Nicholas Mosley: Catastrophe Practice: Plays for Not Acting and Cypher: A Novel. Minerva, 1992. 331 pages. $27.90
Nicholas Mosley: Judith. Minerva, 1992. 298 pages. $27.90
review by Otto Steinmayer.
Nicholas Mosley seems to me to be one of the few writers who truly deserve the label "experimental," and deserve it as an honour. Although in the past hundred or so years we have been awash in "experimental" writing, we shouldn't forget that some writers are still trying to give expression to ideas and feelings not yet expressed.
The appearance of Judith and Catastrophe Practice adds books 4 and 5 to Mosley's Catastrophe Practice series, of which Hopeful Monsters and Imago Bird (book 2) have already been reviewed. Exactly where Hopeful Monsters sits in this pentalogy is unclear. It is blurbed as the final book in the series, as is also CP. However, HM seems to be the frame novel, giving both the earlier and later history of the characters, Max Ackerman, Eleanor, Bert, and the rest, who appear throughout the five.
In previous reviews I was groping towards the meaning and design of the series. Mosley has departed from the prescribed traditional technique of the novel. It is reasonable to wish the author to give us some help, and Mosley kindly provides us with comment in his own voice through an introduction and four essays in the volume Catastrophe Practice.
The conceit behind the book and series title Catastrophe
Practice, is the mathematical tool called "catastrophe theory,"
which seeks to discover how the apparent jumps and discontinuities in
nature are in fact smooth transitions from one state to another. Mosley
applies the theory to the consciousness of the human race. It took one
such quantum leap in the fifth century B.C., among others, in the mind
of Gautama. Human beings found they could look at themselves when they
acted. This enabled them to construct ways of thinking that propelled
them to a more complex level of organization. Mosley thinks the old
modes are now about worn out. If we are to survive, we must prepare for
another quantum leap to a state in which we with our reason and
technology can come to terms with the animal inside us.
I hasten to say that though Mosley's books resist summarizing, that does not reflect on the worth of his writing. Nonetheless, in brief, Judith is a novel of several years in the life of a young woman, as she tells it in three long letters or stories. She saves herself from drugs and other self-destructive dependencies, and grows in awareness.
The volume Catastrophe Practice consists of three "Plays for Not Acting," a short novel, Cypher, in which catastrophe is shunned, and Mosley's own commentary.
Nothing much in fact happens in them. Or perhaps
what happens is not as important as how Mosley's characters think about
what happens. You might call Mosley's books "novels of ideas," except
that this term implies that the novel form itself is being used as a
mere peg on which to hang essays. Far from it. Mosley's characters are
all observers and thinkers, as to greater and lesser extent we all are.
The non-happening is itself important. Mosley is out to write against the demands of literary genre and expectation. Ever since Aristotle, characters in the west have been held to exist for the sake of the plot. Plot, "what happens," in traditional fiction took on an existence and importance of its own, and in a way people thought them projections of an inescapable Fate.
Literary genre encourages us to enjoy spectacles
of grief and horror.
"He said 'Do you know why people go to plays? Because they get comfort from seeing old men being humiliated and tortured, like King Lear.'"
It served its purpose once. Mosley suggests that
the consolation the tragic view once provided is exhausted, in fact,
deadly. We can no longer indulge in tragedy. And since the overwhelming
bulk of modern entertainment is scenes of grief, torment, and horror,
it is a supreme pleasure to read a book where nobody is shot or blown
The big question of modern times is whether humanity can survive the appalling conditions it has created for itself. Do we overcome our problems, or adapt to them, or are we a tired old species with a death wish? As far as I know the biologists have not considered this. First-rank contemporary novelists have made it their own theme and treated it profoundly: Kurt Vonnegut in Galapagos, William S. Burroughs in his most recent novel, The Western Lands, Thomas Pynchon. The question is at the heart of Mosley's Catastrophe Practice series.
Unlike Burroughs and Vonnegut, Mosley is an
optimist. As I mentioned in a previous review, Mosley has little
patience with the modern novel that makes despair a requirement of
genre and an entertainment. To live is to hope, to hope is to change.
The problem with life is that it seems to be, or in fact is, what we see it to be, how we see it to be. If we have no guide to living (since life too is a text) but the common scripts, tragic or comic (for comedy reduces the complexity of human character to something "all-of-a-piece), we will be trapped into acting out the demands of these scripts that lead to trouble and destruction. Getting out of the scripts is both easy and difficult. It is easy because the way out is always at hand. Difficult because our language is inadequate for expressing thoughts outside the conventional. Language is a ready made set of lines to speak for the scripts. But we cannot leave off speaking, can we? Or can we turn language our way? This is the premis behind Mosley's plays, specifically, for not-acting.
One of my oldest friends wrote me this: "Few people have come to see the truth, that you can have it any way you want it, or not want it at all." Mosley uses the example of a certain kind of optical trick or puzzle to illustrate the same idea. There's a box with a peephole in it, and look inside and it seems to be a model of a room with furniture, etc. Then take off the cover and you see that this impression was an illusion formed by geometric shapes glued in a certain way. The famous rockgarden of the Ryoanji zentemple in Kyoto is the same sort of arrangement. If you like, the garden is a profound expression of zen's mystery. Or it is a tawdry piece of pseudo-art. Or it is just a bunch of rocks. You can have it any way you want it, or not want it at all.
Mosley's is, like this, art for grownups. It does not wring profundity out of life. It takes the looker as an equal. A little fiction like this has always existed: Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, chaotic, obscene, fantastically learned and amusing, with the vision of the Abbey of Thélème, whose sole rule of life is "Do what you want"; Lawrence Stern's Tristram Shandy, whose epigraph Stern picked from the stoic philosopher Epictetus: "It is not happenings that disturb people, but their opinions about those happenings."
Although once a prominent poet nearly tore my
ears off when I said I read poetry for amusement, I stick to my belief
that entertainment is a necessary element of good all writing.
I cannot say how far Mosley fulfils for others the requirement of entertainment. You cannot read his novels for the quick raising of literary expectations and their traditional resolution. The plainest single criticism of his style I can make is that Mosley's characters all seem to speak, as it were, in the same key, and the sequence of comment, suggestion, and internal questioning repeats itself too often.
Mosley is himself just beginning to explore the
possibilities of the new mode of fiction he imagines. Mosley's program
for the novel (and, as far as it goes, for the world) seems to me
wondrously hopeful and full of possibilities. He has set off long
trains of thought, in others I'm sure as well as in me. I'll be
interested to see where they lead.