I’m reading a novel—The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton—in which the plot follows the stars. Each character corresponds to a planet or zodiac sign, and as they attempt to solve a series of mysteries in a nineteenth-century New Zealand gold-mining town, their interactions parallel the movements of the celestial spheres. For example, Catton worked out that Mars, Jupiter, and Mercury were in Sagittarius on January 27, 1866, and so the characters corresponding with those three planets all have extensive one-on-one conversations with the Sagittarius character that day.
As the novel approaches its end, the pace quickens, the chapters shorten, and the reader is forced to notice the governing astrological structure. Sections of the novel decrease in length at the same rate the waning moon disappears from sight. You flip back through the hundreds of pages you’ve already read, noticing that the star charts on the first page of each section aren’t simply decorative. You turn to the “character chart” on page xvii—which, you have to admit, you skipped past the first time—and start piecing together the puzzle.
Perhaps it was just an astrologically determined coincidence of my reading habits, but I’ve found the novel’s conceit oddly reminiscent of the Democratic primary process. Hear me out. We have a large cast of characters, each representing some kind of archetype (the Anointed Establishment Leader, the Old Grumpy Socialist, the Cool Midwestern Mom, the Whizkid, the “Feisty Grandma,” to quote our dear faculty advisor). Every Democratic voter identifies with one of these luminaries, and it becomes part of our identity.
Early on, the field all looks toward the well-known favorite. The others take turns attacking him. Their poll numbers rise, his set. The world turns.
A new leader, a new set of attacks. There’s a debate, and journalists track speaking time and favorability ratings. We read FiveThirtyEight like a star chart, hoping to predict the future and save ourselves the pain of an unrealistic hope. The world turns.
Two luminaries in conflict. (See one? Turn a bit to the left and you can make out the other.) The feud flashes and then fades, but not to worry, a new one arises the next day. The primaries approach, and public interest waxes. The stars promise surety. The world turns.
A year later, our orbit (which sure as heck feels like 940 million miles), has taken us back to where we started: the old—and I mean old—favorites are once again our choices. The sky looks disappointingly familiar. Both hope and fear, it turns out, were exaggerated.
Because of course the most diverse field in American history got narrowed down to the old white guys. Of course the smartest and most effective candidates took each other out. Of course we’re stuck with the equally empty promises of a revolution and of normalcy. The sky looks disappointingly familiar.
This is where I’d normally say something like “but in America, our votes and voices can change the stars!” Or “but the sky will keep spinning, year by year, degree by degree, as fast as it ever has.” Or, if I’m feeling particularly pious, “but we can look beyond the stars to the one who set them in place.”
But none of those things feel true right now. It feels like the stars are marching on inevitably but purposelessly, favoring—as always—fear, anger, patriarchy, and established power.
I haven’t finished The Luminaries, and we haven’t yet picked a nominee, much less a president. I don’t know whether mysteries are solved and lives are saved or whether the celestial spheres have something more sinister in mind. Maybe we really can change the stars. But if unprecedented diversity, the youngest candidate since William Jennings Bryan, and the most compassionate, activist, intersectional, prepared, and hopeful campaign in history can’t spin them in a new direction, what can?