Dalkey Archive Press, 2014
Reviewed by Michael Mejia
Inexplicable wonders abound in Nicholas Mosley’s latest novel, Metamorphosis, an intellectually dense and image-rich work that shows the now 92-year-old author still more than capable of walking the edges of innovative narrative while at the same time plumbing the moral depths he’s been concerned with for more than 60 years.
Metamorphosis begins with an unnamed narrator standing on a cliff in western Ireland where he and his family have come to vacation in a cottage by the sea. Watching the sunset, the narrator imagines, or recalls, two scenes, one of a young girl looking down from a barred window, the other 16th century Venetian painter Giorgione’s The Tempest. The titular subject of the latter rages in the painting’s deep background, much as conflicts of various kinds do throughout Mosley’s novel. But the narrator is more drawn to the two figures in the painting’s foreground: a soldier standing aloof, one hand on a spear, looking obliquely to his left, toward, but not at, a nude woman, sitting on the grass nearby, suckling a baby. The woman warily looks at the viewer, sheltering the baby with her body, as if not sure of our gaze, or of whether we can be trusted to see the child, or to know that it exists.
“My favourite painting in the world,” the narrator says of The Tempest. “[T]he woman and the man seem clearly connected to one another without any indication as to what this connection might be.” This presumed connection, however, is simply a viewer’s interpretation. Because of their arrangement on either side of the vertical painting and their lack of acknowledgement of each other, the figures don’t communicate any apparent familial or narrative link. Not at first. They seem, rather, to come from different worlds, from other paintings or imaginings. But then again, the formal arrangement—man, woman, and child serving as the base of a triangle, a lightning-lit cloud as the apex—does, after all, suggest something like a family, the Holy Family even, or simply the ineffable, figured in the zigzag of white lightning overhead.
A suggestion, then. This painting, these figures, these metaphors, represent nothing definitive, but simply a feeling of unity that may not be described precisely in words. The narrator’s first vision, of the girl, adds further uncertainty. “And what is their connection with the girl behind the window?” he asks, just before he nearly falls from his Irish cliff to his death, drawn dreamily over the edge by another mystery, a dark shape he’s trying to decipher on the beach below. It may be “a growth like a carbuncle” or “a depression, a cavity,” “a pool,” “a trampoline […] the shifting light made it difficult to see.” The either and the or of the object are hypnotic, or, rather, it’s the incapacity of one or the other to be definitive that casts the spell. The dark shape’s compelling mystery lies in its potential as both/and.
Like Giorgione’s figures, the characters the narrator has brought on vacation make for a somewhat unusual family. The woman to whom he is reportedly married, Alix, was formerly the wife of his childhood friend, Johnny. She is the mother of two children, twelve-year-old Peter, Johnny’s child, and three-year-old Phoebe, the narrator’s own. Like Schrödinger’s cat (another resonant metaphor throughout), Johnny may or may not be dead. He “had gone on a journey and had seemed just to disappear.” Yet the narrator reports none of the tensions we might expect from the rifts and ambiguities implicit in this domestic re-arrangement. Rather, the family appears completely comfortable with one another, and Peter, despite a stammer, converses freely with the narrator about his missing father.
Then Peter said ‘What happened to my father, do you know?’
I said ‘I’m sure he’s all right.’
Peter said ‘How?’
I said ‘I can’t explain. But I think I’d know.’
Feeling, belief, and storytelling trump precise knowledge. In fact, the narrator and Johnny have been so close in the past that the narrator allows he might really have been in love with his friend during their years at boarding school. And having replaced Johnny in Alix’s life, there’s more than a hint of twinship or doubling between the two men.
It should be noted that Peter and the narrator’s exchange occurs, again, on the cliffs near the cottage overlooking the beach, the narrator watching Alix and Phoebe approach up the slope, “half running half crawling,” shortly after the narrator believes he’s heard a rifle shot whiz by over all their heads. No one else seems to hear it. Is it a real? Another metaphor? An audio memory? “Have you been in a war?” Peter had been asking, leading up to his question about his father. “I was once in Lebanon,” the narrator responds. Was it these thoughts or the immanence of violence that elicited the sound of a shot? The family’s Irish vacation cottage, as it turns out, is located near the border between north and south, and though the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to have ended the “murderous antagonism” of Ireland’s troubles, there are indications, mostly reports from neighbors, that violence is ready to erupt again.
What is most remarkable about the quiet equilibrium of the narrator’s family is that the novel is otherwise saturated with tensions and catastrophes. Beside the re-emergence of violence in Ireland and Johnny’s disappearance, there’s the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians the narrator witnessed some years before, when he was in Jerusalem working on a film, and memories of his earlier journalistic assignment in East Africa, where he covered a drought “causing wide-spread famine and pestilence” and “a lethal outbreak among children of hydrocephalus or water-on-the-brain.” There’s a small coterie of Irish neighbors who act like smiling double agents (for whom?) and the suggestion that Peter has been taunted at his Irish school because his parents may or may not be married. One neighbor woman seems to be attacked by a hungry stray dog as another neighbor approaches to resolve the incident with an object that may be a shotgun.
Other tensions are more abstract or theoretical. Johnny, we’re told, trained as a neuroscientist in school, while the narrator “concentrated more on history and philosophy and literature.” The most pressing issue of Johnny’s research is “the question of whether, or how, human characteristics might be changed.” The tempests at the edges of the novel—sectarian violence, the cruel and bloody “madness of humans” we witness all too frequently in our world off the page—are present enough to provide ample reason for pursuing such changes. But questions remain about exactly what modifications might be required and how they might be made. Who’s to say how the species should be improved for the sake of eliminating the suffering we impose on each other?
For Johnny and his colleagues, a solution may lie in a comprehensive modeling of the brain by and as a computer, and then correcting it, correcting us, as one would a machine. But, as the humanistically-trained narrator points out, and as we’re well aware, “[h]umans are not computers.” Having free will, we remain at liberty always to choose our behaviors, despite centuries of evidence that those behaviors are often evil or self-destructive. Furthermore, the narrator and Johnny agree that the computer proposition must account for the role of the observer, who, by his observation, always affects the event or phenomena he observes: “how can one search for what might be a desirable change in the brain by using one’s brain as the agency of search?” Already implicated in “the madness of humans,” the human scientist/observer cannot be trusted to make objective decisions about what to change, what to fix. What’s left is the biological promise of evolution, “genes and chance,” and the “hope to change the soil into which some unusual living seed [the morally evolved being] might fall and flourish.”
The story our narrator proceeds to tell, the one he struggles to write, is the history of such a seed, embodied in a hydrocephalic child discovered by an aid worker the narrator encountered by chance when he was in Africa, a mysterious woman named Joanna, “who looked European.” “[A] tall striking girl with dark hair like an Amazon,” Joanna is the exact opposite of “short and fair-haired” Alix, who is also “the opposite of Johnny.” The hydrocephalic child’s mother, Joanna says, has died, and though she can’t explain why, she’s become “enormously fond” of both mother and child, and has now pledged to make sure the baby survives. Joanna enlists the narrator’s help, easily convincing him to marry her so that she can get the child proper care in an English hospital. The arrangement (like Johnny’s marriage to Alix—he’d gotten her pregnant, she was a virgin, wouldn’t consider an abortion, “and so—”) is merely expedient, and both the narrator and Joanna go their separate ways once the paperwork’s settled. In fact, Joanna doesn’t even stick around once the child is in doctors’ care in London. Rather, she only remains in England long enough to learn that, apart from having hydrocephalus, the child is a “special and potentially most interesting case.” How interesting can only be determined by further observation, and oh, by the way, can Joanna keep the baby a secret? She agrees, and then, like Johnny, disappears on a quest of her own, returning allegedly to Kenya to learn more about the child’s ancestors. Could Johnny and Joanna meet? Could they fall in love? Why might the narrator seem as smitten by Joanna as he is by Johnny?
The doctors’ observations reveal, eventually, that the child’s brain actually contains the very physiological structure hypothesized by Johnny and the narrator years earlier as they speculated about the potential for changing human nature, a mutation “that might be used to some extent to look at what is going on in other parts of the brain.” The condition should allow the child, objectively, “to observe, scan, evaluate, what is being received by other areas of the brain, and then, possibly, to re-assess this.”
Possibly. The key is to place her in a family environment that will encourage positive and progressive re-assessment, an environment free of the usual “rivalries and possessiveness and deceits from which it might be hoped that one day we might be freed,” and which, the novel seems to posit, are the basis, or the training ground, for the violent conflicts that plague our world. A nontraditional family is required, a nurturing collective that can forgo the loyalties of blood and ignore oppositions and binaries (e.g., dark versus fair), that will encourage a philosophy of loving your enemy and remain open to the imaginative potentials of both/and rather than either/or.
Like Giorgione’s man, woman, and child, the connections that bind the narrator so generously to Alix, Johnny, Joanna, Peter, and Phoebe, and them to him, remain mysterious, inexplicable, perhaps even artificial, except that, like the formal structure of The Tempest, Metamorphosis‘s narrative structure—one seemingly imposed by the narrator/writer himself—also makes its characters’ unity, and their encounters with the child, feel inevitable. Interestingly, the novel is divided into six chapters and a final section titled Envoi, a structure that suggests the poetic form of the sestina. It is probably unwise to take the comparison too literally, but, as a sestina’s stanzas do with their end-words, each chapter of Metamorphosis revisits and reframes the novel’s characters, events, and ideas as it moves toward a final, dense restatement, in its envoi, illuminated by the full embodiment of its central metaphors.
Mosley’s style is another wonder. Spare and sometimes disorienting at the sentence level, full of questions and oblique exchanges, his scenes never lack a physical precision that firmly places us here or there in the real, contemporary world. And yet there remains throughout Metamorphosis, as a result of its structure, its repetitions and coincidences, its speculative propositions, a breathtaking ethereality, making it something like a work of philosophy and spirituality, and also a work of poetry, a future-bound, genre-defying artwork that is in all ways unique.
All this said, one does have cause to raise questions about the ghosts of colonialism embedded here and about the otherwise intriguing blitheness of the mostly English characters who seem so comfortably set in their roles as nurturers and as observers and critics of the world’s violence, a violence the narrator and his crew have seemingly transcended. By nature? By will? What, one wonders, might be the source of such power? And what should we make of the novel’s white, Anglo-European collective as the putatively African child’s ideal family, the “changeling” seed’s best soil, particularly when, despite their desire to see an end to conflicts like those in Ireland and Israel, they are never required to acknowledge the role England and Europe played in fomenting them? The philosophy of loving one’s enemies, preached by the colonizer who created the contested borders, can’t be allowed to obscure the history of responsibility, and it seems that the novel might have more directly addressed this legacy rather than to allow its protagonists to mostly drift free of it while perpetuating the stance that, even as we have a chance to evolve, they still hold the keys, as they’ve always believed, to a better future.
Michael Mejia is the author of the novel Forgetfulness and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including AGNI, DIAGRAM, Seneca Review, and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. He has received a Literature Fellowship in Prose from the NEA and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review and co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah.