“The Rehearsal” by Eleanor Catton – In Praise of Maximalism

“The Rehearsal” by Eleanor Catton (2008) – 309 pages

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“The Rehearsal” breaks every rule of literary minimalism along its merry and harrowing way, and that is a good thing. 

 We’ve all read minimalist novels.  In them the sentences are short and laconic.  The number of characters is kept to a classic few.  The dialogue cannot be profound or witty, because people don’t naturally talk that way.  The sentences themselves have little variety of structure just like the ones I’m using to describe minimalism.  When finally a small epiphany does occur in the minimalist novel, it glows brightly across the dull flat surface of the rest of the book.

 “The Rehearsal” flaunts these rules of minimalism.  Perhaps it is because Eleanor Catton is from New Zealand, far from the United States which is the home of minimalists such as Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, and many others.  Perhaps it is because Eleanor Catton was only 22 years old when “The Rehearsal” was published. Take the following lines of dialogue which would never show up in a minimalist novel or story.

 “The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that?  The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.” 

 This is spoken by one of the main characters of the novel known only as the saxophone teacher. The over-the-top profound and witty dialogue of “The Rehearsal” was the first thing that struck me.   Of course people rarely talk this way in real life, so the dialogue here comes across as extravagant and fabricated.  However I find this dialogue refreshing, because it is thought-provoking and interesting in its original quirky way.  It reminds me of much of the writing of Oscar Wilde who was always willing to stop the progress of his stories for the sake of an outstanding line.    

 “The Rehearsal” is about school, music, and the theatre. Most of the novel is seen from the point of view of the high school girls and the slightly older theatre group which occupies an adjoining building.  The crucial event of the novel is when one of the male teachers Mr. Saladin is discovered to be carrying on an affair with one of his underage students Victoria.  The theatre group decides to re-enact this affair as their original play for the year.

 Here is one more interesting quote from the novel to give you more of the flavor of “The Rehearsal”.

 “Acting is not about making a copy of something that already exists.  The proscenium arch is not a window.  The stage is not a little three-walled room where life goes on as normal.  Theatre is a concentrate of life as normal.  Theatre is a purified version of real life, an extraction, an essence of human behavior that is stronger and more tragic and more perfect than everything that is ordinary about me and you.” 

 “The Rehearsal” runs out of energy well before the end, and I found myself losing interest during the last third of the novel.  The girl students’ and theatre students’ reactions to the teacher-student affair were unexpected and interesting, but I think they could have gone even deeper.  I do see this novel as a noble attempt to write an original novel.

  “The Rehearsal” was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2010 and Amazon’s First Novel Award of 2010.   It must be a heady experience being 22 years old and seeing your novel published all over the world.

 Currently Eleanor Catton is studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, Iowa.  I for one hope she is not learning minimalism.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Wow, I’ve got this on my TBR (it’s probably been there since 2008) and now I don’t feel very enthusiastic about reading it. But still, as you say, 22 years old, and longlisted for the Orange is no mean feat….

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    Don’t let me dissaude you. I’m sure that I’ve loved books that you disliked and visa-versa. Liking or disliking books is a very individual thing. As you say it was longlisted for the Orange, published all over the world. I have a tendency to compare books to ‘War and Peace’, Jane Austen, or ‘Middlemarch’, really not fair for first novelists.

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    • I hear what you say, but – for me, anyway – the whole point about the book blogosphere is that we learn to trust the opinions of bloggers that we like, even if only within a certain genre.
      Your review reminds me of another NZ minimalist book that was chosen for our book group. Nobody liked it, and it was a prize winner too. Maybe there was a fad for minimalist novels round about then in NZ?

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      • I absolutely loved ‘The Regearsal’ for the first half, because it was not minimalist. It broke all the minimalist rules. But somehow for me it ran out of energy in the second half.

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  3. Tony/Lisa: I read this book and thought it was excellent (I won’t abuse Tony’s blog with a link but you can find a review on my site). The points he makes, particularly about it losing energy, are valid, but I do think Catton offers positives that overcome the failings.

    I also think she (and the book) are interesting from another point of view. She was born in Canada (and still retains Canadian citizenship), then started the journey that Tony details in his review. Those of us who read dead authors are used to authors who “went somewhere else” to write (e.g. Graham Greene, but there are many others). I think Catton is an example of a new phenomenon — “global citizens” who have lived in a number of places before they start writing, even at the tender age of 22.

    This is not a perfect novel, but it certainly leaves me eagerly anticipating her next one.

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    • Hi Kevin,
      Yes, that sums up my attitude, eagerly anticipating her next. Her not being a minimalist is great. The first half of “The Rehearsal” was tremendous. Somehow the last half didn’t hold together for me, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to read her next.

      Yes I did see the Canada connection. I thought it was a case of being born in Canada but moving to New Zealland at an early age, because she’s so often referred to as ‘a New Zealand writer’. But you indicate she is more a Canadian writer who went to New Zealand to write her novel.

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  4. Youth is ‘the rehearsal for everything that comes after,’ says the saxophone teacher. Well, adolescence as presented in this novel is a confusing time of not knowing quite who you are or who you want to be… Yep, that seems a pretty accurate view of it to me. Arguably, of course, adulthood can also be like this; and certainly there are adults, as well as adolescents, in the novel who are putting on a show. The teachers in The Rehearsal don’t receive names (actually, some of the drama teachers do, but they’re mostly referred to by titles), and remain largely anonymous; but two in particular — the saxophone teacher and the Drama Institute’s Head of Movement — seem keen to live vicariously through their students and/or memories. Both find different ways of trying to do that; neither seems, to me, to do all that well out of it.

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