Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
A Book Review
Birnam Wood (BW) gallops towards its' final, stunning, inevitable ending. The novel is set in the middle of nowhere--- the New Zealand wilderness-- yet, its’ themes are anything but remote. Birnam Wood tackles the central questions of our time: privacy, capitalism, conservation, politics and compromise. It is a luminous achievement for the author, Eleanor Catton, and what follows is my review of the book. As always, I denote when *spoilers to follow*— so you can read up to that point. And, if you are not going to read the book, just fininsh the review.
(Read my past reviews of the Goldfinch and Beartown)
It isn't easy to write a novel with heavy reliance on technology. Novels bend time and space. You can read a book from a half century ago set in Spain, and feel as if it could happen next door tomorrow. When Catton references iPhones, Twitter, Instagram, Drones, and more, she dates her book, anchoring it to a particular time, and yet, somehow, the author achieves the timeless. Infatuation, idealism, and ruthlessness are at the heart of the novel. These are the eternal themes of the human soul.
As Faulkner said, “only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat…..the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
Technology in Birnam Wood becomes a vehicle for psychology. Amazingly, Catton uses drones and iPhone hacks not merely to drive plot, but also to show how much we can know someone when we can observe what they search for, where they go, and when we find them telling small lies. What ruthless things we might do with that knowledge?
The novel is one of juxtapositions. A rich technocapitalist billionaire meets a determined hippie eco vigilante. The lush forests of New Zealand encounter the manufactured precision of planes, drones, mines and computers. There were a million ways the novel could have failed. It's a testament to the skill of the writer that she pulls it off.
*Spoilers to follow*
Was it always destined to blow up so spectacularly? Mira dead, covered in vomit, tied to a man she almost loved. Robert, shot in the head. Owen Darvish and his wife, dead by automobile and barrage of bullets. Tony dropping a flame into the industrial effluent, ready to light it up for a thousand miles. And the uncertainty over the fate of the Birnam Wood members: the bodyguard still unaccounted for and the down payment for their massacre still in his account. Will they all die tomorrow?
The end of the novel seems a perfect metaphor for what happens when you try to mix the incompatible. Technocapitalism and environmentalism. Personal ambition and collective growth. Mira is doomed by meeting Robert--- he is the opposite of all she stands for, and yet she enters a partnership with him. And Robert is also doomed. He is curious about her, perhaps attracted to her, and he toys with that sentiment, till.he loses control.
Is Catton’s point that compromise is not possible if we wish to solve the challenges of modernity? I suspect she does feel this way— it is common for those who pursue literature to think capitalism and technologic progress are unrelentingly negative, and at odds with environmentalism and sentimentalism but, as a policy person, I take a much more nuanced stance.
Robert is the most interesting character of the novel. He bugs Mira’s phone and uses that knowledge to gain psychologic control of her. He tracks her with his drone. He immediately calculates the best way to distance themselves from Owen Darvish’s death. He seduces Shelley in order to manipulate her. He is a relentless, outcome oriented, narcicist, and his end— even though technically based on misunderstanding (he didn’t actually kill Owen)— is fitting.
What makes a book quotable? I often read with a pen nearby and mark pages with lines that I find noteworthy. Indeed, I excerpted entire paragraphs and pages in my review of the Goldfinch. And yet, with Birnam Wood, I find nearly no markings. A rare exception:
Mira could talk about other peoples’ relationships endlessly— she freely confessed that she liked nothing better— but when she talked about her own, it was always in a tone of brisk, semi-exasperated satire that gave the impression she had exhausted the subject a long time ago and felt no impatient to revive it.
I think that sentence is emblematic of the Catton’s style, which is competent, but not yet exemplary. I look forward to her future works.
Birnam Wood is a fascinating portrait of an unlikely pairing. It shows how a writer might use to technology to explore the intricacies of human behavior and psychology. Nothing is more chilling than this revelation— not even the gristly ending.