The Booker-winning Eleanor Catton’s climate novel about surveillance technology, guerilla gardening, and the corruptions of late capitalism.
Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
424 pages, $28
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Shakespeare’s Macbeth does not seem to me the most likely model for a climate novel, but then, it is a play about the hell of consequences, in which individuals find themselves in a nightmare of their own making. The universe turns inside out in response to a murder of ambition: day becomes night, horses eat one another in their stalls, hands are never clean of blood. The destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem can easily transform our own world into hell, and though it is not possible to place the crime at the door of any individual, very bad decisions are regularly made. Birnam Wood, the first novel in a decade by Booker Prize–winner Eleanor Catton, takes its title and other cues from the realm of Macbeth, and distributes the responsibility for a downward spiral among its players, though the blame is unevenly laid.
The book begins gaily enough, and the setup sometimes recalls another English writer, Jane Austen (Catton wrote the screenplay for the 2020 cinematic adaptation of Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde). In roving, close third-person perspective, we meet the individuals who will be drawn together due to their interests in a plot of land in the town of Thorndike on New Zealand’s South Island, which has recently been cut off by a devastating landslide on a mountain pass. There is the self-made pest-control king and owner of the land in question, Owen Darvish, soon to be knighted Lord Darvish, and his wife, Jill. There is the guerilla gardening collective called Birnam Wood, run by two young women: charismatic Mira Bunting and mousy Shelley Noakes, who has one foot out the door. Tony Gallo is a former member of the group, a Marxist man of principles recently returned after some years teaching in Mexico City and carrying a long-held torch for Mira. After Shelley answers the door to Tony, who has arrived at her and Mira’s shared house unannounced, she plots to sleep with him to sabotage her relationship with Mira and consequently free herself from the group, forever.
Into this world of pride, prejudice, and local-scale misunderstandings drops the American drone-manufacturing billionaire Robert Lemoine, a character who is so patently, obviously terrible that words like dastardly and villainous come to mind. What is under debate for much of the novel is whether he is that other, harder-to-name thing: evil. When Mira—who has traveled to Thorndike to scope out Darvish’s plot as a potential gardening site—first glimpses him, she marvels at his navy-blue tracksuit, which is “so ordinary and unassuming, and so simply cut, that [she] felt absolutely certain it was more expensive than any garment she had ever owned.” Lemoine has quietly bought the land, ostensibly to build a doomsday bunker for the end-times, but he finds himself charged and challenged by his encounter with Mira’s headstrong sass. Needing to acquire a stake in a New Zealand business in order to obtain citizenship, he, somewhat implausibly, decides to fund Birnam Wood’s activities: “she would be his acquisition. She would be his venture. She would be the final piece of camouflage.”
A widower whose wife died tragically, Lemoine has shades of Rebecca’s Max de Winter, and of Les liaisons dangereuses’s Vicomte de Valmont, who seduces for sport and profit. Yet he is also very apparently inspired by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. In 2017 it was revealed that Thiel had acquired a New Zealand passport—despite spending a mere twelve days in the country over five years—in order to easefully purchase nearly five hundred acres of land on South Island. His plans (recently rejected by local government for environmental concerns) to build a vast bunker-like lodge on the site illustrate his hopes, according to his friend Sam Altman, to seek refuge there in the event of any major disasters or, indeed, the apocalypse. New Zealand, Catton suggests, is particularly vulnerable to the visions of these men of means and gives away its resources too easily due to a cultural insecurity and a desire to play a bigger role on the world stage. Lemoine, it comes as no surprise, is not just looking to build a bunker, but is using it as a cover for a more nefarious scheme. We should, perhaps, wonder whether the same is true of figures such as Thiel, a libertarian who has bankrolled seasteading initiatives that aim to create new ocean-based dwellings free of government control.
The issue of climate apocalypse casts a shadow over the text until the end, though it is only directly raised a couple of times. Instead, Catton deftly constructs a political and environmental universe that has broadly capitulated to corruption, where individuals absentmindedly microdose poison each day until they are doomed. For the gardening collective, Lemoine’s drone money is undoubtedly corruptive, and though the crossover between his surveillance technology and the military-industrial complex is richly communicated, it is mostly ignored. Yet, surveillance is ubiquitous in the atmosphere even before he arrives: people incessantly stalk one another online, track each other’s whereabouts using GPS, and use satellite imagery to survey the landscape. Soon, cell phones are drained as data leaks out of them, and the drones are buzzing around like sinister, semiautonomous familiars. Even more than the money, however, the greater source of toxicity is Lemoine himself. His power, infamy, and resources are magnetic for the ambitious, and neither the Darvishes nor the Birnam Wood crew can resist associating with him and becoming pawns in a mastermind’s game. Even Tony, an aspiring journalist who has the novel’s strongest moral compass (but who can also be a bit of a blowhard), cannot resist his own hubris as he skulks around the Thorndike site and stumbles on a scoop. As he is chased by drones, he imagines being interviewed on a podcast, hearing the “plucky glockenspiel, a shimmering undertow of strings,” and finally sees himself “at a podium, collecting an award.”
Reading the novel, I noticed that I couldn’t stop picturing its events as a televisual adaptation. I kept thinking about Netflix: the casting, the little directorial touches, such as amplified sound effects or jump cuts. This is a consequence of the writing, which is action-driven and shares some of the plainness of the thriller genre, and is also presumably a result of Catton’s recent screenwriting experience. I missed the peculiar literary flourishes of her two previous novels: the ominous, spectral form of surreal that animated her debut, The Rehearsal (2008), and the gleaming nineteenth-century lacework of The Luminaries (awarded the Booker in 2013, and which Catton adapted as a screenplay for television). However, without revealing too much, the finale convinced me that any such adaptation would be nigh-on impossible. As the precise nature of the novel’s climax came into view, I found it at first faintly ridiculous, and then, finally, persuasive and devastating. It was only then that a multifaceted regret crystallized around the novel, inspiring a pitiful glance back through the many small errors that had piled up. “All our yesterdays,” says Macbeth in his final speech, “have lighted fools the way to dusty death.”
Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in Turin, Italy, where she is writing a novel. Her criticism and essays have appeared in Artforum, ArtReview, Bookforum, frieze, and Mousse, among other publications, and she was the recipient of a 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. Formerly she was Chief Curator at Swiss Institute, New York, where she recently curated the first survey of Rosemary Mayer and coedited the publications Rosemary Mayer (2023) and The Letters of Rosemary and Bernadette Mayer (2022).