on Behind The Moon, a novel by Madison Smartt Bell (City Lights Books)

I got hooked on Jungian psychology and mythopoesis as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, a preference that made me an unresponsive graduate student of structuralism. A concept such as “the eternal return” is invalidated when signs and mythic stories aren’t granted enduring archetypal and transpersonal significance. Also, I wasn’t receptive to the socialist-inflected lectures of my comparative literature professors with their faith in the historically inevitable, linear march toward political liberation. The cyclical nature of life seems more actual, alluring and inspiring.

bellcover.jpgA myth may illuminate the presence of disorder within the totality of experience. The sponsor of this ah-ha moment is the trickster whose function is to inject chaos into orderliness and make life whole. Disorder finds its place within the permissible. A certain pressure is relieved. One witnesses this through Shakespeare’s comedies. The profane mingles with the sacred, in measure. But when chaos doesn’t get enough respect or its career in the psyche is unacknowledged, it strikes with vengeful force. Thus, Shakespeare’s tragedies. It figures, then, that rites of passage often include a confrontation with confusion and dire fear.

Madison Smartt Bell’s novels often unfold as such rites – which makes him a novelistic trickster. Disorientation, liminal states, hallucination, sanctification, terror and revitalization – time and again he has structured his stories and designed his language sonically to progress like immersive initiations into primitive forces. His latest novel, Behind The Moon, leads the reader into a world where a sinister element, willing only its own will, seems to dominate a South Dakotan town, beyond which the Cheyenne River Reservation and the rocky cliffs of the badlands attract the town’s joyriding teens.

As the novel opens, a party of five rumbles toward a rocky formation tagged by a gang with the letters KAOS. Two townies named Marko and Sonny each ride Harleys, with Karyn and Julie seated behind them. There is also Jamal, an émigré from the Mideast, keeping up on a smaller bike. Maybe Marko has spiked the drinks with a hallucinogen; the young women are endangered. While Jamal tries to protect Julie, she flees through a narrow cave entrance. Within that dark enclosure, cave paintings emerge and change shape before her eyes.

bell_cave.jpgSoon Marissa arrives in town. She had given up Julie for adoption and now seeks her out. Marissa is a social worker whose spiritual practice is inspired by Jesuit teachings. She manages to locate Julie who now lies comatose in a hospital bed after the trauma of the cave. They have found each other, mother and daughter – but a chasm stretches between them. The novel’s ensuing action swirls around Julie’s unresponsive presence as Jamal, whose mother runs a Middle Eastern restaurant, becomes Marissa’s local guide. Bell creates an aura of constant motion, hostility, and near-erupting savagery, though the novel’s “plot” proceeds by modest increments. Like switchbacks on a steep incline, the narrative looks back at its own episodes and re-narrates the opening sequence, slowing down time – even as events in town seem to press toward mayhem.

A terrible or liberating reckoning looms. What does it mean to a person, or to a culture, when a voice tells us “to move the feelings more with the will”? Behind The Moon suggests that coming to terms with our rampant or regretful actions may require a shattering experience of awe and disorganization of one’s self. In a time when frantic calls for social justice fill our literature, Bell points toward the necessity for individual breakthroughs. He tests the very notion that his readers and his characters can share epiphanies.

The riskiest segments are those enacting Julie’s and Marissa’s disruptions of ordinary consciousness. In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker’s “Page-Turner,” Bell said, “I’ve always had a mystical attitude toward inspiration … I put myself in a mild trance. And that’s where I’m going when I’m writing.” He deploys the strives to induce an oblique waking experience in his readers. As Jamal explains to Marissa about the opening scenes in the badlands:

“When I was with Julie, up there.” Jamal raised his chin to the ledges. “It was like something big was going to happen, good or bad, you couldn’t tell, and the least little thing you did would change it. Or like a bazillion things had already happened and all of them were true – And Julie … Julie could feel it too. I know she did.”

bell.jpgThis is ponderous stuff. In the hands of a less nimble and crafty writer, such a story would register as standard supernatural. But Bell’s language works toward subtle effects. The reader moves through brief passages describing states of disorientation, but there is no didacticism, no rush to resolution. Then he shifts us back to gritty scenes in town, tersely told. Who is doing the telling? What are the implied attributes of this unnamed speaker who can so fluently describe the uncertain, shaken or shrewd perceptions of the characters? It would take a shaman to trigger and grasp such visions.

In the final chapters of the book, a character named Ultimo dominates. Assassin, bounty hunter, healer – “’I’m a mongrel,’ Ultimo said. ‘If you ask the Census. Or if they ask me, I don’t know what to say. Part French, part Spanish, maybe a touch of African too, for sure the biggest part’s Brulé … Oh yeah, I qualify for the tribe. I could get on the tit at some casino.’” Marissa and Jamal seem to intuit the need to engage Ultimo. Below, he speaks with Marissa about Julie:

"If something in this world frightened her, then maybe she feels safer on the other side. And more than likely there’s something she has to work out there too." Ultimo shrugged. "But that’s just guessing. Here’s what I know." He caught Marissa’s eye and held it. "You’re a pilgrim. She’s a pilgrim. But you’re more experienced than she is. You have a practice. I don’t know what it is but I can tell that you have it. And she’s the one who needs a guide. You’ve been with her there already, before now, haven’t you? You’re the one who can get there again."

Every new novel in the stack on my desk introduces a problem for its protagonists, but rarely do novelists enact tumult in their process and thereby risk disorienting the reader. Language for them is a conveyance toward meeting conventional expectations of narrative structure, sound, and resolution. As Toby Litt says in an essay in Mutants, most “literary fiction is Pin the Tail on the Donkey without being spun round and round, and without the blindfold.” If you have a taste for delirium, Behind The Moon will take you to a dizzy height.

[Published May 15, 2017. 280 pages, $15.95 paperback]