by Steven A. Michalkow
Billy Moon by Douglas Lain, published by Tor Books, 2013
“Our element is unending immaturity.” – Witold Gombrowicz
“I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now” – Bob Dylan
If I could be the omniscient observer of myself and my own actions and capabilities, would I say the best in me, that element which has the greatest capacity for changing the world, is the product of imaginative youth, or experienced maturity? Indeed, thinking past my own self, what would the answer be for the world taken as a whole? I’ll be the first person to admit thinking this way might be a sort of frippery…a sideshow to the real question of whether or not we can even think about doing something great. All the same, the question has remained with me for some time, tiptoeing and prodding around.
Douglas Lain’s new novel Billy Moon can be said to do many things: entertain, ruminate, postulate, evoke history, challenge. But, in the swirl of it all, the book has the nerve to seriously examine this question of youthful imagination and its place in the individual, social, and political spaces.
Nominally, Billy Moon is a novel about May 1968, Paris. De Gaulle, the Situationists, the children of Marx and Coca Cola, the beach beneath the stones all take their anticipated parts in the story. But this isn’t a simple historical narrative, not by a long shot. Indeed, the book’s title references a fictionalized manifestation of a man who, historically speaking, never set foot within that soixante-huitard narrative.
Billy Moon, Christopher Robin, Christopher Milne, son of Winnie-the-Pooh creator A. A. Milne…all of these identities permeate around a man who more or less did nothing more than inherit them. We encounter Christopher Milne as the proprietor of a small bookshop, middle aged, married, and with a son bearing some characteristics akin to autism (the real Christopher Milne had a daughter with cerebral palsy). There is a persistent feeling of melancholy or mild unease present when Lain writes of Milne in his English setting. Here is a man trying to build an identity all of his own, to become his own man, and yet all people ever seem to want from him is some connection to his father’s creations:
The American family in his bookstore was more interested in seeing him, in meeting Christopher Robin Milne, than they were in any of the books. It was difficult to tell the age of their little boy, but he was maybe eight years old, and his parents asked if Chris sold stuffed animals, and helped him search the store for evidence of Edward Bear.
Christopher found a volume of his father’s poetry and brought it over for them.
“Don’t you have the bear stories?” the father asked.
“They move fast. I need to order more.”
“You don’t have any copies at all? Nothing?”
“Only my own private copies, and those, of course, are not for sale.”
“Would you read one of the stories, from your copy, to my son?”
Christopher stepped back from the counter and raised his hands involuntarily, but the tourist persisted.
“You could read to both of the boys,” the American said. He gestured to [Christopher’s son] Daniel, who was sitting in the far corner of the shop, perched Indian style on a step stool. Daniel was counting the books with red covers.
“I don’t think so.”
In a way, Milne is a man denied the chance to become adult. Billy Moon is a figure so engrained into the mind of a certain generation of this world, that Christopher’s relationship with society is forever locked within the images of his father’s imagination. Even Christopher’s attempt to recast himself through World War II (Milne was a soldier in that war) cannot unseat his youthful identity. Lain hits this point on the nail with a charming yet somber scene in which the reader watches with Christopher Milne as his mother sell A. A. Milne’s estate to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (which is historically accurate: Jones did purchase Cotchford Farm, albeit 5 months after May 1968):
“We are selling Cotchford Farm to Mr. Jones,” his mother informed him.
“I would’ve postponed except for I’m going on tour. It had to be today.” The pop star in their garden leaned against the stone statue by the walkway. He put his left elbow on the stone head of a boy named Christopher Robin and the statue seemed to shift a bit.
“Please. You’re going to topple that.”
“It’s you, isn’t it??”
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t worry. It’s solid.”
Brian Jones put his foot against the pedestal that the statue of
Christopher Robin was set on and he pushed on it, jumping back. “I’d need a crane to topple that monster,” Brian Jones said.
“That fellow isn’t going anywhere.”
Christopher realized the pop star was quite right. Even now, after his father the writer was dead, the little boy made of stone continued on. Christopher might never get away from himself.
Interesting as a work dedicated exclusively to Christopher Milne may be, Lain is more interested in providing us with a counterpoint in Gerrard. Gerrard, a youthful Frenchman (French boy?), is the figure which brings us into the events of May 1968. If Christopher Milne is a man ensnared by the role society has demanded of him, then our counter protagonist, Gerrard, is a discard of a society that has no idea what to do with him, and thus no desire for him. Lain gives us some fragmentary and elusive images of Gerrard’s family, but ultimately Gerrard is the least concrete figure in the book. As a child, his teachers don’t know what to make of him. He loses himself in daydream regularly and is scolded for doing so. Soon the narrative jumps many years forward to his college years in Paris. Though older, Gerrard is no more at ease in his new social surroundings than the daydreaming little boy. Sure he has a girlfriend (well, a kind of girlfriend), but neither she nor even the milieu of student radicals around him can entirely comprehend him. Natalie, Gerrard’s female companion, is another figure in this book looking for some form of liberation. Throughout the text she reads Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse not as a source of pleasure, but as a textbook for her own notions on how a free existence gets itself done. “She was certain that if she made the effort, if she followed the plot of Bonjour Tristesse, she could figure out free love and a lot else.” The irony is rather apparent in her exercise, and you can see Lain taking pleasure in such complications. In this context, Lain allows us to view Gerrard from a multifaceted perspective. Gerrard may be a social misfit, but it is the specific way in which he is a misfit that allows him to be the vehicle whereby his fellow characters, and we as readers, are presented with a means of liberatory imagination.
Lain is nothing if not an imaginative writer. His work constantly dances along the edge of reality and fiction. Real people become unglued from time and space and appear where they would never be, but perhaps where they should be. His story “The Last Apollo Mission” imagines various encounters with Stanley Kubrick in the year 2001 and allows him to exist in that year so closely associated with him despite his actual death in 1999. Inaccurate yes, but it feels so appropriate. The core of Billy Moon performs a similar effect…namely the exercise in justifying how appropriate it is to juxtapose Christopher Milne amidst the events of May 1968.
The playfulness Lain has with time and space might easily place him in the camp of fantasy or even magical realist literature, but even such an amorphous concept feels inadequate to Lain’s aesthetic. Sure, there is magic to be found through the book’s pages: stuffed animals that seem to move on their own volition and dreams seem to manifest themselves with unnerving vividness. Nevertheless, these moments of magic should not be thought of as the subject or aim of this book. Honestly, these moments actually fade into the background rather quickly. What comes to the foreground quite starkly is rather the magic of what might have been. Looking back on some of our more recent “realistic” fantasy/magical realist writers, you never really thinks that a suite of amour might actually become animate on its own. You never really believe that two Bollywood actors would appear as an archangel and the devil in medieval Arabia. Here, you do believe that Christopher Milne could have been in Paris in May 1968 throwing a brick in the midst of demonstrations. There is nothing logically or physically impossible preventing this from being real, and that important sliver of what could have been or better yet what could be if one puts his mind to it is the point of the book. Indeed, I have the strange feeling that if one were to walk away from this story seeing it as little more than a fantasy, Lain would be disappointed.
This magic of what might have been truly reaches its apex when Milne and his family arrive in Paris at the most opportune moment. For the sake of preserving the integrity of the plot for first time readers, I won’t go too deeply into the specifics of the May uprising, but most readers interested in the topic will be familiar with the upsurge, cresting, and breaking of the wave of the movement. Milne finds himself pulled right into the epicenter of the uprisings, with Gerrard as his Virgil like guide. Milne is at first reticent to participate in these events as if he were some energized man in his late teens or early twenties, but eventually he relents. He becomes part of the crowd…part of the movement which thought it could think the impossible and change the world. Christopher’s dialogues with Gerrard punctuate this portion of the text, and it’s not difficult to imagine these statements are as much directed to the reader as Christopher Milne:
“I’d like to know why you . . . that is, what is it that I’m expected to do for you exactly?” Chris asked.
The point of derailing Christopher Robin, of cutting him out of Devon and pasting him down under the police museum, was to use him to disrupt Paris. He was a weapon in a battle that had seemingly been indefinitely postponed but had finally arrived.
Chris was a fake person and this was how he could help. Gerrard tried to explain it to him, to tell him how the Hundred Acre Wood was always waiting for him, to tell him about dreaming and how the past was inside the present, but he kept having to start over.
“This isn’t just about you or me. It’s like those straws,” Gerrard said.
“They’re just three stupid straws unless you know how to read them, unless you know that they make the letter A, and once you know it’s A you can’t unknow it. You’re here to show people a new letter A.”
As much as Christopher wanted to never have been Billy Moon, there comes finally a recognition that his father’s stories capture the spirit of what it means to see past the currently existing and seek the unseen, the unknown, the impossible. It’s a certain twist of irony to see Milne find a form of liberation in running towards his Cotchford Farm than away from it as he had been doing all these years. The reader is even left with the playful image of Milne becoming the caretaker of a real-life bear from the Paris Zoo.
After reading Billy Moon, I found myself returning to the dichotomy of youth and maturity. It’s a recurring motif in much of the literature I enjoy. Shakespeare plays with it repeatedly. The dance between Lolita and Humbert Humbert won’t let you forget it. Even most Bogart movies encapsulate the world weary view that only a veteran human being could communicate. You can even see this dynamic play out in another narrative of May 1968 – Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. As with Billy Moon, Bertolucci’s Dreamers are seeking to create or find a world new and better than their current reality. They are a triumvirate of a particular pack of politically minded film buffs of a particular era of Paris. Yet their imaginative reveries are ultimately an exercise in escapism for much of the film. They play at imagination largely because they are unable to function within world outside of such things. In many ways they really are children, and unlike Billy Moon, the climactic realization for one of the three main characters is that the violent turn of the May 1968 uprising is the ultimate byproduct of their immature fantasy play. Ultimately, the bitter victory for the lead that he “grows up.”
So again, what can we make of Billy Moon? Being honest, I have long thought myself a member of the “old soul” camp. If someone expressed to me notions of the youthful essence of revolutionary change, I would immediately retort “and that is why they nearly always fail.” Like Bertolucci, such things felt like a playful resignation at best, or a cruel schoolyard mentality writ large at worse. Knowing one’s history on these matters and watching certain friends and associates play at being revolutionaries will make you run to the “old soul” camp fairly quickly. My position might not be very glamorous or even hopeful, but at least I could feel a bit more honest with myself. Going into this book, I was fairly confident Billy Moon would reaffirm my position on such matters despite itself. It didn’t. In fact, I found myself fairly sympathetic to much of what it had to say. Yes it encapsulates the language and hope of childlike imagination, but its concerns are much more substantial than most people who think this way.
This ties back the particular flavor of Lain’s fantasy making. His call for imaginative thinking, much like the imaginative juxtaposition in his own writing, is not an entirely random or rudderless exercise. Again, there is something about his fantasies just feeling right. Lain’s Billy Moon book tour has been described at the Think the Impossible tour. The description is rather apt. Thinking the impossible is not an exercise in manifesting physical impossibility (such as a collective group of people hoping to levitate the Pentagon through their collective will) but is rather an exercise in thinking that which is beyond our ability to even conceive. We can conceive of levitating the Pentagon, and thus know that it will be a failure….but can we conceive of a world ordered differently from what we know? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to describe that which I do not yet know…but perhaps that is the point. In any case, we have moved beyond mere child’s play with these questions, and we are better for it.
Lain has also referenced another complex writer of science fiction in the effort to explain Billy Moon:
How many of you have read Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse 5? In that one there is an alien race who see everything, all of time, all at once. These aliens don’t have any concept of change, or progress. So, a book for a Tralfamadorian isn’t about one person and how his or her life changes as she goes after what he or she wants, but it’s a collection of all the different points in a person’s life, or a species life, or a solar system’s life, seen all at once.
So this is what I wanted, but not being a Tralfamadorian it’s not what I wrote. I had to write a book that unfolded through time in the normal way. I had to write a linear story, but I tried to write a linear story that at least gave the reader the impression of what this totality of simultaneous lived experience, this collective reality, was. I wanted to create at least a momentary glimpse of the miracle.
… what I want to suggest is that this Spectacle [of May 1968] can be thought of as a Tralfamadorian book, or as a story that is already told and understood. The Spectacle is what we take to be real, what we often think of as unchanging and unchangeable. Today the Spectacle is the background against which changes in our world can be understood, it’s what allows us to even see that changes are happening.
Here’s Vonnegut’s description of the Tralfamadorians:
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
It’s an interesting comparison to make, but ultimately it feels inaccurate to me. Tralfamadorians are the ultimate “old souls” even if they exist outside of linear time. Yes, they might be fortunate to experience the actual unfolding of events given their unique perspective, but they will never express anything like thinking the impossible of Billy Moon. If a Tralfamadorian really existed, my guess is it would probably have not experienced much optimism for May 1968. We are not ourselves Tralfamadorians, but being conscious minds in 2013, our attitude toward May 1968 should feel rather Tralfamadorian-like as you can get. The failure of the May events, the collapse of the 1970s, the turnabout of the 1980s, the stagnation of Occupy … “all time is all time; it does not change” indeed. The “old soul” is quite the depressing figure. Billy Moon is not a depressing narrative. It is more than a Tralfamadorian book, for it postulate not just a perspective of all time, but of all possible time.
At the end of the day, I don’t feel I am any closer to determining what is the most appropriate perspective to have on these matters…I doubt most people ever will. However, like any response to substantial literature, I feel better equipped to ask the right questions.
Au revoir tristesse…perhaps.