- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

LOOK AT THE DARK

By Nicholas Mosley

Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95, 214 pages (paper)

Nicholas Mosley’s “Look at the Dark” is a perplexing novel of ideas literally grounded in traffic. On the one hand, the book is a Zen-like puzzle about what to make of modern life, and on the other it concerns the fate of a rather befuddled British academic-turned-media-celebrity who steps off of a curb in New York City, gets hit by a car and spends the rest of his days — and the length of this book — mulling things over from a hospital bed.

Confined by his injury (a broken leg), the unnamed narrator embarks on a zigzag recollection of his triumphs and failures, his two marriages, his professional evolution into a TV agent provocateur, fatherhood and the state of world.

The narrator has arrived in New York to do an interview a year after the attacks of September 11, and among his bed-bound ponderings there lurks the possibility that the hit-and-run accident might not have been an accident after all. In any case, the accident has given him a lot of time to think, and as he does so readers are taken along on a cerebral ride of uncommon vigor that is engaging but not easy.

“Lost in the Dark” is Mr. Mosley’s 14th novel. Though he is a winner of Britain’s Whitbread Award for his novel “Hopeful Monsters” (1990), readers in this country may be more familiar with “Rules of the Game/Beyond the Pale,” his biography of his father, Sir Oswald Mosley, who was leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

He is also the author of “The Uses of Slime Mould: Essays of Four Decades,” (2004) reviewed in these pages. It is worth mentioning — as the reviewer did — that in the 1996 essay about his father “What Price Political Idealism?”, Mr. Mosley wrote “My efforts to sympathise with my father, Oswald Mosley, came to grief, as did so many people’s, on the rocks of his alliance with anti-Semitism.”

I point this out because in this book, no less than in Nicholas Mosley’s earlier work, the author tackles a wide array of complex human themes — love, death, morality, religion, philosophy and psychology — with honesty and decency. And as readers found in the essays, he tackles the conundrum that is the Middle East.

The title of this book appears to be taken from a fable that is offered as an epigraph at its opening: “On a dark night a person searches on the brightly lit ground under a lamp-post. A passer-by asks — For what are you searching? The person says — For the keys to my house. The passer-by says — Is this where you lost them. The person says — No I lost them in the dark, but this is where the light is.”

By any measure, what follows is a protracted exercise in stream of consciousness in which light (read wisdom) is the goal. The narrator searches time and again for the truth. His canvas is, at first, his cozy world, which readers learn is one in which the narrator has come to retire with “a comfortable home in London, a second wife, considerably younger than myself who would look after me if I became ill, and an income from investments augmented by occasional fees from radio talks and television.”

As readers gradually learn about his circumstances they begin to understand the directions in which his searching takes him. “I once asked a theologian — Why didn’t God want humans to get to heaven? He had said — Because they were supposed to sort things out on earth.”

Or, “I had liked to teach that art had meaning. Indeed what was art except that which had meaning, and what was meaning except that which was conveyed by art.”

But the narrator is also a complicated sexual being, a man of this earth who loves and is loved by his two wives, each of whom appears at his bedside in due course. His thoughts about them and remembered interactions with them are respectful and filled with regard as well as more than a little bafflement:

“When Valerie [the first wife] became pregnant I used to tell myself that I should hurry home in the evenings in order to keep her company. But I could also tell myself that she was trying to get some work done before the baby arrived and so my presence would be oppressive. So would not a proper compromise be if I stopped off on the way home at the local pub? And would not this be made even more correct if I thought such a rationalization funny?”

Thenarrator makes concessions and compromises along the way, turning them over in his head as if it were working as a rotating wide-angle lens. He recalls that on a visit to Africa he took a one-legged lover who was a victim of a land mine accident. In Iran, he helped a young village girl get to Britain, only to learn later that he might have been duped since she had to find a way to leave her country since she had killed a man who had tried to rape her.

However, was she raped? Did she kill?

In this quasi-dreamlike panorama of a life readers can never be sure about the absolute truth of the events the narrator describes. In addition to the wives, lovers, children and medical professionals who enter his thoughts (and hospital room), he busily tries to piece together some understanding of world events, particularly the conundrum of the Middle East.

For the most part he offers benign generalizations about all of the players, rarely touching down on any kind of proposal that anyone, Israeli or Palestinian, could take too seriously. He is, for the most part, always a tourist to the region and an armchair peacemaker, but his intentions are good.

In the end, a reader comes away from this book impressed with its range but longing for resolution. However, as the narrator observes early on, “Humans have been wired up wrongly: they’ve been programmed to believe in contradictory premises: Love your neighbour, but make your millions before you’re thirty: turn the other cheek but never apologise, never explain. So they fuse: crash.” Mr. Mosley’s world is no place for sissies.

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