The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Simultaneously, some of the most beautiful, frustrating prose I've ever read. There's no doubt that Bradfield is a master craftsmen when it comes to narration. This work is ethereal, smart, and evocative of some of my favorite writers (Brian Evenson, Rikki Ducornet, etc). But when Mary Gaitskill blurbs that the work is "Painfully beautiful writing," she is speaking more truth than she knows.
The narrator, Phillip, travels through a sort of dreamscape seeking the "History of Luminous Motion". We're not quite told what that means per se, but if pressed up against the wall, I'd say it's the need to keep moving, the need to feel empowered, that seeking for the feeling that one has control over his own life, his own agency. Phillip, along with his friends Rodney and Beatrice, seek power from the world of the spirits to . . . well, this is where things break down. You see, Phillip is psychotic. Not figuratively speaking, he really is psychotic. So his goals are . . . elusive, even to himself. He doesn't quite know what he wants until he's almost "on top" of it. Maybe this is part of the idea of motion, the stumbling on from event to event, from thought to thought, with no real notion of where things are going to end up until you're "there" wherever "there" is.
And they end up in a bad place. A very bad place for everyone involved.
But, see, Phillip, again, is psychotic. He can't be trusted. So how much of this is real? Having finished the novel, I can't even tell you if his friends are real or not. The only two people that seem real at all are Phillip and his dad.
Then there's his mom. Phillip has an obsession with connecting and disconnecting with his mother throughout the novel. I often wondered if his mother was just a figment of his imagination, if she had died when he was younger, if she was a dead body in the house, if . . . if she was even real. And the connection to his mother (and subsequent disconnections and reconnections) are what drive much of the philosophy forward in this book.
I must note that this book is full of philosophy. It will make you think. You might not agree with Phillip's (or Rodney's or Beatrice's) philosophies, but they will make you think.
The writing is dark, not for those who are seeking comforting prose and happy scenes. Rather, Phillip plunges deep inside himself to the dark places in his skull and between his ribs, where he ruminates on life's meaning or tries to escape from it:
For the first time in my life I was utterly alone. I examined the desultory, overinflated images of naked women in men's magazines. I bought a harmonica which I liked to hold in my hand and imagine myself playing. Sometimes I danced alone in my room, listening to Bruce Springsteen or Joe Cocker on my Sony Walkman. I preferred Jim Beam, but I cultivated a taste for gin as well. I drank and danced until I grew dizzy and surfeited with a thick, swollen stomach, and collapsed on my unsheeted mattress, beating my feet in the air, watching the room swirl around. When it started swirling I knew I might throw up at any moment. That's what the plastic-lined trash bin was for. I lay very still and tried to make the room stop moving. It required an act of intense concentration. It was as if this swirling room was itself a mockery of movement, pulling up through my stomach while the alcohol moved through my blood, lifted into my brain and skull and sinuses. I wanted more to drink and tried to sit up. I knocked over bottles and ashtrays. The gray ashes spilled across my clothes and sheets. There were beer cans everywhere. Everything reeked of gin and cigarettes. The floor of my room looked like the high school parking lot. The world seemed to be growing darker and more desperate. "I don't know where I'm trying to go, Mom," I whispered, as if she could hear me. "Maybe I'm already there and I don't even know it."
Pretty dark stuff, but probably what you'd expect from a person struggling with psychosis.
Only Phillip is eight years old . . .
Yeah, eight years old.
This is what held this novel back from brilliance. NO eight year old uses words like "surfeit" or "desultory," and, I'm sorry, but a little boy who drinks that much (and later is smoking weed and sniffing glue with abandon, along with his 12-year-old friend, Rodney) is going to survive long. "Well," you say, "an eight-year-old could handle alcohol in small quantities." Fine. How many eight-year-olds enjoy drinking enough that they'll drink until they vomit? Really?
And that vocabulary, that beautiful, erudite vocabulary - eight? There's no way. I was an advanced reader and writer at that age, and I couldn't have told you what "desultory" meant. I might have figure out "surfeit" from the context of the sentence, but to construct a sentence using that word? No way! And the book is full of examples like this. Chock full.
I just couldn't swallow it. Had the book ended on a big "reveal" that this was written by someone in their twenties, looking back on a childhood riddled with mental illness, I could forgive the indulgence. But no . . . just no! The book ends . . . okay, I won't spoil it for you. But it's not as I would have wished, not by a long shot, not in a way that makes a modicum of sense vis-a-vis all the previous narration.
My suspension of disbelief was further shot down by Phillip's Mom's words and actions. She excuses her son for an attempted murder[attempted murder (hide spoiler)], and possibly (though it's never quite clear) a genuine, honest to goodness homicide,[genuine, honest to goodness homicide (hide spoiler)] just chalking it up to her inability to understand her son. What??? She stands and watches as he tortures the boy's own incoherent father, her husband, who is strapped to a chair with cables and extension cords, in an attempt to kill the man, and does nothing to intercede? WHAT?!?!? Then it turns out, if I read correctly, that Phillip's Mom is, contrary to the theories I held all along while reading the book, a real person.
This could have been a gem. Should have been a gem. There are still shining moments, but it's like a pearl necklace that's been dropped into an outhouse hole. Yes, there are rewards, and yes, it's beautiful and valuable, but do you really want to have to put up with the stink to get it? Your call . . .
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