By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive. 241 pp. $13.95

Go to the first chapter of "Children of Darkness and Light"

Go to Chapter One

What It's All About

By Bruce Bawer
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page X08
The Washington Post

Not so long ago, virtually everybody tended to view the novel as the ultimate literary form. Partly it was because novels were allowed to be big -- so big that they appeared capable of containing life itself. And partly it was because the form seemed so flexible that it could bend itself to any vision, however original. Even non-writers would insist they had a novel in them. Why? Because to have a novel in you meant you'd led a life and thought about What It's All About. That, ultimately, was what novels -- literary novels, anyway -- were concerned with.

These days, however, supposedly serious novels tend to be less ambitious thematically; if literary editors once recognized formal innovation, moreover, as integral to the articulation of a distinctive vision, many editors now view prose as a mere vehicle for the conveyance of a more or less conventional story along a smooth path across an immediately familiar landscape. Which is probably why Nicholas Mosley, a veteran British novelist and recent Whitbread Award winner, has to settle for a relatively small publisher while leading New York houses disgorge chic Gen-X retreads of Bret Easton Ellis.

Mosley's newest novel, Children of Darkness and Light, centers on a London journalist who, plagued by marital difficulties and by disturbing memories of an assignment in the war-torn Balkans, is dispatched by his editor to Cumbria, a county in northern England. There some children have formed a colony headed by a girl named Gaby, who claims to have had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The situation plunges the journalist -- and reader -- into a thicket of paranoia-inducing ambiguities. Is a local radioactivity scare for real, or a ruse by the authorities? Is the journalist's wife sleeping with his colleague? How did the people he meet come to know so much about him?

Mosley's point, it soon becomes clear, is not to tell a conventional story; it is to adapt plot, character and setting in such a way as to explore -- well -- What It's All About. One can imagine an editor's exasperated comment: "There are no characters here! There's no conflict! And where's the story, anyway?" Indeed, the book's endless conversations about who was or wasn't in a certain place at a certain time, and who was or wasn't cheating on whom with whom, can be exasperating. But there's a method to Mosley's madness: He wants to close in on certain truths about how we all try and fail to connect, how we live in our own worlds and can't make them mesh, and how tragic all this is, especially for children. And, above all, where God comes in. For in a way, he observes, adults are to children as God is to adults. Given our indifference to children's pain -- in Bosnia, say -- why should any of us wonder why God lets us suffer?

As the novel proceeds, developments multiply -- though instead of advancing the plot, they take us further from any conventional notion of plot. It emerges, for instance, that a local woman named Mrs. Ferguson and her son, Peter, are performing experiments on enucleated cells, seeking to discover how they communicate. Thus does Mosley explore his pet questions -- including self-consciousness, knowledge, choice, possibility, and the importance of people's identity both as individuals and as parts of a larger whole. What determines quantum-level activity? "Can the brain look at itself, or look at itself looking at itself?"

For Mosley, all these questions are ultimately religious in nature. "We're talking about God," Peter declares. But what is God, and in what sense is religion true? What about myths, stories? The journalist recalls reading fairy tales to his son, Billy, who asks, "But are they true?" His reply: "They are shots at talking about things that can be said in no better way." Or, as he says elsewhere: "This is indeed a mythological world: there are the shapes of possibilities in darkness."

If there is any consolation in this hurting world, it is that God is with us in our torment and that, as Mosley has written in connection with his "Catastrophe Practice" series of novels (1979-90), "humans can learn through catastrophe." Suffering children, he notes here, "have seen what human nature is, and are learning how to live with it and get over it. And they are the generation of children of this world who are wiser than the children of light."

Mosley should be commended highly for the seriousness, vigor, audacity and freshness with which he engages profound matters. One wishes that more novels were as consistently intelligent and thought-provoking as Children of Darkness and Light is. That said, one might also wish to have had more of a sense in these pages of lives actually being lived -- however unorthodox the way in which their creator might choose to represent those lives. For if Mosley gives his readers many things to think about, he doesn't do quite enough, alas, to make one see, and feel and care -- which is after all, as he himself affirms, what it's all about.

Bruce Bawer's "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity" will appear this fall.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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