Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. —Linda Chown
Behind the Moon
Madison Smartt Bell
City Lights Press, 2017
$15.95; 280 pages
.Behind the Moon is through and through a magical encounter and a novel of mystery, but then what should one expect being taken there behind the moon, that emblem in the sky of love, of unknown loneliness, and uneasy inaccessibility? The position of the reader is crucial here. Approach this novel like an academic hunting symbols and what these ostensibly might “mean” squeezes out the juice. For instance, common reader sense should have told me that what comes first has to stand forth first as core axis. What comes first is a page with a circle and then this sentence: “The eye was on her first—the first thing she knew.” This opening says to pay attention to eyes, to seeing, to being seen and to watching, who and what are being seen and how, the width of image and the curve of distance. In the first of three readings, I came upon what I experienced as a holy wildness, what could be at one level a hip narrative of adventure and/or a relative of seductive Eleusinian Mysteries from classical times. The words and images spin about each other like silkworms sticky-hot in a summer sky. Actually, here, the reader is everywhere every time with multiple clues to everything in this scintillating book. But then, of course, time isn’t here. Space is and circles are. Spawned in fever dreams which might or might not be dreams, Behind the Moon is the grandest cosmic adventure on earth and also an account of lost women who learned to go elsewhere through solid surfaces, who came to know complete. Just about everything in this book is seductive and deliciously uncertain, once you let go of the silly matter of interpretation and finalities. A book about losing your way, it is foremost of coming through and twinning, of getting closer. As Julie knows: “she wanted to go deeper into the rolling feeling, warmth and openness, cuddlesome.”
It is also a seamlessly sophisticated book in which words as signs, scene and image weave over centrifugally, inexplicable at first. Writing of Julliet Fleming’s Cultural Geography: Writing after Derrida, Gill Parrington reminds that “words are burrows, tunnels, funnels, passages, expanding territories and folding stars. It’s a wonder that any of us can read.” This wise suggestion helps us to get closer to this book’s circular shapes and physical marks everywhere. In another comment fitting Bell’s at first far-fetched, untethered, yet meticulously composed novel, Jacques Derrida once admonished, “We need to stop thinking in wholes.” Well, Behind the Moon takes us rather astoundingly out of any world of stories and wholes and certainties to become a novel behind, not just the hypothetical moon of the title, but also behind the certainties of story, becoming thus, its own shimmering, transparent narrative aporia. Madison Smartt Bell knew that his book was singular to the point of strangeness, far reaching on the verge of sheer undecidability. In a Granta interview, he deemed it an “indescribable novel.” In 2013, he went a step further: “Behind the Moon is a novel just too weird for New York (even I eventually admitted that).” Remember when reading, that our book, this Behind the Moon is a novel explicitly taking place behind the regularity of what we consider story. We have to read it otherwise. Julie the character who fell, disappearing forever into a cave, grieved about the limitations of the story she felt stuck with: “There had to be another way to tell herself the story. Jamal should tell it to her another way.” She re-affirms her sense of another way: “She was seeing what she saw in some other way.” This is not so much a novel with a story within, as a stage setting through which transfuse many mysteries, sexual, mythical, and conceptual.
Once, years ago, a young girl (mainly me) sat in a plush chair in the silent dark of Hayden’s immaculate Planetarium in New York City. She looked upward, mutely waiting like the rest were in the chilly air for what was going to happen overhead. It was going to happen as a mystery at some distance, she discerned then in all her girlish inexperience. And so also did I (as she) immediately know that in Behind the Moon something important was going to present itself to be seen somehow. With my planetarium memory in mind (in hand?), It was a thrill reading to discover that Julie, the main character, had stars overhead on her ceiling at home like in a planetarium, a seething image which recurs six times: “the phosphorescent plastic stars stuck to the ceiling above her bed at home. . . . On the ceiling above the fluorescent green stars lit up. . .They seemed to have been arranged in constellations.” In another visual conundrum, the issue of looking, being watched or seen, became instinctively, intransigently important, remaining somewhat nebulous. ”She was seeing with the same eye that saw her” and “The yellow eye looked through her as she looked through the eye.” This novel bakes and sizzles these visual moments, keeping them warm, although almost unengendered.
Since this novel grows revolutionarily behind the traditional story, chronological time lines don’t apply. Many readers say that this novel is “about” about the attempt to rescue Julie, with the help of shamans (or whomever) from the cave into which she once fell. No, it’s not about that story. It’s not a story at all. Actually, Julie rather defiantly doesn’t want to come back; if anything she wants to get further in, into the cave, to go through the walls, to get closer to what inside is. My review hopes not to seem to provide answers but rather to furnish openings, to animate living in the cross thatched scenes, to adumbrate the eloquent patterning of the pages, thus to coordinate familiar worlds, the people in the hospital and the city and the others, with the unknowable’s, people/animals in caves full of paw marks and illustrations, so as to open the windows of your first and second readings of this exquisitely mysterious book, whose every word, sound, and pictogram constitutes what it is. I will use three frameworks: what I am calling 1) Setting, 2) Summary, and 3) Infiltration, so that by the end you can re-read this Contemporary Eleusinian Mystery your way.
1) First, what could be called setting of Behind the Moon includes both its physical self as textual artifact, as well as the places which the characters and animals inhabit. This most physical book features multiple hand and paw prints and circles throughout, eye-catching fonts and blank pages which accentuate its inter-continuities. It has 79 chapters, but these as such are not the significant markers. There appear, more compellingly, thirteen irregular sectional pages each with one more “circle” on it than the last such page. Thus, the final circle page has thirteen circles or prints scattered upon it. These circles vary on each page as to size, position and color, from a nearly invisible gray to a stern black. Occasionally, there are textual pages with vitally palimpsestic over-markings of different fonts, shapes and densities, letters and phrases, most of which have appeared in some way previously. These over-markings and prints bring about, albeit mysteriously, a kind of continuity of recognition. Sometimes, there are as many as two adjacent blank pages. Sometimes, rather inexplicably, when a person you think you know very well speaks, their thoughts or words get italicized much like in Modernist fiction. Other times, speech may become bolded once, and then other times, a particular word like “wrong” gets bolded many times such as when Marissa says wrong or will. Six what I call “duet or couple chapters” repeat each other in terms of dialogue or action. Some text is in Latin and others in Wingding font, which appears initially as some ancient unspoken language. The physicality of these markings be they hand or paw prints physically influence the book’s fore edges, which are noticeably and unevenly splayed with the dark of them.
Here I will not pretend to fake objectivity, to furnish a list of the setting there or here behind the moon. The physical “settings” involving people and places remain as fluid and episodic as the hand prints, about where and how people are, where they sleep, dream, wander, wonder, make love, fight, come through and vindicate themselves. Take it from Julie who says “she seemed to know where the walls were, but she couldn’t see them.” Much like in Virginia Woolf’s most open novel, The Waves, everything just is as it is in some cloudy relation to the waves and the sun. Much as in The Waves, too, there is no omniscient narrator or any guiding third person over voice. Setting as we have known is here a collective radiant dissonance with pools of darkness and eruptions of light. It’s that there simply is no one stable fixed physical reality or backdrop. Consistently, then, that repeated pattern of dots is “drawing toward each other but never quite touching,” much like the disparate parts of the setting being such as it is where it is. However, first of all, and unsurprisingly, the moon is perhaps the one constant that remains and reclaims magic in different ways, almost defiantly and seductively present: “the great moon-shape of time” or “Time is not straight but round like the moon.” The moon is the collective presence of this book. Everyone and thus everything is also somehow ruffled by change here, by a warp in their proprioception, that inchoate understanding of how one’s body fits in space. Hence, Marissa, Julie’s birth mother, “got the legs to start walking toward the house. Something was wrong with her proprioception: she could feel her heart rhythm but not her feet striking the ragged pavement.” For part of the book, “we” are in the desert near St. Mary’s Hospital somewhere near a “coven” of caves which Julie inhabits in some way; the prepositions in the following passage indicate how indeterminate position and place are: “she looked down into it, holding it cupped in the palm of her hand, but in the dark of the cave there seemed to be no gravity, and this cup of light might just as well have been beside her, or above, impossibly distant, like that frayed wafer of daylight moon, faint in the washed colors of the evening sky.”
The book begins in medias res with Julie in the cave with the bear after she fell. Then, on the next page a voice is heard “hauling on her, dragged at her.” These taut, compelling opening pages chart the mysteries we face reading and considering. Then, we flashback seemingly objectively to before Julie’s fall when on her trip with bikers and possibly a dose of molly. At the book’s end, Jamal and Marissa revisit this cave of the beginnings to try to get closer to what happened before. What is setting “slip-shifts” from houses (Julie’s former home with Carrie Westover, her adopted mother), to the hospital where Julie is in a coma and not, because she is quite conscious to herself and sees herself in the cave, to Marissa and Jamal’s mother in The Magic Carpet Restaurant and their intimate moments, to scenes with each one of the men, Jamal, Ultimo, and Marco, to driving on the streets, driving into danger, that meth explosion, on the edge of or inside of caves with hawks, bears, great dark walls, and shamans nearby. Getting through this, Marissa breaks free of herself, her divisions, to feel “no difference between the inside and the outside of her head, Marissa wanted to say.” Real places dissolve fast so that you the reader have to start splicing on your own or cutting your own cross section to look more carefully at more. Multiple shots of Julie’s star ceilinged bedroom and cameos of her hospital room with her trying to pull off her ventilator, her “muzzle” enhance the mystery of this tenuous place behind the moon. Sometimes great knowledge occurs in the caves: “such a stampede of bison as she had never seen (even if she was really only seeing them projected on the lids of her closed eyes)” Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. Julie: or is she the eye, that sees herself as another Julie or is it her mother Marissa who observes her daughter, or is it Julie in the hospital knowing herself in the cave feeling her fingers softening, merging into the soft clay? The cave scenes are warm, swarming with reverence for another way of getting through, for paintings on the walls and their chance for intimacy. Any tedious verisimilitude is deliberately fractured. The action is elsewhere.
2) What is to summarize in this bold novel of uncompleted or cross-relating actions? Once, affected by the collapse of reigning ideas about action, D. H. Lawrence is said to have responded with his question, “You see, it was really George Eliot who started it all. . . . It was she who started putting all the action inside. Before, you know, with Fielding and the others, it had been outside. Now I wonder which is right?” At the end of the nineteenth century, many felt quite the same about narrative action: Henri Bergson shuns focus on those (to him) anachronistic inner or outer divisions. He postulates that: “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (Creative Evolution, 297). Francis Fergusson, esteemed drama critic, once specified that “. . . by ‘action’ I do not mean the events of the story but the focus or aim of psychic life from which the events, in that situation, result” (The Idea of the Theatre, 36). According to Fergusson, “action (praxis) does not mean deeds, events, or physical activity: it means, rather, the motivation from which deeds spring.” Margaret Butcher puts it this way: “The praxis that art seeks to reproduce is mainly a psychic energy working outwards.” She sees that previously stable notions of action had imploded and perhaps “psychic energy working outwards” has taken its place. In the novel form, in English anyway, the effects of this implosion have still to be assimilated. Behind the Moon responds to it appropriately and fractures the action, dividing and doubling up the characters, rendering the surfaces of life and things penetrable, sometimes nearly invisible. As we read, one of the goals is “to get to wherever there was to here, whatever that is.”
Butcher’s phrase “psychic energy working outwards” perfectly suits the parallel engagements of the two main women characters, Julie and her mother Marissa, two women simultaneously strangers and intimates. Remember this behind the moon novel takes place behind the traditional story with its plot and tangible consequence. It is compelling that the three important male figures, Jamal, Marko, and Ultimo, remain rather autonomous, tinged with strangeness and a turbulent wildness. Readers know more of the women, particularly Marissa and Julie who go beyond the moon to what is called make a commitment without a chance for returning. Julie literally falls into a new life while Marissa acquires one in dramatic, painful stages. She goes all the way to get there, getting raped, crying, growing horns and then moving into a consolidation behind the safety of moon, going over the edge so as “to get where you want to go you have to pass through it and risk that you might not return.” Marissa’s skull cracks open and the antlers’ come out, leaving her body relaxed, “buoyed up in a warm sparkling fluid—an ascending helix whose glittering motes were revealed as eyes of the animal persons, looking at her—thousands of eyes regarding her but benignly as if she was one of her own. Their horns fit comfortably on her brow.” At the end, all come together in a yearning magnetic energy: “In the third spiral was Julie herself, eyes open and trained on Marissa, reaching out her hand. Marissa responded with the same gesture. She could feel the warmth of Julie’s hand. Julie was ascending as Marisa was sinking. In passing their fingers graced with the faintest feathery tingle of a touch.// Then there was nothing left but the bright wall of light, with the power blue sky at the top of the shaft, and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it?” Of course this is the overwhelming question of this novel which significantly has the women coming together and “getting through.”
3) What follows is Infiltration. not interpretation because as reader I am also getting through, making marks and finding, not passing judgment from outside. The novel is subtitled “fever dream.” Characters are continually seeing behind closed eyes and wondering was this only a dream? At one point Marissa remembers, no, “Not dream. That other reality.” Behind the Moon thins the lines between the two and lives longer in “that other reality.” The phrase behind the moon appears exactly that way five times. First, it comes from Julie about Jamal: “Jamal said one of those weird things that charmed her: I wonder what it’s like behind the moon.” Once Julie ponders how it would be to be with Jamal, behind the moon. The moon is that untrespassable limit beyond which one can’t go apparently. Similarly, language as accessible medium often becomes full of stone limits: “There was something hidden behind the words, inside them.” Julie perceived this when she was on the edge of the ledge ready to fall off. This sense of limits and edges fuses this daring, elliptical adventure. At book’s end, of course, they have left the behind of the moon behind: “and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it,” Marissa questions somewhat rhetorically?
Characters like setting are different in this book; they no longer have a distinctive inside and outside. Perhaps they become all inside and assess thus according to how completely they can get through it and themselves. On one level, this novel overwhelms, erases and fractures Cartesian divisions between inside and outside, as well as splits between physical and mental, men and women. Earlier, I rather dramatically mentioned the Eleuysian Mysteries. Woman becoming passionately and quietly intimate cracks into these fixed limits and gives way to a particularly soothing unity. On various occasions, with Jamal’s mother and with Carrie and also with Julie, Marissa develops a new knowledge which obviates her battering self-questioning and debilitating sense of guilt and division: that “wordless something between Marissa and Jamal’s mother as if the smooth fluid regard of the other was melting something inside her.” There is a passionate life-lovingness about these many moments which allow for a completeness prefiguring Julie’s fingers melting into the walls and “getting through,” and also her deliberate insensibility to the pressures of nurses and of Marissa, her mother. The novel concludes in a radiant moment which I’ll include for its sheer pleasure: “So the two halves made a whole: a squashed sphere like the gibbous moon. She was back to back with herself and facing both realms at the same time, curving outward into both realms, but falling or floating from one into the other….So she raised her own hands, toward the other two hands that closed around hers. Now she did know these voices calling her name, which belonged to the ones she had loved, or was going to.”
Behind the Moon is an astounding achievement, to be read with an equally astounding freedom. As with any groundbreaking book, which this is, the way into it is altogether new; hopefully you will read with excitement of literary virgins and not dreary meaning makers. I hope this review gives you breadcrumbs to taste, however, in your reading. Would that I could say everything here, not just pieces. Virginia Woolf voices here a writer’s searching and her lingering dubiety about story. I conclude with her thinking about stories since Behind the Moon takes place mysteriously behind the story: “I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?”
Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.