Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
147 pages, $22
By Ed Taylor
Icelandic novelist Sjon is a friend of Bjork and comes to America in translation highly lauded by luminaries such as A.S. Byatt, David Mitchell and Junot Diaz.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux took the bold step in 2013 of simultaneously publishing three of Sjon’s novels in English. Now in 2016 comes the slender “Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was.” And the phrase that comes to mind is: “contractual obligation.” As in – this is an interesting novelistic curiosity. Possibly a kind of appeteaser for the main course of Sjon’s other work, but otherwise a head-scratcher in aligning the sizzle with the actual steak, to continue the clumsy food metaphor. Reaching the end, a reader might ask a variety of questions that have nothing to do with the fictional narrative just read.
“Moonstone” may not be the best example of Sjon’s talents at work, possibly because of the material: It’s an imagining of the early life of one of his forebears, according to what he’s said about it, and that might limit the scope and range of what he’s attempting, possibly in homage to the documentary truth of things – that, however, is a risky decision to make in making up stories, as the story may require a lot of lying to work most effectively in reaching the larger truths beyond historic accuracy that are the purview of art. Art is a lie that tells the truth, Picasso and others have said, and maybe more lying in “Moonstone” would have been a good idea.
The novel is set during a few months of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic in Reykjavik, Iceland, with flashbacks and a final flash-forward. The story begins with a graphic scene of sex, under an Icelandic cliff, involving 16-year-old Manni Stein, “Moonstone,” while a teen girl he’s obsessed with because of her eerie resemblance to a silent film star sits above him on an Indian motorcycle, looking for him and calling his name.
Manni is obsessed by the new medium of motion pictures and has a sophisticated understanding of them, and, as with many since their invention, finds in the darkened moviehouse salvation and escape from the world outside.
Subsequent matter-of-fact episodic scenes reveal Moonstone’s tragic family past, and his benighted lonely present as a gay cruising teen who is the unwanted charge of his great-grandmother, both living in wrenching poverty in a single room at the top of someone else’s house. Then the Spanish flu arrives in Reykjavik, courtesy of a Danish cruise ship, and the city becomes hellish, leaving horror stories in almost every house. Manni survives the flu to become a medical volunteer, coincidentally paired up with the girl of his cinematic dreams, who’s an expert driver of cars in addition to motorcycles.
Manni’s caught in flagrant flagrance with a sailor and physically attacked, then wakes at the mercy of Reykjavik’s burghers, who decide what to do about the “evil disease” he embodies while he’s confined to a hospital. In a kind of mercy, he’s shipped off to London with their blessing. And in a coda he comes back in 1929, with a trio of real figures from the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, himself now working in the film industry as an electrician.
And that’s it.
The New York Review of Books’ called Sjon “A Magus of the North.” Well, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t, as Chief Dan George memorably said in the movie “Little Big Man.”
The novel is subdued and terse, with only a couple of dreams moving things beyond a documentary, and intertextual, naturalism – there are photos from silent films referenced in the narrative and a snapshot of the actual Bloomsburians visiting Iceland in 1929.
“Moonstone” is at least a solid addition to the bookshelf of literature witnessing the realities and brutalities of earlier eras and honestly rendering lived homosexual experience as natural and innate as heterosexuality.
Ed Taylor is a local freelance writer and critic and the author of “Theo.”