Enter, stage right: The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

by Louise O'Brien / 02 August, 2008
Everything is a performance, in one way or another, in Eleanor Catton's striking debut novel about a high school scandal.
The Rehearsal is a significant debut novel from an exciting young writer. Eleanor Catton is a new talent who has arrived fully formed, with an accomplished, confident and mature voice. This is a startling novel, striking and strange and brave.

After completing an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in 2007, Catton has already won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, and is also the recipient of the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary. Her manuscript for The Rehearsal won her the Adam Prize in Creative Writing.

The novel occurs within the framing context of two schools of performing arts, one of acting, the other of music. A saxophone teacher's high school students are scandalised, victimised and traumatised by the revelation of a student's relationship with a teacher, while preparing for their end-of-year recital. At the same time, a group of first-year drama students use the local scandal as the material for their end-of-year production. The scandal and its dramatic echo are played out alongside each other as the novel proceeds.

The two formal acts of performance are the finale of the novel and the union of its two plot lines. This is made more interesting by the fact they have different time frames: one moves from day to day, the other month by month, each also moving back and forth in time. Their convergence is a finely managed piece of storytelling, and it's fun to watch.

The idea of performance is the defining theme and motif throughout The Rehearsal. Media attention shines the spotlight of public scrutiny on an entire social clique. The girls perform for the media, their parents and each other in interrogative conversations and group-counselling sessions, dramatising (and simulating) emotion and fear for an avid audience. The events also make the girls newly aware of themselves as sexual beings, where acute self-consciousness has the effect of one becoming one's own audience.

As a conceptual framework, the formal lessons given by the teachers in the novel offer an explicit theory for the performances it contains: "The stage is not real life, and the stage is not a copy of real life ... the stage is only a place where things are made present. Things that would not ordinarily happen are made to happen on stage. The stage is a site at which people can access things that would otherwise not be available -to them."

That theory is embodied by the novel as a whole. For the novel itself is also a performance with an audience, so it follows the rules laid down for the performers of the novel. The characters are always characters, rather than copies of real people. There's no pretence at reality, or even realism: the world's a stage and it's people all players. Characters speak as if on the stage, in soliloquies and monologues, in prose that is intense, distilled and stylised. They are actors, lying somewhere behind the roles they play in this novel. They play many parts, at times even swapping roles, speaking in each other's words and voices (that is just as odd as it seems, but it's also conceptually intriguing enough to work).

As an intellectual exercise of exploration and experimentation, The Rehearsal succeeds brilliantly. It is original and thought provoking. But the cost of that success is the reader's emotional involvement. The novel relentlessly reminds us of the characters' status as fictional constructs, as tools for the play of ideas, and does it so well that they are never more than characters to us. The novel succeeds in foregrounding the techniques and manners of fictionality, thus there is no possibility of empathy with or even sympathy for the characters. Even the sudden and unexpected death of one of the characters left me unmoved.

The Rehearsal is a novel from and for the head, and it is excellent. But when Catton captures the heart as well, she will be formidable indeed.
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