Look at the Dark
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press,
214 pages, $18.95
The old men are dying again. The past year has seen a slew of novels by aging masters in which aging male protagonists finally resign themselves to physically diminished and finite lives. J. M. Coetzee's Slow Man, Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies and now Nicholas Mosley's Look at the Dark all weigh withering abilities against realized hopes and tormenting regrets and -- more often than not -- sex: Recollected sex and still-viable sex and sex-now-impossible fill these ledgers of relationships made and broken.
In Mosley's Look at the Dark, a novel of ideas from the deserving winner of the 1990 Whitbread Award, an unnamed former anthropology professor recalls his romantic migrations within two marriages and the career-ending affair that punctuated them. These recollections -- either to himself or to a slightly varied cast of mostly female interlocutors -- float alongside his (largely compelling) ruminations about life, love, media, religion, emotions, art etc. Perhaps tempting fate, our philosophe holes up in a basement apartment to watch television almost constantly before a severe traffic accident finally restricts the movement he has voluntarily squandered. His convalescence quickly brings his first wife, Valerie, their adult son, Adam, his second wife, Valentina, and her adult daughter, Cathy, to his bedside, or to his memory.
Admittedly, paraphrase is highly unfair to the contemplative novel. American postmodern novelist John Hawkes memorably described "the true enemies of the novel" as "plot, character, setting and theme," and, here at least, Mosley shares that enmity. (The two also share PoMo U.S. publisher the Dalkey Archive.) Where Mosley's Whitbread-winning Hopeful Monsters is a novel of searing insights and compelling speculations sewn within a sprawling but advancing plot, Look at the Dark opts instead for a flagrantly staged Socratic dialogue. Here, a small narrative sheepdog sends a revolving cast of characters toward the protagonist to meet, share and elaborate various heady ideas, while a few romantic episodes from his past are eventually clarified.
At their best, Mosley's pensées are intellectually resonant and emotionally liberating. "Indeed what was art except that which had meaning, and what was meaning except that which was conveyed by art?" Or, "Even if two people are divorced is not the nature of a marriage such that they are always in some sense connected." Compelling investigations or pronouncements about fate and love (obsessive love, fleeting love, parental love) generally propel the novel through two of its stylistic affectations, at least for a time. (To be fair, devotees of postmodern fiction find the realist project of transparently conveying the world through language affected in the extreme.)
The movement from the symphonic Hopeful Monsters to the conversational duets of Look at the Dark consciously shifts pressure onto the dialogue and -- no doubt at a cost, to some -- away from characters and their definition through action. When not writing fantastic gay sex, Annie Proulx writes character-rich dialogue you could listen to for a hundred miles. If tax law were narrated by a Proulx character, I'd listen. While Mosley's obvious intelligence routinely offers compelling ideas, a flagrant gamble has been made to locate those ideas in a kind of dialogue one would never hear or overhear. This affected tone (delivered as it is on skewers of exclamation marks) risks intrusion or condescension long after it abandons credibility or realism. Action here consists of our weary thinker confiding, "I thought -- this is an amazingly interesting conversation because there are almost infinite possibilities about what it might mean." Truly "amazing" conversations independently announce their own possibilities. (And don't most conversations have many possibilities?)
Significant gambles are also made with character, though perhaps not so consciously. The novel's assumption that the acuity of its ideas will be enough to earn it readers is tested nowhere more directly than with its female characters, particularly the duped first wife and the servile second wife. To Mosley's credit, the emotional generosity of his protagonist (who routinely eschews romantic or parental proprietariness) should survive his recollection of romantic actions that some would otherwise find objectionable.
Although our hero may remain compelling through his life-changing romantic actions, his daily romantic treatment proves far less palatable. More costly than a narrative structure in which acolytes flock to the attention of a clever man is the consistently servile portrait of the protagonist's second wife. Valentina, nominally a psychotherapist, volunteers herself for an uninterrupted mission of pillow-fluffing and drink-fetching that few will believe and fewer still will tolerate.
U.S. poet William Carlos Williams remains wise in many ways in his writing mantra, "No ideas but in things." Mosley's Look at the Dark offers several arresting and helpful ideas. In the past, however, he has tucked his formidable ideas into more winning forms.
Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur and a former professor of creative writing and English. His most recent story appears in 05: Best Canadian Stories.