Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The First Law of Motion - a Review

Spoiler Alert! Do not read this until you have read the book. Available from her website.

I may be the wrong person to recommend this book. I don’t read a lot of novels – maybe half a dozen a year and they tend to have more spaceships and aliens in them than K.R. Moorhead’s debut. I also don’t know any literary theory after Aristotle, so I’ll have to assume that nothing much has changed in that field since those days. Anyhow, I can’t find my copy of The Poetics anywhere (and, annoyingly, have nobody to blame but myself unless – as I secretly hope – one of my flatmates has developed an overnight interest in post-Socratic philosophy and scurried it away) so I’ll have to wing it. In my favour, I do read a lot of reviews, so I know how this is supposed to work: You start off on a seemingly unrelated note and then effortlessly segue into a discussion of plot, character, style and morality in your chosen book.

There is a moment of cogent reflection in Yeats’ hallucinatory poem The Second Coming, in which he observes that ‘...the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity...’ These lines could be read as dividing Humanity into two categories (the best and the worst) and inscribing each with a quality one would wish for the other, but my preferred reading is the psychological interpretation: A human being at her best lacks all conviction and at her worst is full of passionate intensity. The unnamed protagonist of ‘The First Law of Motion’ certainly exhibits both these qualities. At times, she allows her passions to be her guide, as when she breaks into the Stranger’s house. At others she specifically chooses to abandon conviction, as when she ruminates on Newton’s first law:

...I’m not charmed, I’m not fooled, I’m just here. Which law of motion is that? A stationary object will remain stationary until a force is acted upon it... or something like that. That’s me. The stationary object. I’m sick of trying to be the force, because apparently the object doesn’t necessarily move in the direction you want it to. From now on I’m passive. I’ll let life act upon me. All my actions will be reactions.

The protagonist comes to this decision late in the book and as a result is raped and robbed in an Atlantic City casino – a clear indication from the author that the ‘stationary object’ philosophy does not lead to desirable ends. However, it is when the protagonist follows her passions that she commits her most immoral acts: the stalking of CP Shorter and the delivery of her neglected cat’s putrid corpse to his friend’s apartment. At first glance, it seems that in the universe of TFLofM, action leads to immorality and inaction to punishment.

That said, the question arises of whether the anti-heroine of TFLofM’s actions can be considered immoral at all. A moral agent must be capable of making rational decisions. When faced with choices, the protagonist frequently chooses an option that is not in her best interests. She doesn’t take her prescription meds because they make her “cloudy”, but she describes the panic attacks as “lurking in my head and my gut. Like worms waiting to devour me.” On two occasions, the worms succeed.

The characters the protagonist encounters, she sees as surfaces defined by their environment: “Train Station Boy”, “Fire Escape Boy”, “Couch Boy” and of course “The Stranger on a Train” with whom she becomes obsessed. He becomes the object of her fantasies – by turns erotic and prosaic. The actions most suggestive of her encroaching insanity grow out of her refusal to allow herself to talk to the object of her fantasies; preferring instead to watch him from the bench opposite his house and then break in when he is out:

Imposing myself on his space. Leaving traces of my DNA to mingle with traces of his. Attempting to forge a connection? Or just avoiding what I really should be doing? Which is to say, waiting to bump into him again and then starting a conversation. A normal, everyday, chit-chat kind of conversation. Like a normal everyday person might do.

Whilst in the Stranger’s house, the protagonist makes a telling non sequitur in her poetic analysis of the morphology of ‘Shorter’:

Shorter. Not the superlative. That would be “shortest.” The most short.
No. It’s the comparative. More short.
You can’t expect anyone to be the most. But they can be more.
I can be more.

Morphologically, ‘Shorter’ is indeed a comparative adjective but, semantically, it means to have less height. That she looks at a word and derives a personal ambition from its grammatical structure not its meaning is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise: Her analysis of the world around her is flawed by her own interpretation. She has friends and relations who care for her (especially, Jay and her mother) but seen through the prism of her own self-absorption this love becomes distorted, mixed up (like the metaphors in this sentence) with the false comforts of drugs and unfulfilling (and disturbingly violent) sex.

Moorhead presents in prose the dichotomy of action versus inaction. A confrontation that I feel derives more naturally from Yeats than Newton, although I love the metaphor of human experience as force or stationary object. The character that best represents the ‘stationary object’ philosophy is also the novel’s moral centre: Daniel. Until the novel’s final sequence, the reader encounters him only in flashbacks where his imperfect sanity serves as a counterpoint to the heroine’s self-loathing. Their ceremony of innocence is drowned in the blood-dimmed tide of the protagonist’s madness.

There’s plenty more to be said about Moorhead’s engaging style. The beautiful duality of thought and speech and the mutually destructive relationship between the protagonist and her friend Kat deserve essays of their own. I’ll leave that to those more qualified.