I first came across Nicholas Mosley‘s work when I read Hopeful Monsters some years ago. I was deeply impressed by the book, not only by its range of intellectual reference, which includes politics, biology, genetics and physics (cue walk-on part for Albert Einstein), and its geographical and temporal scope – the novel takes in whole swathes of Europe and northern Africa during a substantial chunk of the last century – but also by its technical innovations, undercutting naturalised stream of consciousness techniques with a constant, and artful, use of the initially distracting signalling devices, ‘I thought’, ‘I wondered’ ‘I said’, etc., at least partly to highlight the extent to which these acts so rarely coincide. At the start of the novel, this, like the use/non-use of the question mark, can feel like a trick; by the end, it’s become – ironically – as naturalised in the reader’s mind as the conventions it replaces, while remaining an effective shorthand for emotional/intellectual ambivalence. In terms of scope, the ambition of the novel made the kind of impression on me that Paul Verhaeghen‘s Omega Minor did more recently. It’s a large book in every way, fully deserving of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, which it won in 1990, and unjustly neglected since. It’s to the credit of the Dalkey Archive Press that both Mosley’s and Verhaeghen’s books are available today.
So I was delighted to see a pristine hardback copy of his 2001 novel, The Hesperides Tree, in a local charity shop for only £1.49. The novel has several things in common with Hopeful Monsters; despite being shorter, it has the same intellectual cross-disciplinary ambition, this time throwing genetics, mythology, information technology and terrorism of both the Irish and the middle Eastern variety into the mix, not to speak of the same stylistic features: the repeated use of verbs of consciousness, an idiosyncratic use of punctuation. It’s full of action, and event, and slightly out-dated relevance, like the millennium bug. So why is it such a dreadful disappointment?
The novel is a first person narrative, ostensibly by an eighteen year old man, the son of a psychotherapist and documentary maker. Except that it isn’t. There isn’t a single point in the book at which the voice is convincingly that of a young man at the end of the twentieth century, regardless of his background. I’m not asking that it be typical, or representative in any way, simply that it sound authentic. It doesn’t even have that creaky, slightly embarrassing air of an old man imitating his grandchildren. It’s just the slightly hectoring, slightly dotty, frequently faux-naif, voice of, well, the author, presumably. It’s no surprise that the only part of the novel not written from the viewpoint of the unnamed protagonist – a longish manuscript produced by his mother, describing her relationship with the powerful father of one of his best friends, a laughably unbelievable gay hacker (and don’t get me started on Stanislaus) – should sound exactly the same as the rest of the novel, down to the last worn-out narrative device, the last ‘I thought’ followed by a dash.
The plot’s absurd as well, but that’s hardly the point. Plots needn’t be plausible to do what they’re designed to do. (Though it’s odd that someone with the background of Mosley should fail so dismally at producing a picture of the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers, that doesn’t feel as if a Heat writer were having a stab at parodying Aldous Huxley.) And it might be claimed that my stubborn need for a convincing voice, or voices, and for dialogue that sounds as though it might actually have been uttered by human beings, rather than the single monotonous voice of the book’s author, is nothing more than a bourgeois clinging to the traditional novel, whatever that is. According to the narrator, who switches from studying biology to literature: “literature seemed to treat humans no differently than science did; as characters predestined to behave in the way they did, very occasionally happening by chance to change, but with no awareness of autonomy. Their brains produced no more than a stream of consciousness or rather unconsciousness because they contained no feel of how humans might be creative. Thus literature became a chronicle of humanity’s oddities and crimes and follies, peopled by characters with no virtue except that of being quaint. This was decked out indeed often enough in glorious or subtle language which gave the impression of empowerment; but there was little feel of this in the characters portrayed.”
Well, this is nonsense, and obscenely so in a novel whose characters aren’t sufficiently realised to achieve quaintness, never mind creativity. The love interest, which takes up much of the book, involves a young Irish woman whose capacity for wide-eyed philosophical whimsy is, alas, as great as that of the narrator, and a lesbian feminist who nonetheless finds our young man not only worth getting a leg over but also suitable father material. The descriptions of love are mawkish and the sex scenes downright hilarious. I’d say that the women characters were particularly offensively portrayed if it weren’t for the even more excruciating presence of that gay chum, “like some sort of tattered eagle on its rock”. Early on in the novel, the author, sorry, the young narrator, says: “Language seems a bit out of its depth when it tries to say how things might be right.” He should try reading a few more books; I’m sure I’m not the only one who could provide a list of novels in which what might constitute the good, or the right, is addressed with considerable skill and grace (see the object of my last review for an example). In the case of this novel, language seems pretty much out of its depth when it tries to do anything other than be tritely vacuous and portentous. Oh dear.