Birnam Wood 
by Eleanor Catton.
Granta, 423 pp., £20, March, 978 1 78378 425 7
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Eleanor Catton’s​ characters enjoy playing other people. Mira Bunting, the twenty-something founder of Birnam Wood, an activist gardening collective, maintains a ‘rotation’ of aliases for undercover purposes. To glean information about a property listing in the small town of Thorndike in New Zealand, she transforms – via a fake email account – into Mrs June Crowther, a plausible-sounding boomer, ‘68, retired, and profoundly deaf’, who hopes to invest her ‘modest nest egg’ in a low-maintenance holiday home. Caught trespassing on the property, Mira shapeshifts again, this time into Sarah Foster, a confident, smiley Hollywood location scout tasked with finding somewhere on the South Island a bit like ‘the Lake District’. The man who catches her, Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire and former CEO of a drone manufacturer, shuttles between disguises of his own: doomsday prepper, wannabe media baron, and, on occasion, an imaginary commanding officer at the CIA’s Special Operations Group called Lt Col James Weschler, who specialises in barking orders down the phone. Role-playing and assigning roles to others are the ways characters understand the world. ‘Whenever I did anything with Birnam Wood,’ Tony Gallo, an old flame of Mira’s, tells a friend, ‘my dad would say, without fail, “So who’s Macbeth?” It was his one joke.’

Catton’s novels have a shared metafictional streak. In The Rehearsal (2008), set between a saxophone teacher’s studio and a drama school, performance is both the subject of the story and its mode: characters act out social roles and play one another, always conscious that they’re being watched. In The Luminaries (2013), astrology provides a governing metaphor for omniscient narration. Plot becomes a tussle between individuals’ self-command and the planetary formations that determine essential facts about their nature: what look like deeply improbable, chance happenings – a bullet wound springing up out of nowhere on a ghostly figure’s chest; an illiterate woman suddenly being able to forge a signature – are expressions of larger organising forces not always visible to the sublunary eye.

In Birnam Wood, set in 2017 – a cultural moment dominated, Catton writes, by ‘disruptors’, ‘technological imperialists’ and ‘metadata millenarians’ – fiction is seen through the lens of surveillance technology. Ordinary people use their smartphones to keep an eye on each other: Mira and her best friend, Shelley, have the same location-tracker app downloaded, which Mira never opens, but Shelley, without telling her, monitors closely. For those with access to limitless wealth and resources, technology promises not only observation, but the novelist’s powers of arrangement and retroactive shaping. Lemoine’s drones cast a roving eye over spaces and individuals from above. (‘You hold the figures in your hand,’ he tells Mira of his love of flying. ‘You can see the whole scene.’) His phone-hacking capabilities allow him to delete or insert messages and interfere with location records, retrofitting the past to suit his needs. In the public realm, he’s able to purchase, or use algorithms to promote, congenial popular narratives. Everything is ‘tractable’, in his word: people, convictions, circumstances, memory.

Land – shrunk and magnified by mapping tools, patrolled by drones – is especially so. According to an obnoxious media couple Lemoine feigns interest in, rural New Zealand is ‘the Godzone’: a place of staggeringly beautiful lakes and mountains where you can also get a world-beating flat white. (‘It’s from “God’s Own Country”. God’s Own,’ they tell him. ‘But it’s like – the Godzone.’) Those with less than legitimate interests home in on parts of the country that others have forgotten. Birnam Wood, ostensibly an above-board outfit cultivating neglected plots of land with the knowledge of their owners, also practises guerrilla tactics, planting without permission, sowing beside motorways and inside demolition sites, tapping water sources. Mira, the boldest of the group, steals scions from orchards and nicks equipment from unlocked garden sheds – ‘though only’, she insists, ‘in wealthy neighbourhoods’.

What draws her to Thorndike, a once bustling tourist town at the base of the fictional Korowai mountains, is its isolation. A landslide triggered by a spate of earthquakes on the pass the previous summer has transformed it into an ‘effective cul-de-sac’, cutting it off from traffic in all directions but one; its businesses have been shuttered, life paused. One vacant property, the old sheep farm in the valley, formerly earmarked to be subdivided into plots for the June Crowthers of the world, contains within it the future of Birnam Wood as Mira imagines it. The farm’s rolling hectares, likely to remain deserted for months, will supply planting sites large enough to give the group a shot at solvency; the spotlight on it, in the wake of the disaster, would afford plenty of publicity should a handful of friendly millennial activists happen to be caught – or strategically allow themselves to be caught – trespassing.

Lemoine, who comes across Mira in the act of scoping out the farm’s potential, is trespassing too. Officially, the property belongs to Sir Owen Darvish, owner of an agricultural pest extermination company and the recipient of a somewhat surprising knighthood for ‘services to conservation’. Lemoine offers to buy the whole plot for well over the asking price, proposing to transform it – as he tells Sir Owen and his wife, Jill, watching ‘their eyes widen’ – into a survivalist’s luxury bunker, ‘easily defended’ by virtue of its isolated position. The bunker is a front, a fantastically expensive cover-up for Lemoine’s real project: an illegal mining operation for rare-earth elements in Korowai National Park, worth ‘not just billions, but trillions’ of dollars. But the Darvishes, for whom Lemoine’s secrecy and apparent paranoia are confirmation of everything they think they know about the super-rich (‘These billionaires. They want it to be just like Game of Thrones’), have no idea; and Mira, to whom Lemoine, seemingly on a whim, offers investment and access to the land, sees what she wants to see as well. ‘I think he’s like, one of those people whose self-mythology is all about spotting enterprising young people,’ she explains to Birnam Wood. ‘Like, he sees himself as this rebel, and when he found out about us, it was like, hey, one rebel to another.’ Jill, justifying the sale and the bunker project to sceptical friends at a dinner party, puts it another way: ‘It’s not like our view is going to change.’

Views, in fact, become the substance of the narrative, which is governed by a series of more or less conscious choices or avoidance manoeuvres on the part of its protagonists. Catton has said that her work on Jane Austen’s Emma (she wrote the screenplay for the 2020 film adaptation) influenced Birnam Wood’s structure: it emulates the Austen mode in which ‘everything is narration, everything is driving forward the consciousness of the characters.’ What’s notable about her version of this is that the psychological motivations in play are almost exclusively private and self-regarding, often petty. Birnam Wood is a novel in which a lot of people possess strong beliefs: one of its set pieces is a heated debate at the collective’s quarterly meeting, or ‘hui’, about marginalisation and intersectionality. (‘Guess what, Tony, times have changed!’) Yet the sentiments that come to matter, the ones that propel the plot, aren’t ideological. Shelley backs Mira’s proposal to take Lemoine’s money out of a guilty awareness that she is to blame for Tony’s unexpected, combative presence at the hui. Tony, while loathing the group’s decision to get into bed with a billionaire, opts – calamitously – to venture down to Thorndike alone to scrutinise their operation, rather than pretending to conciliate and spying on them from within. ‘It would be too much of a betrayal. It would mean the end of his relationship with Mira.’ Most wrongheaded of all is Mira’s embrace, towards the end of the novel, of the notion that Lemoine and Darvish might be running the crooked rare-earth operation together. The thought prompts not environmentalist outrage, but relief: ‘Darvish had been worse than she was. And the government was worse than she was. It was all a huge conspiracy. Everything was going to be all right.’

The amount of time Catton spends in her characters’ heads, in the Austen free-indirect mode, sidelines descriptions of the external world. Aside from a handful of location markers necessary for the plot (a campsite, a ridge, a cairn), it isn’t clear what the Korowai National Park actually looks like. In The Luminaries, the gold rush town of Hokitika is rendered so precisely that we know what each of its streets smells like; here, we get more description of Tony’s dehydrated camping meals than the landscape he’s camped in. Sections of the narrative told from individual perspectives expose blind spots and fixations in the way characters see the world. Owen Darvish, following his recent honour, refers to himself internally as ‘Sir Owen’ and dislikes anyone who doesn’t do the same (his wife unconsciously plays ball, producing brilliant, incongruous effects: ‘“Jill,” called Sir Owen from the bathroom … “Will you bring me the good scrub? It’s in the other shower”’). Tony, a budding investigative journalist whose prose is ‘rather florid’, thinks not only in full sentences when he broods on political questions, but in sentences spilling over a page or more, spiked with dashes, semicolons, tricolons and self-righteous italics. Lemoine uses verbs as perhaps only billionaires can, forcing intransitives into transitives: ‘His gaze came to rest on the body. Disappearing it was not an option.’

No one sees the complete picture, though some possess more information than others. This disparity, and Catton’s way of swerving between points of view, give the novel its dramatic irony. Characters get things wrong constantly – about their environment, their shared past, one another, even the kind of story they’re in. Tony, alone in the bush with few supplies, being hunted by drones and a small army of military contractors with guns, is thrilled by the thought of what he can spin out of his adventure (‘[he] heard the intro music for a podcast, a plucky glockenspiel, a shimmering undertow of strings’). Jill, driving down to Thorndike at the very end of the novel, experiences ‘a deep sense of rightness, of things existing in their proper places, in their proper order’, as if she were in a comedy rather than a tragedy. Recognising mistakes and re-evaluating is something we witness characters doing in real time: Lemoine has to course-correct rapidly when he discovers the thinness of Darvish’s conservationist credentials. But it’s also what the novel requires of the reader, as information is withheld or falsehoods presented as truth. In an early chapter, Shelley recounts the story of Mira and Tony’s ill-fated sexual encounter four years previously, giving the version of events she has from her best friend: Mira was ‘pretty drunk’, she says, and Tony implicitly took advantage. More than a hundred pages later, Mira supplies the real story, involving considerably less contrivance or coercion on Tony’s part and much more on her own. The bait-and-switch catches us out, and shows us doing a version of the premature narrative-forming that Tony observes in another love interest: ‘He couldn’t quite shake the sense that she had formed an opinion about him that she doubted she was going to have to change.’

Irony exposes inequities of power. When Catton first takes us inside Lemoine’s head, shortly after his encounter with Mira on the farm, the perspective shift feels less like a gear change than a lurch into another dimension. Hidden patterns of authorship reveal themselves: fewer of the novel’s events have been the result of chance, or ‘natural causes’, than we suspected. Technological surveillance emerges as both a metaphor for narrative control and the concrete way in which power is expressed. Mira tries to get a step ahead by googling Lemoine, covertly figuring out what she can about this mysterious stranger. But Lemoine, it turns out, has already hacked into her phone, allowing him to track her activity and intercept her communications. When Mira notices him glancing at her screen, she panics that her incriminating search history is still visible; the screen is dark – ‘mercifully’, she thinks – but, as we know and she doesn’t, dark screens are no impediment. All-surveilling billionaires, Catton suggests, have access to a different order of irony from other people. Their vision, at least theoretically, is total: whatever they can’t or won’t see is down to their own blind spots, not to what the world is able to hide.

No one, though, exists in a universe of pure possibility. Catton is a formalist, interested above all in limits. In The Luminaries, one of the mistakes that characters make is to assume that purchasing a goldfields claim will transform them. ‘Reinvention!’ the shipping agent Thomas Balfour exclaims early on. ‘That a man might make new – might make himself anew – truly, now!’ In reality, no one in the novel is made anew: characters remain the same, or become more deeply themselves, their propensities and desires governed by the stars; even the gold they prize isn’t made, merely taken from the ground and then circulated, stolen, divvied up, smelted and reconstituted. (‘She deserved to have it, and he deserved to lose it,’ one prospector, Emery Staines, remarks, explaining his decision to take from a character in order to give to another.)

In Birnam Wood, characters keep fabricating their own versions of reality, but their inventions are boxed in: lies, casting after ordinary plausibility, tend to resemble one another as much as they resemble truth. Mira, inventing a pretext to head out in the van and escape the group, settles on a trip to the hardware store to fetch ‘a few more bales of pea straw and a load of blood and bone’; Shelley, wanting a reason to avoid Mira, later comes up with an identical cover. (‘They could use more pea straw, and another load of blood and bone.’) Lemoine’s fabrications and camouflages, though more extravagant, are designed to appeal to his audience by satisfying generic expectations: people expect him to be a kind of paranoid James Bond villain, so he acts like one. Birnam Wood, with its increasingly violent implications and its ambitious, destructive characters, may misdirect but doesn’t deviate from its plotted path. ‘This is me leaving. I’m leaving Birnam Wood,’ Shelley informs her ex-best friend the morning after a catastrophic communal acid trip, the beginning of the novel’s spiral to its end. ‘I am leaving.’

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