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Capital and Morals Collide in “Birnam Wood”

Capital and Morals Collide in “Birnam Wood”

  • Our review of Eleanor Catton's latest novel, "Birnam Wood."

Full confession: I read, but did not finish Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker Prize-winning, 900-page novel, The Luminaries. I don’t recall the reason. The book may have simply worn me out; and, of course, there are times in one’s life when the next book waiting is simply more desirable. Catton’s latest work, Birnam Wood, clocks in at about 430 pages, about where I think I put down The Luminaries, and I am pleased to say that at no point during my immersion in this New Zealand world of national park wild-ness, drone technology, organic gardening, and the rare-earth market, did I look longingly at my Pisan tower of unread books. Birnam Wood is a captivating novel of ideas that is also a finely crafted suspense novel, a ‘what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen?’ narrative of great energy, animated by the agendas of such distinguished ghost-tomes as Dickens’s Bleak House (minus its huge cast of eccentric characters) and Disraeli’s ‘Young England’ trilogy. 

A massive landslide in a narrow mountain pass has, for the foreseeable future, cut off the little town of Thorndike from its surroundings. American billionaire Robert Lemoine sees an opportunity to profit from this sudden islanding of 378 rich acres, a spread that abuts equally-rich national park land. Mira Bunting of Birnam Wood, a “grassroots community initiative that plant[s] sustainable organic gardens in neglected spaces” is also interested in this spread. Mira, the unofficial director of the group, a “self-mythologising rebel” who desires lasting social change, wants to illegally plant and harvest this land in secret. The locale would be a wonderful change from the various back lots, barren grasslands, and other undesirable plots her group has been cultivating. Lemoine discovers her plan and, with seeming left-wing benevolence, offers the group a handshake deal: be partners with me in this exciting venture. Mira realizes that his money and influence could lift Birnam Wood higher on the national, even international, stage than they could ever have dreamed of. What they do not know is that Lemoine has agreed to a collaboration merely as cover for an illicit drilling operation. 

As in the case of Shakespeare, the plot is not of first concern; instead, psychological investigations and thematic material claim center-stage. The novel’s main characters are drawn exquisitely, masterfully—particularly the villain Lemoine. But Catton, with incisive perspicuity, also dissects our 21st century post-modern landscape. Summing up one of the key themes of Birnam Wood (a title, of course, derived from Macbeth, and one laden with lovely irony), aspiring journalist and former member of the collective, Tony Gallo, declares:

A marketing algorithm […] sees you purely as a matrix of categories: a person who’s female, and hetero-sexual—or whatever-sexual—and white, and university educated, and employed, who has these kinds of friends and shares these kinds of articles and posts these kinds of pictures and makes these kinds of searches, and on and on—and the more sophisticated the algorithm, the more subcategories it’s able to diagnose, and the better it’s able to market whatever it is it’s selling. Identity politics, intersectionality, whatever you call it—it’s the exact same thing. It’s the same logic […] We’ll never be able to agree to work towards a common goal, and that means the whole project of a genuine left-wing politics is fucked. [Every] subgroup […] has their own particular agenda, and they’re all in competition with each other […]

Identity trumping ideas, the wholesale entitlement of the individual self, late-capitalism’s fervent eschewing of classical values in favor of consumerist ‘lifestyles’—in a society such as this, paradox bubbles to the surface. In a world of peacocks vying for influence, we sink more and more, inevitably, into the concealment of self. Whether by Instagram-filtering, plastic surgery, or the covering up of actual crime, for reasons of convenience or strategy, insecurity or fear, we are more and more making manifest a planet in which the dividing line between idealists like Mira and materialists like Lemoine is shrinking down to spider-filament thinness.

Yet into this irrepressibly corrupted culture—in some ways like engorged Ouroboros swallowing his own tail—there does exist, albeit cynically, one method of uncovering the truth: the technology of digital tracking and surveillance. Lemoine’s company, Autonomo, specializes in drones, always on the hunt for revealing the secreted. Flying machines hatched from the egg of the extreme business classes’ totalitarian power, drones scan this landscape like the devil’s eye, in machine form reflecting (in a quick burst of Kiwi sunlight from cloud-cover) an idea that the human characters—toting cell phones that can ping to others, knowingly or unknowingly their every move—produce like scent: we sow the seeds of our own destruction by not understanding ourselves, or others, nearly well enough. The ever-sentient technology buzzing above the treeline, just like the now newly-arrived AI of ChatGPT terrifying writers and educators everywhere, shows us plainly our capacity for self-misunderstanding and, therefore, self-destruction. We can engineer well enough, harness and exploit the elemental, yet a firm grasp of human nature lies beyond us. Why? For Catton, the unholy match of strong ego and stronger global market:

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‘[R]eal’ life, Tony thought, with bitter air quotes, for late capitalism would admit nothing ‘real’ beyond the logic of late capitalism itself, having declared self-interest the only universal, and profit motive the only absolute, and deriding everything that did not serve its ends as either a contemptible weakness or a fantasy. [He] was left trembling, heart pounding, chest brimming, with a feeling that was very like euphoria. Aloud he said ‘Jesus Christ,’ and then again ‘Jesus Christ,’ and then, hushed, in wonderment, he said, ‘I am going to be so fucking famous.’

Aldous Huxley in his 1928 novel Point Counter Point expressed the opinion that the problem with the ‘novel of ideas’ was that its “chief defect [was] that you must write about people who have ideas to express—which excludes all but about .01 per cent of the human race.” Issues of verisimilitude aside, Eleanor Catton has fashioned an enriching tour of the post-9/11 psyche within the pages of a ‘social novel’ that will at turns shock, delight, and provoke. Messrs. Dickens and Disraeli would be proud. Mr. Huxley himself, having adjusted his thick-lensed spectacles, might well applaud.

Birnam Wood
by Eleanor Catton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published March 7th, 2023

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