If you really want to shock a gathering, to stop forks in mid-air at a dinner party, I have a failsafe trick. Announce to the liberal, intellectual group of people that you may or may not call your friends that you read your horoscope every day. Then sit back and wait for the rage to erupt. Nothing, not “I think Nigel Farage might have a point, you know”, nor “Thought for the Day could really benefit from being five minutes longer, couldn’t it?”, nor, “This third series of Homeland is definitely the best yet” ignites ire or brings out a dinner guest’s latent illiberal leanings faster. The commonest reaction is that reading Shelley von Strunckel makes you stupid.
Does it? Patronised horoscope readers everywhere now have a heavyweight dinnerparty comeback. An interest in the mysterious ways of the zodiac has been given the stamp of approval from no less a hefty pillar of the cultural establishment than the Man Booker Prize. On Tuesday night, the panel awarded the prize to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. At 832 pages, it is many things, but most prosaically it is a novel about the New Zealand gold rush. What sets it apart, and presumably dazzled the judges, is its fiendishly intricate structure, which was inspired by the movement of the planets through the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Catton painstakingly divides her novel into 12 sections, each one prefaced by an astrological chart and each one dedicated to a character whose personalities and plots are mapped out according to their star sign. The sections progressively decline in size, from 360 pages (the full circle) pages for the first to just three for the last: the book literally wanes. “The zodiac is a system a person can play with and see meaning in,” Catton told The Independent after her win. “The nice thing about the zodiac as a system is it is quite comprehensive as a range of impulses and psychological states it can speak about.”
It is a very ingenious way of structuring a piece of literature. But for Catton it is more than that. In her acceptance speech, the newest Booker-winner talked, tongue only lightly in cheek, about the cosmic significance of the number 28 – her age, the number of years since a fellow New Zealander won the prize and also the time it takes Saturn to orbit the Earth – and described email spats with her editors which would end with her signing off, “Well, you would think that, being a Virgo.” It certainly beat the usual lengthy thank-yous and hand-wringing about the death of the publishing industry. Catton reads her horoscope and takes astrology “very seriously”, although describes herself less a believer “more of an admirer, or a happy wonderer”.
This has knocked all sorts of things off their axes. How can someone so patently clever admire something commonly held to be so dumb? Is this the dawning of the age of Aquarius in books? Will Mystic Meg overtake Mantel as the literary voice de nos jours? Anxious literary critics have been lining up since her victory to check whether Catton really believes in this bunkum. Her response has been typically eloquent. “I think that the zodiac is beautiful and rich in meaning, both historical and psychological”, she said.
She is right about that. The Luminaries taps into an enduring fascination with the powers of the stars. It is why artists, from thriller writers to film directors to painters, return time and again to the cosmic, why many newspapers still print horoscopes every day and why fortune tellers are celebrities, of a sort. Everyone has a star sign. You don’t have to be a Jonathan Cainer addict to know it, and most probably to know those of your parents, siblings and partner, too.
Similarly, most people, if they are honest, know a few of the traits that those signs commonly entail. I am a Libra which means that I am balanced, creative and romantic, apparently. I don’t know what my sign’s negative traits are because I have never wanted to know (see, famously balanced).
That is how horoscopes work. They’re a Choose Your Own Adventure, based on your own destiny. Which is quite thrilling when you think about it. You take the good bits, discard the bad and don’t really believe in any of it. They’re a glorious, universal fiction. Yesterday, my stars in three different places predicted that, “A disruption to a relationship could cause you to see red”, “Some distant relatives may call to say they’re coming for a visit” and “You are starting to discover amazing things about the full extent of your potential”. I picked the last one because it sounded the best, and because none of my distant relatives know where I live.
Is it daft to read them at all, or to be a “happy wonderer”, like Catton? Belief moves in mysterious ways. Yesterday, the BBC published a poll which, while indicating a decline in formal religious belief, showed that 77 per cent of those surveyed believed in “spiritual forces”. One in four said they believed in angels. Some choose to put their faith in angels, others in Russell Grant. Both, I suppose, are ways of feeling part of grander narrative, that all is not chaos. As Catton puts it, “The way that I see astrology is as a repository of thought and psychology. A system we’ve created as a culture as a way to make things mean things.”
You don’t have to believe in the mysterious powers of the zodiac to understand that it appeals to what makes us human – the search for meaning and the desire to feel part of a story. Don’t agree? That’ll be the contrary Aquarius rising in you.