No Wedding, No Cake: Moseley and Mutis

Nothing has done more damage to American letters than the fantasy of the Great American Novel. Imperial, smug, reeking of high school. Hulks of empty preppy patter, spouted in self-conscious pursuit of that white whale by an even paler crew of males, that Bitch Goddess, Monster Mommy, an A+ in Cool, lie beached like so much blubber on the shelves so that poor readers, wandering amid the wastes, might miss the whorled shells that are the real gems, from Salinger to Banville to Roy to Mutis to Moseley. (And while I'm on it, Tom Wolfe's blather has always bothered me; Dickens never set out to be Dickensian, and a program that's self-conscious in that way feels so retro, send it straight to film—why bother with all that obnoxious symbolic stuff, like language?)

It's the last two from the above list of writers I'd like to bring to the attention of readers, though they couldn't be less alike. Mutis makes gold birds that sing: his novellas, all recounting the adventures of Maqroll, give the reader a character with a soul as old as Odysseus's, a vagabond pursuing what he believes ought to be his, a scrap of earthly joy, without the benefit of a federal constitution compelling his world to pay up. Maqroll travels through South America, mainly, with visits to Africa, the Middle East, and the North Sea, driven by a lust that's as full of regret as it is of desire. And that raw-hearted world-weariness, coupled with a hunger for more (as Louise Gl¸ck said, What else is there to love?), that makes him so appealing, both other and us. This comes down, in prose as svelte and shimmering as any being translated now (Sebald by comparison feels pudgy), from the hand of Edith Grossman, whose other worthy beneficiary, Garcia Marquez, has called Mutis the greatest writer of our time. Who knows?

Moseley's Hopeful Monsters is a big book by a grownup with a story to tell. That it involves nothing less than the intellectual history of Western culture in the first half of the century should not turn you against it. Moseley has found two characters whose circumstances in Germany and England put them in the middle of events a later age has deemed historical: from the revolutions fomented in Berlin by Rosa Luxemburg to the refinements enjoyed by sophisticated citizens of a Bloomsbury exurb, we're carried on a thrilling ride. Along the way, Madame, meet Freud, relativity, Darwin, Marx, and some truly kinky sex. Moseley's found a style for conveying consciousness and landscape, for keeping us inside characters while recreating a credible shared world, full of wild dreams of romance, revolutions, wars, and scientific breakthroughs. If I were to try to tell a visitor from elsewhere what I imagine was important about the history of the west in the first half of the 20th Century, I would hand her Hopeful Monsters, then we'd talk.