Eleanor Catton: The Rehearsal
These students don’t have the conniving urges of a Blair Waldorf; they gaze at the spectacle, half-wish it was happening to them, and go about their lives…
Eleanor Catton’s first novel centers on an affair between a 17-year-old pupil at an all-girls school and her thirty-something male music teacher, but the novel is really about everyone else: the students, parents and teachers who help to turn the albeit taboo relationship into a scandal. The gossip extends beyond the perimeters of the campus of the school, Abbey Grange (which the girls call “Scabby Grange” or “Abbey Grunge”), into newspapers, homes, and, as these things tend to go, the school next door: a co-ed acting school for college-age kids, where the students and instructors conspire to perform an end-of-year play based on the scandal (which, by the way, falls somewhere between a rape and a domestic relationship, depending on whom you ask).
The book, which is set in an unidentified town, possibly in Catton’s home of New Zealand, is fairly clear-cut in its support of the students. They may be guilty of too much conjecturing about the girl, Victoria, and the teacher, Mr. Saladin, but there is an innocence and powerlessness about them that has something to do with age, but also with their feeling unimportant and lame as Victoria rises to mysterious stardom. These students don’t have the conniving urges of a Blair Waldorf; they gaze at the spectacle, half-wish it was happening to them, and go about their lives, experimenting with their bodies and finding the courage to challenge their domineering elders.
The saxophone teacher at Abbey Grange, who teaches Victoria’s sister, Isolde, and an unpopular lesbian named Julia, is the most despicable adult in the book, but she has some stiff competition: a stone-coldhearted mother who, when her child dies, contemplates how mediocre she was; acting instructors whose advice is either trite or shocking; and a father who communicates with his son almost exclusively through bawdy humor. To make these characters more hateful, Catton, a master of description at the ripe old age of 25, gives them unfortunate physical traits: a father points a “bony white finger” at his son, Stanley, and is often drunk (the son can tell because he “ducked his head slightly every time he blinked”). The Head of Acting at the drama school, meanwhile, has “ropy liver-spotted hands” that Stanley, a student there, imagines “to be cold and moist and snatching.”
The problem with these adults, who play supporting roles to the saxophone teacher, is that they don’t do enough. (The father’s behavior provokes Stanley to mimic him in an acting exercise, with inspired results.) The acting instructors may ask bold and inappropriate things of their students, but it’s all in the service of art, so they’re more or less off the hook. The saxophone teacher’s problem is that she does too much, accusing parents of being overbearing when she herself is, just in weirder ways. In the first pages of the book, while explaining that she doesn’t allow parents to sit in on their children’s music lessons, she says, “these little half-hour slices are my chance to watch, and I don’t want to share.”
This foreboding little nugget really only scratches the surface of her role in the book: she’s a voyeur, living through her students as a means to revisit her own bland, unsatisfied past, but she does more than just watch—she conducts her students’ lives in a way that is so insensitive and self-serving that it requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Fortunately, her manner of speaking is so arch and ridiculous from the beginning that it helps make her subsequent actions more believable. When a parent asks her if she remembers all the students she’s ever taught, she says, “[N]ot one individual student, but the impression left by them all, inverted like a photographic negative and stamped into my memory like an acid hole.” Who talks like that? But as Zadie Smith pointed out to a skeptic of White Teeth, fiction owes nothing to reality.
The saxophone teacher believes she’s being empathetic when she’s being imprudent, and helpful when she’s being destructive. She thinks she’s a therapist to her students, letting them talk on about their particular roles in the scandal and each other’s lives, but instead of letting it end when each student leaves the practice room, she turns it into one long incestuous saga with no shut doors, no kept secrets. We are occasionally led to feel bad for the saxophone teacher—she is trying, however immaturely, to work out a personal problem of her own—but not for long: Isolde and Julia eventually throw the game back in her face.
Catton is an excellent writer, but the organization of The Rehearsal leaves something to be desired. She relies heavily on dialogue to unfold the story, with mixed results, and flits too frequently between perspectives. The female students are not as flowery in speech as the saxophone teacher, but their words about the scandal—glimpses, speculation, patchy retellings—make the story hard to follow. It may help reveal their characters, but it doesn’t help build momentum. On top of that, the story is divided into chapters and then subdivided into sections headed either by a day of the week or a month—the day segments cover the girls at Abbey Grange and the month segments cover the kids at the acting school, but this is not immediately clear.
The disjunctured setup is occasionally put on hold to make room for longer passages—intensive acting lessons, a couple in bed, or a standoff in the saxophone practice room—that are true and touching, and well worth the wait. The scandal does dangle distractingly over everyone, but of course, it’s what it brings out in these people that Catton really cares about: they’ve inflated reality into something horrid and deviant just as capably as celebrity tabloids, and they spin it out as long as they can, just like celebrity tabloids. The story belongs mostly to Isolde, the forgotten younger sister, who is charmingly caught between shy tweendom and flirty adolescence; Stanley is equally charming as an overly studious actor.
Catton drops one little clever reference that makes the most sense of the relationship between the student and the teacher, but by giving voice only to the people surrounding the couple, she is also making the point that while technically illegal, the relationship is a private matter made public out of the usual reasons: boredom, self-righteousness, paranoia. Everyone else is struggling to find intimacy themselves—Stanley is literally instructed to have an intimate moment by his teachers, and following his first make-out session he declares proudly, “That was the most intimate scene of my life”—while others, like the saxophone teacher, are happy to just imagine intimacy, provided others can give them every last detail of what it’s like. For many, putting themselves in the shoes of the maligned couple proves so much easier than feeling anything first-hand.