Because of my now almost year-long obsession with Iris Murdoch, whenever I go into a bookstore, I head straight for the M's. A few months ago, at my favorite used bookstore, while staring disappointedly at the space that should have contained several Murdoch novels, but didn't, I discovered a novel called Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosely. I knew nothing about him, including that he is the son of renowned British fascist Oswald Mosley ... but of course I am going to pick up any book called "Hopeful Monsters" that promises to be a "pyrotechnically accomplished novel of ideas, in which communism, psychoanalytic theory, uncertainty, and relativity obtain visceral emotional force," according to the book jacket.
I liked it. I think. It contained extraordinary, stunning images, including an unforgettable extended scene of a small child being rolled down a hill in a tire. But overall, the book managed to be both fascinating and oddly distancing. Perhaps it suffered from that common criticism aimed at all "novels of ideas," whatever those are: that they are bloodless, that readers really want novels "about character" (as if that's somehow opposed to "ideas"). Yet what if your characters themselves live lives of the mind? What if their greatest passion in life is ideas, the search for the truth about the universe?
Anyway, I couldn't decide if I liked the book or not, so I got another one, The Hesperides Tree, which I'm reading now. Here's a sample passage:
This section contains a couple of the distinctive, sometimes baffling quirks of Mosley's style. That "I thought -- " appears at least once on nearly every page of both novels, and it has the effect, for me, of kicking me out of the narrative. A cardinal sin, as any writing workshop will gleefully inform you. But that effect has to be intentional. These characters, themselves, have the habit of stepping back, even in the middle of very intense experiences, and reflecting on what the events mean. They, like us, are in and out of their own stories at the same time. Mosley also likes repetition, as here, with the vaguely hypnotic recurrence of "wildlife station." Again, you end up paying attention to the language as much as to what the language conveys--which lends the whole story an edge of unreality.
It's not that the story becomes less compelling because of these techniques; what's compelling is the telling of the story. Which is why we don't get to pretend that we're seeing straight through the words into some alternate but completely believable world, populated by people just like us. The story is the story. And that makes for a different but still deeply intriguing reading experience.