Ask me how much time and money I have devoted, in my adult life, to conscious efforts to be a good person, and I would struggle to quantify it. Of course, I would also struggle to tell you what “being good” means. My ideas seem to change constantly, which means the target shifts. Besides, the world I inhabit does not make goodness easy, for me or anyone else. I put clothes I no longer wear in giveaway bins run by a profoundly inefficient nonprofit; I assiduously recycle despite reports that my plastic is likely “headed to landfills, or worse”; I sign up for shifts at a food bank, then cancel because I have to work. If I were giving away more money, or more of my time, my efforts would surely be wobblier or more questionable still.
Birnam Wood, the third novel by the New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, picks up on the instability of trying to be good, a pursuit the book views quite bleakly. Loosely about the idealistic antics of a guerrilla gardening group, it has no hero but rather an ensemble of antiheroes whose foibles Catton uses to poke, quite hard, at the dreams and pieties of people who believe they can change the world. Such an impulse is a major shift from Catton’s Man Booker Prize–winning second novel, The Luminaries, an intricate, glowing love story set during New Zealand’s gold rush. Birnam Wood, in contrast, is dark in both its outlook and its omnipresent humor.
Catton is especially sharp in her portrayal of Mira Bunting, Birnam Wood’s charismatic founder. Day to day, the group plants legal gardens in donated yards and illegal ones on unmonitored land across New Zealand. Mira feels sure this project will someday generate “radical, widespread, and lasting social change” by showing people “how much fertile land was going begging, all around them, every day … and how arbitrary and absurdly prejudicial the entire concept of land ownership, when divorced from use or habitation, really was!” She is so confident, in fact, that when an American billionaire—who, to the reader, is plainly menacing—offers her a major donation and access to a large swath of land to cultivate, she barely blinks before making the executive decision that the group should accept.
Catton swiftly reveals Robert Lemoine, the billionaire in question, to be a James Bond–style bad guy, a 100-percent-evil evildoer who supports Birnam Wood only because he can use its garden to help conceal his scheme to illegally mine rare-earth minerals from a protected nature reserve next to land he has recently, secretly bought. Simply by linking Birnam Wood to him, Mira puts herself and the group in great danger. Catton draws Lemoine in great detail, but he is less a three-dimensional character than a wall for her to project her other characters against. His static, reliable badness allows—and occasionally causes—everyone else’s degree of goodness to flicker and change.
That concept of goodness gets put to the test first with the group’s debates over whether it’s right to take Lemoine’s money. Before long, though, the novel begins questioning the nature of do-gooding in a compromised and compromising world. It gradually transforms into a sincere interrogation of the relationship between morality and the ability to bring about positive change. Birnam Wood wants to know if a person has to be good to do good—and how to identify what goodness is in the first place.
If Birnam Wood is an exploration of idealism, its characters are the different lenses through which Catton wants us to consider it. Mira is a classic founder, charismatic and self-confident to the point of rashness. She attracts rapt audiences, which means that no one questions her Lemoine plan but Tony, a Bernie-bro type whose strident opposition has the effect of actually pushing the group toward accepting the billionaire’s money. Mira’s loyal sidekick, Shelley, is reliable and slightly gullible in the way that the unimaginative sometimes are. As the two lead a ragtag group of volunteers to camp on Lemoine’s land, their dynamic underscores the extent to which different sorts of idealists, acting in concert, can create chaos instead of change.
Mira cares only for dramatic transformation. Indeed, her minor impulses are not good at all. On the solo trip that leads to her first encounter with Lemoine, she pitches her tent at a campsite with “an honesty box for camp fees that Mira pretended not to see.” Pretended is key here: Alone, Mira has no motivation to do the little right thing; indeed, she feels herself to be above it. Meanwhile, Shelley, who would never walk by an honesty box, feels that she could do more overall good if she could be more like Mira. In this contrast, Catton captures a broader tension: between minor purists like Shelley, unable to compromise on the small stuff yet glad to go along with Mira on bigger decisions, and leaders like Mira, whose ambition leads her far past pragmatism into a dangerous dirtying of her hands.
Tony is another sort of purist entirely. He cares about purity on a big scale, and he’s more than willing to fight for it. While the group builds hoop houses and plants seedlings, and Shelley, in the “stout belief that there was nothing more beneficial to group harmony than to ensure the food was plentiful and good,” spends too much of Lemoine’s donation on “cured meats, and hard cheeses, and decent coffee, and kombucha cultures,” Tony marches into the nature reserve near Birnam Wood’s new project, having declared himself an investigative journalist—he has a blog—and decided to expose the Bad Thing he feels sure Lemoine is up to.
Catton balances constantly on the razor’s edge between writing Tony as a comic pest and making him so irritating that he is nearly unreadable. Often, he is redeemed by the fact that he is correct. Tony worships “intellectual rigour;” his signature insult is “You’re not being rational here.” But as he tramps around the reserve, he begins to see that reason is not the only lens for viewing the world, even as his rational powers tell him that Lemoine (whose illegal mining, by this stage in the novel, is well under way) cannot possibly mean either Birnam Wood or the nation of New Zealand well. Tony’s willingness to take on a Goliath such as Lemoine makes him the novel’s only character with a prayer of actually changing things in a major sort of way—unlike Mira, whose attraction to power undoes many of her dreams.
Part of what seems to intrigue Catton is the question of whether it is better to aspire to what could be called Big Good—for Tony, exposing Lemoine’s mining scheme; for Mira and her volunteers, shifting public opinion on land ownership—or Small Good. Before Lemoine came on the scene, Birnam Wood did quite a lot of the latter by growing vegetables on fallow land and donating a large chunk of their yield to the hungry. Mira, plainly, was never content with this work: She wouldn’t even accept Shelley’s repeated suggestion that they launch a community-supported agriculture program, which would have given the group more financial and logistical stability and allowed them to expand their good works. Stability is undramatic, and to a person who sees herself as a mover and shaker, drama is inherently desirable. For much of Birnam Wood, it is tempting to wish Mira had stuck to her small gardens—but Tony is as big a drama lover as Mira, and Catton pushes the reader to hope against hope that he will pull his exposé off.
Tony is not a fun character to root for. Birnam Wood would be, in some sense, a more enjoyable book if Catton made it possible to imagine that Mira and Shelley could somehow band together to prevent the ecological destruction Lemoine’s mining plan will wreak, and then grow the greatest garden of all time. But from the moment the group sets up camp near the reserve, it is clear that Mira is too taken with Lemoine—or, worse still, with the oblique and exaggerated reflection of herself that she sees in him—to resist him in any way. Her infatuation and Shelley’s credulity undermine the usefulness of Birnam Wood’s work and send the novel skidding toward tragedy and disaster.
Ultimately, Birnam Wood suggests that usefulness is the only reliable metric for either Big or Small Good, imperfect though it may be. It would be useful for Tony to expose Lemoine; it is useful for Birnam Wood to feed the hungry. Quite often, Catton seems to be searching among her flawed protagonists for the bits of usefulness they produce, and to take those bits of value seriously without ignoring the ways that each character’s flaws prevent them from doing better. But she also suggests that in the face of badness—or, frankly, in the quotidian, compromising situations that do-gooders less flamboyant than Mira still find themselves in every day—caution grows more necessary, not less. As Mira never quite learns, you get nowhere by going too fast.