Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood is a political novel with a difference. Most political novels deploy characters as symbols. To denounce totalitarianism, Animal Farm depicts dictators as pigs. To promote individualism, The Fountainhead idealizes a heroic loner. To imagine how society might reconcile capitalism with Christian charity, North and South weds a self-made industrialist to a philanthropic minister’s daughter.
Birnam Wood, by contrast, replaces allegory with moral realism. The novel’s major characters span the political spectrum from Libertarian to radical anarchist, but all of them share the same flaws: competitiveness, pride, selfishness, and a need either to dominate others or be dominated by them.
The result is a leftist novel about the impossibility of leftist politics. Birnam Wood is a leftist novel because it exposes the evils of what political theorist Nancy Fraser terms “cannibal capitalism.” The novel’s central villain, Robert Lemoine, is a tech billionaire clandestinely mining a New Zealand national park for rare earth minerals. A Libertarian hyperindividualist who has named his drone company “Autonomo,” Lemoine is a sociopathic narcissist who lies, steals, cheats, and kills in order to “become, by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who ever lived.” Through expert plotting, pacing, and narration, Catton makes his capitalist crimes chillingly plausible.
Representing moderate smugness and shortsightedness are middle-class, middle-aged New Zealanders Owen and Jill Darvish. They represent a greedy bourgeoisie easily manipulated by the ultrarich. Lemoine is buying the Darvishes’ sheep farm because it borders the national park he is looting, although he tells the Davrishes he is planning to use it to build a bunker. Owen Darvish is especially keen to impress the American billionaire and makes the land’s sale dependent on a joint project that will use drone technology to protect endangered birds. But Owen, we learn, doesn’t truly care about birds. His conservationism is merely a pretext to get Lemoine’s attention.
Finally, embodying leftist ideals, we have Birnam Wood, the radical gardening collective that gives the novel its title. (More on the Macbeth allusion below.) The gardening collective plants food on unused public and private soil and operates according to “Principles of Unity” that emphasize direct democracy, solidarity, and mutual aid. Lemoine, out of curiosity and playful spite, offers Birnam Wood access to the sheep farm’s land for a season, along with $100,000 in funding so that they can expand and become a formal nonprofit.
Lemoine’s epic malevolence and the Darvishes’ eagerness to compromise for personal gain cue readers to expect a straightforward political morality tale. But the novel’s two most vocal leftist activists, Tony Gallo and Mira Bunting, complicate things by proving to be almost as power-hungry and corruptible as the Libertarian villain. The leftists possess clear moral compasses, but their egotism prevents them from steering in the proper direction. Tony correctly counsels the gardening collective not to accept Robert’s “blood money,” but his intellectual vanity and lack of consideration make him unable to follow the group’s simple ground rules for discussion. “‘Let’s keep it to questions, guys,’” the facilitator keeps reminding him, to no avail. Much as he enjoys exhorting others to stop “treating the individual as the basis of political agency,” he rarely heeds his own pleas. Moments after condemning late capitalism as “having declared self-interest the only universal,” he fantasizes that exposing capitalist crimes will make his name, crowing to himself, “’I am going to be so fucking famous.” Even when Lemoine’s drones and armed mercenaries begin to hunt him down, his first reaction is not terror but ambition. “He was a part of the story; he was the story.” In Catton’s telling, our will to power risks outstripping our will to live.
Encrypted in “Birnam Wood’s” bleak vision of human nature lies a subtle counterfactual story of the great good that might result from a decent person’s daily stream of care.
Mira, Birnam Wood’s founder and leader, like all “self-mythologising rebels,” has many ideas that could “like, totally transform society.” Her ambition for Birnam Wood is “nothing less than radical, widespread, and lasting social change.” Mira sees what is wrong with Lemoine even before she knows the full extent of his crimes. Nonetheless, she is seduced both by his menace and by his flattery, deluding herself that she is flirting with him for a higher cause: “In all her years at Birnam Wood she had never met anybody she had so completely failed to charm. There had to be a reason; and for the sake of the collective, she had to find it out.”
As the plot unfolds, Mira alternates between grandiose fantasies of reforming Lemoine and rejecting him. She is determined to prove “that he had met his match in her,” to be “the one” to find him out. The novel stresses their similarities. Mira and Lemoine both want to “take over the world.” Both turn most interactions into a “pissing contest.” Like Lemoine, though on a smaller scale, Mira is a deft liar and shameless trespasser. When she visits the national park that Lemoine is destroying for his own gain, she fails to put any money in the “honesty box for camp fees.” Late in the novel, Mira’s seemingly more stolid friend Shelley tells her, cuttingly, that Lemoine “‘knows you don’t really give a shit about anyone except yourself … No wonder you want to fuck each other. You’ve got so much in common.’” But in Birnam Wood, everyone proves capable of deceit, greed, egotism, and worse—Shelley included.
Like many political novels, Birnam Wood asks, “What is to be done?” Its answer is clear: we should work together for the common good. But with every twist and turn, the novel can’t help adding, “Good luck with that.” Capitalism is evil, but are those willing to fight it actually able to do so?
The title’s allusion to Macbeth underscores the book’s pessimism. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that he will never be defeated until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him.” Macbeth thinks that can never happen, but it does, when enemy soldiers cover themselves with branches from the wood’s trees. Who is Macbeth in Catton’s story? Almost everyone, as Catton herself has stated in interviews. All the major characters prove as susceptible as Macbeth to blandishment, ambition, and outsized belief in their own success.
The sense that human nature itself makes it almost impossible to combat the evils of capitalism makes Birnam Wood feel arrestingly static, despite an action-packed plot that includes mercenaries and drones hunting down an innocent journalist, a collective LSD trip that goes terribly wrong, and a gruesome mass murder. Opposing views collide, but without resolution or synthesis, just as the novel’s opening lines depict a world in which a chain of spectacular disasters has produced a standstill: “The Korowai pass had been closed since the end of the summer, when a spate of shallow earthquakes triggered a landslide that buried a stretch of highway in rubble, killing five, and sending a long-haul truck over a precipice where it skimmed a power line, ploughed a channel down the mountainside, and then exploded in a viaduct below … Nothing could be done before the spring.” It’s a fittingly stationary beginning to a political novel that is more of a meditation on the limitations of human nature than a blueprint for how to change the world.
Reviewers have made much of how Birnam Wood criticizes digital technologies, but to link 21st-century millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers alike to Macbeth, a character created over four centuries ago, implies that some human traits endure no matter how much else changes. Catton offers a fairly fixed and gloomy view of human nature that departs from the more malleable, optimistic notion of what Karl Marx called our species being. Her willingness to entertain that there might be something indelibly flawed about people makes Birnam Wood a depressing but provocatively unsettling read.
Marxist analyses often personify capitalism itself as an anthropomorphic force with a life of its own. In Cannibal Capitalism, for example, Nancy Fraser argues that the term Anthropocene erroneously blames human activity for destroying the planet when the culprit is “really” capital. Catton begs to differ. Capitalism alone is not the problem. People are also the problem, including some of the people fighting capitalism. Like most people, the novel’s leftist characters have trouble curbing selfish desires or accepting rules and limits. The book’s most interesting idea is that there are no easy fixes to capitalism precisely because nothing about capitalism is foreign to humans, even when we are capitalism’s victims. Everyone is Macbeth, and we are killing ourselves. Grim as this view is, Birnam Wood warns that we ignore it at our peril.
The novel offers a glimmer of hope in small, everyday acts of care tendered by minor characters, most of them ordinary, even humdrum women. In terms of genre, Catton embraces the readability offered by middlebrow realism and commonplace popular thrillers. In terms of gender, the novel quietly celebrates the small-scale heroism of a handful of female characters, as if aiming to correct, through fiction, how capitalism exploits women’s domestic and emotional labors without valuing them. Catton cautions us not to ignore, as Mira does, “those aspects of mundane existence that could not be … wished away,” nor the people who attend to them.
At a pivotal moment, Mira and Shelley debate whether it is better to say “Thank you” or “I’m sorry.” The book’s most pragmatic message may be that we should say both to the women whose labors of love we so often take for granted—especially mothers. Just before departing to investigate the possibility of occupying the sheep farm, Mira stops by her mother’s house to use a printer, grab food, and help herself to stationery supplies. She never bothers to ask her mother why she is sighing about her “‘long bloody day.’” With equal slyness, Catton shows 30-year-old Tony’s mother handing him a cereal bowl, “anticipating his need for one.” Tony takes the cereal from her without a word of thanks, eats it in his “unmade bed,” and then sets the bowl down on a bedside table, implicitly leaving it for someone else to clear.
Later in the novel, Tony dismisses Rosie, a solicitor whom he briefly hooks up with before heading south to investigate Lemoine’s purchase of the Darvish property, as too “nice,” too mainstream: “She wasn’t a radical.” Rosie is indeed ordinary. She plays netball, loves Battlestar Galactica, and uses banal emojis. But she is also the only character to parry Lemoine’s machinations. Several times, as he wanders the national park, Tony considers contacting his mother and Rosie to brag about his discoveries, then decides not to, out of embarrassment or a sense that they won’t fully appreciate what he is doing. It never crosses his mind to call for their sakes. Had he done so, he might have met a better end.
In the novel’s final pages, Jill Darvish, who understands her husband’s “inner life” better than he does and uses her empathetic insight to “nurse” the egos of others “back to health,” acts heroically, empowered by her determination to help young people screaming in terror and pain. “Someone was in trouble. Someone needed to be saved. She felt as she had in the last stage of childbirth.” As she goes to help those in need, she hears her husband’s voice in her head, evocative of the “single life that they had shared between them.” In her “vain moments,” Jill sees “their marriage as a kind of service to the public good.” The novel gently satirizes that self-aggrandizement, but it also makes the couple’s love the force that ultimately brings Lemoine down.
Tony’s mother, Rosie, and Jill Darvish all fall short of Birnam Wood the commune’s highest ideals. None of them is working to, like, totally transform society. But each of them manages something rare within Birnam Wood the novel: each does the right thing, because each can tolerate what Mira, Tony, Lemoine, and (ultimately) Shelley cannot. Each can bear to be ordinary. Each is capable, at least momentarily, of subordinating self to care for others. Those qualities enable them to realize, in minute but tangible ways, the vision Tony lectures Birnam Wood about, of a society based on mutuality and love.
Climate-change narratives and thrillers both depend on multiple small actions quickly gathering terrible momentum. Encrypted in Birnam Wood’s bleak vision of human nature lies a subtle counterfactual story of the great good that might result from a decent person’s daily stream of care. If only the novel’s young activists had thought of their mothers. Thereby hangs a tale within this tale, of how tiny deeds of everyday kindness that represent the best of what humans have in common might ultimately have the power to save us all.