Sunday, 24 March 2013

This Magnificent Desolation by Thomas O'Malley

Duncan's entire world is the orphanage where he lives, a solitary outpost on the open plains of northern Minnesota. Aged ten in 1980, he has no memories of his life before now, but he has stories that he recites like prayers: the story of how his mother brought him here during the worst blizzard of the century; the story of how God spoke to him at his birth and gave him a special purpose.

Duncan is sure that his mother is dead until the day she turns up to claim him. Maggie Bright, a soprano who was once the talent of her generation, now sings in a San Francisco bar through a haze of whisky cut with sharp regret. She often finishes up in the arms of Joshua McGreevey, a Vietnam vet who earns his living as part of a tunneling crew seventy feet beneath the Bay. He smells of sea silt and loam, as if he has been dredged from the deep bottom of the world - and his wounds run deep too.

Thrown into this mysterious adult world, Duncan finds comfort in an ancient radio, from which tumble the voices of Apollo mission astronauts who never came home, and dreams of finding his real father.

The book opens with the statement which would have been read by President Nixon in the event of a catastrophic failure in the Apollo 11 moon landing, which would have left Aldrin and Armstrong on the moon's surface and Collins circling above. The book's title is a quotation from Buzz Aldrin's description of the lunar landscape.

The young hero Duncan is obsessed with space travel and the story told him by a dying friend that the Apollo 11 mission was a failure and that the astronauts were left on the moon. There are obvious similarities with Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart. Both books use the symbolism of space travel to portray the isolation of human beings, in this case stuck like Collins in an unending orbit looking down at the world. The difference between the novels is that whilst Murakami's writing style is lean and sparse, O'Malley's is poetic and lyrical to a degree that it sometimes gets in the way of the story. But the plot is not the driver of the book, instead the focus is on young Duncan and his relationship with his mother and her boyfriend, Joshua. 

This is not a magic realism book in the sense of Latin American magic realism. There is magic, but its roots are Duncan's strange upbringing in the Capuchin monastery where he spends his childhood. compounded by the fact that Duncan cannot remember anything from the first ten years of his life, apart from his birth, which he believes he can remember clearly and during which he believes he heard God talking to him. He listens to the radio at night, and hears the voices of the astronauts, who would have died years earlier. Joshua and he encounter an angel who has a job as a cook at a diner. But angels in O'Malley's bleak world are not benevolent, they carry people into the air and drop them. This approach to magic realism is an interesting one - it is used to portray the psychology of the leading characters. Unfortunately because of the desolation of the protagonists' stories - Maggie and Joshua are unable to break out of their orbits - the portrayal by magic realism does not go as far as it might. 

But the book is not completely bleak. There is genuine love between the three main characters, even if Joshua cannot break from the Vietnam service induced self destruction and Maggie is an alcoholic. Maggie and Duncan find some hope in religion. Maggie finds hope through music too and Duncan understands that. When the song ends, many are bright-faced, looking at one another and laughing, and Maggie is laughing also, with joy and happiness and, finally - Duncan likes to believe - some manner of redemption.

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