Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Eleanor Catton's the Rehearsal: Theatrical Fantasy and the Gaze

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Eleanor Catton's the Rehearsal: Theatrical Fantasy and the Gaze

Article excerpt

This essay draws on Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan to explore the dynamics of fantasy, desire, and enjoyment in Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal, emphasizing the novel's irreducibility to a postmodernist funhouse. Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her second novel The Luminaries, began her career with a book about teenagers, sexual scandals, and theatre. First published in 2008, The Rehearsal could be considered a postmodern variation on the "backstage novel." A large portion of its story takes place at a Drama Institute where fanatical and unorthodox instructors subject a group of first-year students to "a physical and emotional undoing" (22) in pursuit of artistic truth: "We believe here that an untrained actor is a liar merely" (27).

Alternating with scenes of life at the Institute are chapters set in a solitary room where a middle-aged, female saxophone teacher conducts lessons for high school girls. The students engage in lengthy conversations with their instructor about high school and a recent scandal--an affair between the well-liked teacher Mr. Saladin and a senior student, Victoria. While the saxophone room is a kind of offstage area, distanced from both the Institute and the high school's social scene, Catton presents these segments in a highly "theatrical" style. When Isolde, younger sister of Victoria, describes first hearing about the scandal, it is as though she and the saxophone teacher are part of a theatre production: "The overhead lights have dimmed and she is lit only by a pale flicking blue, a frosty sparkle like the on-off glow of a TV screen. The saxophone teacher is thrust into shadow so half her face is iron grey and the other half is pale and glinting" (8). This technique is extended as the book progresses. The teacher, seemingly conscious of being an actor in a show, reflects on the "casting" of those she is speaking with, and on the effectiveness of a mother's silicone "fat suit" (235).

In spite of Howard Fox's famous claim that "theatricality may be the single most pervasive property of post-Modern art" (16), (1) it is rare to find a novel working with theatrical discourse in as concrete and elaborate a way as Catton's. Parallels could, however, be drawn with the cinematic discourse used in works like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, often held up as exemplars of postmodern fiction. As cinema becomes an extended trope, argues Brian McHale, the "distinction between literal reality and metaphorical vehicle becomes increasingly indeterminate, until we are left wondering whether the movie reality is only a trope after all, or belongs to the 'real' world of this fiction" (129). Similarly, as Catton's book progresses we are increasingly inclined to suspect that these saxophone lessons are scenes in a play, especially when we learn that the Drama Institute's first-year students have chosen the Saladin scandal as subject-matter for their "devised theatre project" (38). Stanley, the central character of these Institute segments, begins dating Isolde, perhaps to obtain information that he and his classmates can integrate into their show. In a variation on Baudrillardian simulation, Catton's readers are confronted with a narrative mode in which there is often "no 'objective' difference" (Baudrillard 20) between a described event and a described performance of that event.

Matei Calinescu's oft-cited analysis of postmodern literature--referencing novelists such as John Fowles, Jorge Luis Borges, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Donald Barthelme--stresses a range of devices that seem relevant to Catton: "The treatment on an equal footing of fact and fiction, reality and myth, truth and lying, original and imitation, as a means to emphasize un-decidability" (302-03); "'self-referentiality' and 'meta-fiction' as a means to dramatize inescapable circularity" (304); and "a pervasive sense of radical, unsurpassable uncertainty, a sort of epistemological nihilism" (305). …

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