Monday, 1 February 2010

The Rehearsal

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" is a well-known theme; a high-school sex scandal is not an original concept either and yet Eleanor Catton manages to blend both performance and controversy together into an accomplished and original d├ębut. The Rehearsal is a novel of extended metaphor where fact and fiction collide and you are left questioning was was real; I know that is oxy-moronic as the book is a work of fiction but the story you read takes on the mantle of performance.

Told in alternating chapters, The Rehearsal tells two stories, one -in chapters that move back and forth through days of the week- about high-school girls and saxophone students who are affected by the illicit relationship between one of their peers and (former) music teacher; the other story -that shifts between different months of term- about the local drama college where Stanley, in his first year, and his classmates use the local sex-scandal as the basis of their end-of-term production.

I was given the impression from early on that the high-school story -where the student, Victoria, and the teacher, Mr Saladin, were merely secondary characters in their own drama- was set and what I was reading was not what inspired the drama students but what they were performing. The three main characters of these sections, Julia and Isolde, Victoria's sister, and their nameless saxophone teacher who tutors them extracurricular lessons, are presented as characters who have no interior monologues but are lit and given detailed stage directions.

The lights change. The overhead lights and the bright overcast light from the window are doused; a template falls into place in front of a solitary floodlight and the attachment begins to rotate, so that the yellow light is thinly striped and ever changing, playing over the pair of them like passing streetlights striping the dashboard of a moving car. Julia sits down. The streetlights come and go, streaking over her knees and curving away over her shoulder to disappear, and she is dark for a moment before another streak of light rises up to replace the first, and then another, and another, all yellow and forward bending.

Julia is listening in a dreamy, sleepy way, the music drawing from her one slow, definite impression rather than a slideshow series of impressions that she can cobble together later and divide to find the arithmetic mean. She is thinking about Isolde. She can't quite see her past the stern unmoving profile of the saxophone teacher, just a flash of her knee every time Isolde crosses her leg, but even so she finds her left-hand peripheral vision is sharpened with a tense hyper-awareness whenever the younger girl shifts in her seat.

Are you given the same impression by the quotes that I am - that what we are reading and seeing on the page is actually being acted on-stage by the drama students? In my mind we are never presented with the true events that inspired the performance, the rehearsal, but are only provided with the students' interpretation of it and their subsequent dramatisation. I studied drama at school and I remember for exercises we were given small sheets with basic character profiles written on them, which we used to flesh out into a believable character; the snippets we are given of Julia, Isolde and Victoria are as if they are those character profiles.

Julia watches them slot into place around the current locus of popularity and wit with a feeling of contempt and mild jealousy. Most of the girls are seventh formers, contemporaries of the violated girl and infected only by vague proximity. The rest are the music students, more critically infected and so personally summoned by a solemn pink slip photocopied over and over and signed by the counsellor in a delicate whispery hand.

The Rehearsal removed me from my readerly comfort zone as it is not a passive reading experience; I was continually working out what was real and what was being performed (in the drama school sequences there are many "scenes" that you assume are part of the narrative before realising that it is an acting exercise) and if this sounds confusing then that's because it is. I chose this novel as my first read of 2010 as I had high expectations and anticipated a thrilling and salacious read; I struggled with it and read 150 pages over the first five days of the year before setting it aside and moving onto read other books; three weeks later I decided not to give up on it but sat down and managed the remaining 160 pages in one sitting. An exploration of the nature of performance, The Rehearsal isn't by any means an easy read; it it highly inventive but can come across as dense, pretentious and dryly high-brow. I admire its inventiveness and did find the latter half absorbing; I am relieved that I gave the novel a second chance as it possesses much to admire technically but it is more of a construct of literary artifice than an engaging novel.

'Because at the end of it everything collapses,' on of the girls said. 'For the girl, the victim, the one who was abused. It all comes down around her like a castle of cards.'

I predict that this interesting and erudite albeit not particularly enjoyable read will feature on the longlist for the Orange Prize next month.


verity said...

That sounds absolutely intriguing and definitely on my wish-list of things to read. I'm glad you got there in the end, and I reckon you're right about the Orange longlist.

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't heard of this one. It will be interesting to see if it ends up on the Ornage longlist. Are you planning to read the list?

I'm hoping to read the short list again, but don't think I'll stretch to the long list.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that this one didn't draw me in at all. So it went straight back to the library. Maybe at a different time I might try it again, but I suspect not.

Anonymous said...

I have had this from the library and still havent picked it up and need too soon, I think it sound complex but intriguing.

It must be the time of years for books put down and then started again as I have been doing this for a while with a novel, haven't finished it though... yet!

kimbofo said...

Oh, I remember when this one first came out: there was a lot of fuss about it. She's a New Zealander, right? I think, though I could be wrong, that it made the long list for the Guardian First Fiction prize.

Escaping into a Book said...

I was intrigued by the premise of this one when I heard about it so was glad to read your review. Think it is definitely one I'll try at some point - though probably when not too busy with other things!

Jenny said...

Hm. I was planning to try to read more experimental literature this year, but this sounds a little - a little annoying, maybe? I think I'll still give it a try - it's interesting to see what writers can do with narrative. (Though not always good. :P)

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I was concerned that I would put people off. I'm glad that I finished it and it is intriguing and worth reading.

Jackie, as Kim pointed out, it was shortlisted for the Guardian's first novel award and there was some hype about it towards the end of last year but I haven't read anything about it on blogs.

I'll see what's on the list first! I may read the shortlist. I wonder whether I can lay down an early best on After the Fire, A Still Small Voice...

Jane, the first half was definitely a struggle but I am glad that I persevered; it is not for everyone.

Simon, it is complex but intriguing! The complexities paid off and are certainly talking points.

Which novel are you having difficulty with? I think that it happens at the beginning of the year as we have new resolutions and high expectation.

Kim, you're right: she is a New Zealander and it was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (I've read the winner -review to come- and I wasn't impressed).

Escaping, I'd definitely advise setting aside some time as it is quite dense to begin with - I found the style disorientating and took a second attempt to immerse myself.

Jenny, annoying is a far description ... it's good but the pretentiousness does grate a little. I love narrative experimentation too but, as you say, it doesn't always work! Give me content over style any day.