenaries and the top-secret activity of “leaching rare-earth elements in situ by pumping lixiviant through boreholes drilled directly into the ground”….Yeah, kind of bonkers, a lively and exciting romp, anchored with hard facts and difficult science (the “leaching of rare-earth elements”, the gardening, the surveillance, the survival tactics in the New Zealand bush) which are as exact and lucid as all the brilliant conversations about ideologies and ethics. It’s nonsense, but it’s smart. It’s hamfisted, but it’s precise. It’s a pageturner, until the last page, when Birnam Wood floats away, lightweight and hollow, fun while it lasted, unputdownable and unmemorable.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $40) is in every single bookstore in New Zealand. As the biggest literary event in New Zealand for a long, long time, the only sane response to it is to go completely overboard, and so ReadingRoom is devoting four reviews to Catton’s long-awaited follow-up to The Luminaries. Yesterday: Rachael King. Tomorrow, and Sunday: Miro Bilbrough, and David Eggleton.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

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