Ten years ago, Eleanor Catton soared up from Down Under to grab the Booker Prize. At 28, the New Zealand author was the youngest-ever winner, and at 832 pages, “The Luminaries” was the longest. A notoriously complicated historical mystery about the gold rush involving multiple narrators plotted across astrological charts, “The Luminaries” dazzled — and intimidated — readers around the world.
Fans might assume Catton has spent the last decade concocting something even more gargantuan and byzantine. But her new novel, “Birnam Wood,” is a sleek contemporary thriller. Still, it’s not so much a change of tack as a demonstration that Catton is a master at adapting literary forms to her own sly purposes. (Indeed, in 2020, you may have seen her arch adaptation of “Emma,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy.)
“Birnam Wood” opens with “a spate of shallow earthquakes” in a remote part of New Zealand, but by the end those tremors will reverberate across the planet. The title, aside from being a prophetic allusion to “Macbeth,” is the name of an obscure environmental group. The members of Birnam Wood are guerrilla gardeners, who raise vegetables on public land and unattended private property, sometimes with permission, sometimes without. While they might think of themselves as fearless revolutionaries, their antics rarely extend much beyond stealing a hoe from a wealthy neighbor’s garden shed.
Nevertheless, Mira, the de facto leader of this supposedly leaderless collective, dreams of “nothing less than radical, widespread, and lasting social change, which would be entirely achievable, she was convinced, if only people could be made to see how much fertile land was going begging, all around them, every day.” In the words of Mao, “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” but make sure they’re peas, tomatoes and cucumbers.
As the novel opens, Mira spies a potentially rich new target. A landslide has buried a stretch of highway, almost completely cutting off the town of Thorndike and canceling development of a 375-acre plot abutting a national park. What better place for Mira’s merry band of subversive farmers to till the soil in relative secrecy! If they get arrested, even better: The publicity will amplify their cause.
The only problem is that this land has already caught the attention of Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire. He plans to construct a luxurious bunker here where he can, when the moment arrives, wait out the apocalypse. In her characteristically athletic style, which flexes from fury to parody, Catton describes Lemoine as “a far-sighted, short-selling, risk-embracing kleptocrat, an incarnation of unapologetic zero-sum self-interest, a radical misfit, a ‘builder’ in the Randian sense, a genius, a tyrant, an obsessive, a prophet, a status-symbol survivalist hedging his bets against any number of potential global catastrophes that he himself was doing absolutely nothing to prevent, and might even be taking active measures to encourage if there was a profit to be made, or an advantage to be gained, in the pursuit.”
He’s also a liar.
The moment Lemoine spots Mira snooping around this land, they both begin trying to deceive each other, but it’s not a fair match. Equipped with a vast array of spyware and surveillance drones, Lemoine thinks he can use these scruffy environmentalists, while Mira imagines that his $100,000 donation will finally make Birnam Wood a success — without contaminating the group’s principles.
Clearly, something else, bigger and far more nefarious, is going on.
Deep beneath this rich soil — and layers of deceit — lie a trillion dollars worth of rare-earth elements. Just as the 19th century revolved around fantasies of buried gold, the 21st is obsessed with these valuable minerals. With fantastical names like lanthanides, scandium and yttrium, rare-earth elements play a crucial role in renewable-energy technology, which may be our best hope for avoiding catastrophic global warming. Two of the many essential questions “Birnam Wood” raises are who will control those minerals, and how will they be extracted without inflicting even more environmental damage?
The billionaire and the gardeners would seem to be moral opposites, but Catton writes with a satiric edge that leaves no survivors. In fact, she’s most incisive when it comes to the members of the Birnam Wood co-op. As a narrator, she demonstrates a kind of vicious sympathy, hitching a ride along with their thoughts while poking a stick in their spokes. Mira and her friends are intimately drawn portraits of liberal narcissism and naivete. “Like all self-mythologising rebels,” Catton writes, “Mira preferred enemies to rivals, and often turned her rivals into enemies, the better to disdain them as secret agents of the status quo.” Along with vegetables, these privileged young people find plenty of time to sow their own anxieties and reap a bumper crop of conflicts within their pious group of recyclers and scavengers.
Catton has somewhat less success bringing that level of verisimilitude to Lemoine, although she’s wonderfully attentive to the atmospheric disturbance created around her brash billionaire. Perhaps the truly super-rich are so unfettered by reality that the dimensions of ordinary life aren’t relevant, but Lemoine comes off at times more like a swaggering cartoon villain than a man enmeshed in the infinite details of a vast financial empire. He’s the kind of character who says things like, “I’m a billionaire. Money is not an issue for me,” a line so silly that it momentarily shifts these pages into primary colors.
But that feels like a minor distraction in a novel that dramatizes political, technical and environmental crises with such delicious wit. And once an accidental death upsets everyone’s competing machinations, readers are unlikely to notice anything except the story’s acceleration toward ever more toil and trouble. With terrifying intensity, Catton propels these characters to a finale that prefigures the very apocalypse they’re all trying to forestall. It’s a wry indictment of all the poor players who strut and fret their hours upon this stage and then are heard no more.
Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.
By Eleanor Catton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 432 pp. $28
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