Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

I’m waiting to hear back on my graduate school applications to the MFA programs at McNeese and George Mason and in the process, have become obsessed with all things MFA-related. This includes authors fresh out of writing programs that have enjoyed some degree of success, which is how I found out about The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. She’s just two years older than me and already a "golden girl" in the writing scene.

Maybe I’m being catty but I’m not sure I get why she warrants such attention. I am not in the habit of turning my back on a book before I’m finished reading it… If I am having a relationship with the novel in front of me and participating in a dialogue with the author, not finishing a book just seems—I don’t know, rude? Regardless of my ideas about reading etiquette, I was tempted to give up on this one.

The Rehearsal focuses more or less on two characters—Isolde, the younger sister of a girl who has just left school due to an affair with one of her school’s music teachers and Stanley, a nearby student at a prestigious acting school. We do not witness Isolde’s story first hand, but rather through her interactions with her nosy (and detestable) Saxophone teacher. We never know if any of our characters are giving us actual accounts or simply acting, as the novel is about what is perceived to be true as much as it is about what actually is true. Eventually, the two strangers come together and Stanley puts together a play based on Isolde’s older sister’s scandal and awaits the reactions.

My main problem with the novel was the dialogue. For example, the conversation where the saxophone teacher is discussing the death of one of her students, Bridget, with Bridget’s mother:

“I understand that this is something you couldn’t possibly have prepared
yourself for,” the saxophone teacher says to Bridget’s mother. “I’m shocked
myself. I feel partly it’s because Bridget was so dull. I always imagine that
the ones who die are the interesting ones, the wronged ones, the tragic ones,
the ones for whom death would come as a terrible, terrible waste. I always
imagine it as a tragedy. Bridget’s death doesn’t quite seem to fit.”

The mother responds by nodding and agreeing, more or less, that her daughter was too boring to die. On what kind of planet do exchanges like this happen? Earlier in the novel, while Bridget was still alive, the same teacher told Bridget she was too “scrubbed pink” and therefore not sexy enough, mysterious enough, to play the saxophone, and should stick to something more appropriate, like the clarinet.

One of the subplots in this novel is that of a gay student named Julia that also has private lessons with the saxophone teacher. One night, the teacher takes both Julia and Isolde out to a performance and tries to strike up a romance between the two young girls. In their lessons that follow, she will ask one what happened, and then the other, throwing in not-so-subtle hints about what she thinks should happen should they see one another again. Here, a conversation between Julia and the saxophone teacher, before Julia launches in on a conversation about trying to seduce Isolde:

“I’ve been looking at all the ordinary staples of flirting,” Julia says, “like
biting your lip and looking away for just a second too late, and laughing a lot
and finding every excuse to touch, light fingertips on a forearm or a thigh that
emphasize and punctuate the laughter. I’ve been thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else’s lines. It’s a comfort.”

Once again, the focus on acting v. being, etc. Insightful, yes. Something I can actually picture a high school girl saying to her mentor? No.

I realize I'm almost to the end of the reviw and have barely touched on the other main character, Stanley. It seems he's only a shadow of a real character, a conduit through which things will happen. I found myself skimming through his sections.

I think that if I could have read about Bridget, Julia, and Isolde functioning in their natural environments, I would have enjoyed the book. The actual meat of the novel is interesting, but the way that it is conveyed made it a burden to stomach. I understand that she’s trying to do something different, something ambitious, that this is probably exactly the kind of writing that MFA programs go crazy for… but as an “average reader” it didn’t work for me. I want to know what actually happened more than I want to know what their posture was like while they sat in their lessons, talking about something that may or may not have actually happened, instead of playing their instruments… which is what I assume saxophone lessons are for.


Brent Waggoner said...

That dialog sounds like someone doing a bad DeLillo. Is the book sort of surreal?

Brooke said...

I've never read DeLillo, but he's on my list. The problem is that the list is always growing.
It has surreal moments.

Christopher said...

The dialogue is really horrible. Plus, there's nothing sexy about the saxophone.

Brent Waggoner said...

I guess you've never heard of a little aphrodisiac by the name of Kenny G.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because I adored the book and feel defensive - but I've seen a few reviews ask the question "who talks like this in real life", and it always makes me want to laugh. Nobody, of course - but then, nobody talks like ordinary book dialogue, either! Catton sets out her project early on in the novel in a scene with Stanley, I believe, when they're talking about plays and stories: they say that characters aren't real people, they're not even meant to be like real people. "The stage is not real life, and the stage is not a copy of real life … the stage is only a place where things are made present. Things that would not ordinarily happen are made to happen on stage. The stage is a site at which people can access things that would otherwise not be available -to them." Substitute "the novel" in for "the stage", and you get an idea of what Catton is trying to do with her novel.

Because her characters are so extremely unrealistic, Catton actually exposes the artifice of the regular novelist's supposedly realistic dialogue. And she does it beautifully, in a way which still allows us, the reader, to have experiences that are not normally available to us. Even though her characters aren't real, some of the moments in which she describes them - some of the girls from the saxophone teacher's point of view, for example - are achingly, cruelly realistic, like the passage in which she describes one girl by saying "what makes this girl not an Isolde is, perversely, her tremendous desire to *be* Isolde" - or something like that, I haven't got the book to hand. That's not the world's most original observation, of course, but I recall it as being rather perfectly phrased.

The book is entirely surreal, IMO; all of the characters move in and out and play different roles. Any attempt to read it as a realist novel is going to get frustrated and wander away.

Brooke said...

@Tui: I can respect that the angle that she wrote this from is completely different than what the standard reader (I include myself in this) is expecting. It's fresh, it's ambitious, it's different. It just didn't work for me. That being said, I'm an average jane and not a scholar-- certainly not someone with the Iowa cred that she has behind her. I also admire the fact that you are willing to stand behind a book you love on a total stranger's blog... You are exactly the kind of reader I am sure every writer hopes to have. I get defensive about books that I am moved by as well but usually am too shy to vocalize.

On a totally different note, I want to try to make those burgers that you posted about on your blog. Yum!