By Robert Cohen
Featured Art: Monk Meditating near a Ruin by Moonlight by Frederik Marinus Kruseman
I first came upon “The Moon In Its Flight” as a graduate student in my mid- twenties, in a book called Many Windows, a now long out of print anthology put together by Ted Solotaroff from his seminal literary magazine of the seventies, New American Review. It’s fair to say it blew my mind. This was not entirely unusual. I had my mind blown pretty regularly at that time: the rest of me wasn’t getting much, and I was nothing if not impressionable. But twenty-odd years later, having reread the story for teaching and other purposes, oh, about a hundred times now, it still blows my mind—if anything more so than before. What this says about me I’m not sure I even want to think about. But what it says about “The Moon In Its Flight” I do want to think about, if not emulate, if not imitate, if not crassly and slavishly steal.
Like most fiendishly complex works of art, the premise of the story is very simple: working class guy meets middle class girl, loses her, then writes a bitter, self-lacerating story about it, a story so feverish and intense as to almost, by the breath of sheer artistic willfulness, resuscitate their young selves for one more try. Almost. That old anecdote about Nabokov’s inspiration for Lolita being a charcoal drawing done by an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, the first ever produced by an animal in captivity—“this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage”—seems relevant: we can hear, coming through the floor of the story, the jittery, percussive pulse of a man beating his head against the bars of his own personal cell, trying to free himself from constrictions of time, space, memory, art, and dumb luck:
The first time he touched her breasts he cried in his shame and delight… Of course he was insane. She caressed him so far as she understood how through his faded denim shorts. Thus did they flay themselves, burning. What were they to do? Where were they to go? The very thought of the condom in his pocket made his heart careen in despair. Nothing was like anything said it was after all. He adored her.
This being, as the narrator reminds us, an American story, there’s also a component of class warfare at work, the prose a fusillade of longing and tenderness and pain, at once erotic, political, and aesthetic. If such prose seems on first reading like the furthest thing imaginable from emotion recollected in tranquility, it seems that way after a hundred readings too. Still, for all its heat, its keen erotic longing, its operatic arias of wonder and complaint, its invocations of the urgent, silly, gorgeous lyrics of the popular love song, the story is cunningly mediated by an equal and opposite voice—an anti-romantic voice, one that’s every bit as romantic as it is anti-. This is the other narrator, skeptical and hopeless and prosaic, who picks up the pieces of the dream (“turn that into a joke,” he dares us, and himself, after relating the loss of his virginity in a Mexican whorehouse) and tries to fit them back together, dealing in the junk-yard of memory like a Beckett tramp. The longer the story goes on, the more we feel this presence, the writer who both is and isn’t Sorrentino, is and isn’t the narrator, and whose frustrations in writing the story are inseparable from the frustrations of living it. In the end it’s as difficult for this writer to grasp the story’s key as it is for the poor tormented young man bereft of lessons and access, of the necessary expertise for a successful life. It’s all the same cage, the same bars. “Art cannot rescue anybody from anything,” he concludes, laying down his last trump with a kind of bitter satisfaction.
Whether we should believe him of course is another question. For behind these various veils and personae, behind even Sorrentino himself, there’s another disembodied presence here—I speak now of the reader, or this one anyway—who is not just reading about an experience but actually having one, and it’s every bit as familiar and exotic, as rousing and pitiable, as cartoony and profound as first love itself. And only words to play with, too. Which is only to say that this story about the failure of stories, the miserable inadequacy of stories, the flimsy and cartoony contrivances to which these miserable inadequate stories resort in their effort to console us for lost loves, is itself a heady and exhilarating triumph. Turn that into a joke.
Robert Cohen‘s most recent books include the novels Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep, and a collection of stories, The Varieties of Romantic Experience. He teaches at Middlebury College.
Originally published in NOR 6