I feel a little guilty saying this, but I do think that ideas mattered more to Reverend Crosbie. She did not want to mislead anyone, so she was careful with her arguments. For Professor Bruno, on the other hand, the whole business – ideas and arguments – was part of a game in which we humans can’t help being misled, because thought itself is misleading. Truth for him, was like a miracle that happened despite us.
Alfred Homer is the narrator of Days by Moonlight, a novel that chronicles a one-week journey through South Ontario. This journey triggers the main character to frequently contemplate questions of human nature, sometimes in philosophical, sometimes in strangely humorous, and sometimes in naïve or innocent terms. Whichever way he does it though, the more one gets used to his style of observing and analyzing the variety of travel encounters with his fellow humans, the more one starts to understand that his constant wondering and not knowing might be a form of rigorous skepticism that he practices with kindness in the most gentle way possible.
André Alexis has said in an interview that he, as a fiction writer, “tries to resist to be a handmaiden to reality,” which makes me wonder, first, if reality is much too harsh or limiting for his way of writing, and secondly, if I as the reviewer of his fiction should be resisting being “a handmaiden to the facts of literature” and if it is therefore even appropriate to summarize a fictional plot in a factual manner like this:
Alfred Homer is a botanist from Toronto. He is in his thirties and has recently lost his parents in a car accident. The love of his life has left him. He has worked many hours overtime in a lab and when an old friend of his parents, Professor Morgan Bruno, asks him if he could be his driver and assist him on a one week research trip through Southern Ontario. The professor wants to confirm a few more details for a biography about a legendary Canadian poet John Skennen, who mysteriously disappeared one day. Alfred Homer is thankful for the distraction from grieving the loss of three people very close to him. He is also intrigued by the possibility of finding few special plants that are supposed to grow in this rural area.
When someone goes on a journey, there is no guarantee that the journey they are taking has the luck to fulfill its true potential. Not every moving eye has the capacity to observe the world from new perspectives, not every heart is in the position to be touched, no meaning automatically attaches itself to miles traversed.
But what does distinguish a pointless trip from a journey that stretches itself between plateaus? A heightened sense of awareness? A deeper appreciation for not knowing? A growing happiness for being startled and surprised? More enthusiasm for learning and figuring things out? A sense of letting go, of leaving things behind in exchange for things ahead?
What’s so enjoyable about Days by Moonlight is that it turns the act of reading into traveling, and traveling into a constant swaying between wonder and bewilderment where travelers and readers alike are held in balance mainly by the illusion that what they experience is the world and who they are is being part of it. Lao Tzu has said: “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” I understand this to stay in balance.
Maybe the engaging fluidity of Alexis’ writing has to do with his interest in telling the truth, and with the fact that telling the truth has and always will be a form of traveling — from very common places to extremes and back again. Alexis pays a direct homage to the history of this traveling truth through his explicit connections to dreaming, fabricating, and inventing in classics like Paradiso by Dante Alighieri (1472) to Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726), Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842) or The Golden Flower Pot by E.T.A Hoffman (1814) among others.
Blaise Pascal said in the 17th century that “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”
The same might be applicable for travel and reading travel literature. Unless one truly loves it, travel might be stuck in trophy hunting tourism and reading might be reduced to counting page numbers and assembling letters into words that make up sentences. But how does one love travel beyond appreciating the opportunity to see and imagine things never experienced before? Maybe it’s not so much how one travels or where one goes, but with whom one does it.
The two travel companions of Days by Moonlight — an enthusiastically curious, determined, continuously re-searching, occasionally a bit insensitive or overly enchanted academic and a grieving, self-analyzing, genuinely respectful botanist with a gentle mind and manner; one interested in poems, the other in plants; one snoring, the other sleepless at night; one with white one with black skin, one old and one young — create a literary recipe that is quite conducive to adventure.
And that’s what happens. In fast succession Alfred Homer and Morgan Bruno’s trip strings adventures together like pearls on a necklace; each precious gem containing a universe brought up from a dark, deep Canadian sub-consciousness by a daring diver who instinctively knows the paths to the bottom of the territory.
As Homer and Bruno enter the homes of potential informants in research mode and get proximate through the beauty and seriousness of their subject matter, Professor Bruno’s direct inquiries into the realm of poetry and John Skennen’s mysterious legacy keeps pushing everyone involved to evacuate the narrow paths of their comfort zones. The curious urge of Professor Bruno’s agenda often draws the locals in towns and hamlets called Whitchurch Stouffville, Concord, East Gwillimbury, Nobelton, Coulson’s Hill, Schomberg, New Tecumseth, Marsville, Feversham and Barrow to the grassy knoll of discomfort and awkwardness where virgin strangers meet to share what clearly falls outside the ordinary experiences of everyday life. And while Professor Bruno keeps interviewing people who loved, admired, or were suspicious of the poet John Skennen, his ghost and former self, Alfred Homer keeps honing his sense of respect for experiencing the very odd and otherworldly, not only in others but also in himself.
When the two travel companions drink “amber mole” in a pub, when one of them gets hit by a woman using an umbrella, slapped in the face as a result of cultural miscommunication, and bitten by dogs, Alfred Homer takes the time to consider in quiet reflection not only the pros on cons of these experiences, but also the build-up of greater, predetermined historical or smaller coincidental causes that may have led to what has happened. Lying naked under a sheet on a gurney in a hospital with his socks on his feet stirs as much astonishment in Homer as finding the flower he always wanted to see, the cinqueflora.
Through his writing André Alexis makes clear that certain experiences can only be brought into existence on the floating road to fiction, even when his language tricks us into ingesting these experiences as if they were real facts. He has chosen this form of language, it seems to me, to protect the credibility of the strange, the weird, and the outlandish, and make it easily accessible. His matter-of-fact-descriptions might also be a way to counter the density of foreignness we often sense when traveling through landscapes.
More than half a century ago Albert Camus, who had a huge impact on my perception of “the stranger,” described the intensity with which “nature or a landscape can negate us,” and suggested that “at the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman,” which he perceived as a “primitive hostility of the world.”
André Alexis isn’t intimidated by the natural world like that, Homer isn’t crushed into destructive nihilism, instead the botanist meets nature and her spirits on a scale where he can face it. He studies flowers, and it’s no surprise really that the pencil drawings of those flowers, which are part of the textual flow of the novel, lack the righteousness of accuracy that often comes with scientifically correct botanical drawings, looking rather blurry and nebulous.
Alfred Homer is often perplexed by the world’s multiplicity, but he is neither confused nor disturbed by it. He respects the limits and limitations of knowing and the beauty of having no idea. With whom else but with people unknown to them can Bruno and Homer afford to listen to the intimate details of sexual desire, unhinged passion and unrequited love? In what other roles but that of visiting strangers could they witness the academic and intensely private arguments between an old damaged father and his middle aged, equally damaged daughter about death, poetry and sex? Where else but on a trip through the Canadian countryside would they stumble into the Museum of Canadian Sexuality, where a guide leads the two openly admitting heterosexuals through exhibits in which “all the acts depicted are within the norms of Canadian conduct,” including a diorama of a human that has just been mauled by an extremely realistic Grizzly bear on hind legs with bloody teeth (It’s an attempt, the guide explains, to show the connection between arousal and danger and make palpable the fact that many animals, when facing death, become aroused)?
What André Alexis does with his real, factual, and surreal-sounding descriptions of North American biographies, attractions, mindsets, and traditions, he briefly explains in the afterword to his novel: “It’s not a work that uses the imagination to show the real, but one that uses the real to show the imagination. For instance, though most of the place names in the novel exist, the cities and towns they refer to are distortedly, exaggeratedly, or (even) perversely portrayed.”
The first part of this statement reads like a riddle, while the second part reads like a statement, and throughout reading the book from Alfred Homer’s perspective, I quite often wondered how the workings of the imagination are connected to the idea of “having good intentions” and how this endlessly wide and well-intentioned surface field of wanting to be good is white and being plowed laboriously by people unable to produce an actual harvest in the whiteness of their soil. Is that absurd? Sad? Infuriating? Is there truth in that?
When they come to the town of Nobelton Professor Bruno and Alfred Homer are invited to observe the town’s culmination of “Pioneer Days,” an annual festivity that started in the 1950’s to celebrate the “pioneering spirit” which, in the 1800’s, had motivated the mostly European settlers to carve out Nobelton from “the shrub, scrub and rock.” Here is a short history:
Two groups of townspeople compete for who can build a wooden house fastest using only the means available to the earliest pioneers. In the 1950’s the houses from the previous year were simply being burnt down in a spectacular bonfire before new ones were created, until in the 60’s the burnings came to be considered wasteful. In an “inspired moment” the town decided to organize a raffle for poor families. The winners could occupy the houses for one year free of charge, until in the 80’s it seemed suddenly necessary and logical to set up a system where the down-on their luck families were made “to earn” the privilege of living in their homes. Earning meant saving the homes from the flames.
Through talking with local people, Bruno and Homer learn that watching these public burnings was considered to be a barbaric and horrible experience collectively justified as a necessary “lesson in history,” until the poor families started practicing dousing big fires throughout the year and became experts, which in the 90’s led to another set of complicated tensions between the various participating groups and a new set of deeply perverted adjustments to keep the tradition alive.
A day later, Homer and Bruno visit the “Indigenous Parade,” which mainly consists of spectators throwing rotten tomatoes at people in period costumes who are passing by on historically themed floats. The spectacle is another collective outlet for citizens who long for symbolic restitutions of those treated horribly unjustly by their kind, yet they only do it for themselves. Without consulting or including indigenous people, the ones parading passionately embrace the entitlement of doing it “their way, ” because again, they assume they have good intentions in doing so. What is so gripping about the way André Alexis describes these events is his way of showing that it is not just one “peculiar” event organized by one group of people, but that the last parade is only the tip of what came before, the very last layering onto something that keeps growing naturally, sickly out of severely contaminated soil.
Days by Moonlight is strategically energized by the fundamental pleasure that comes with telling and listening to completely outrageous stories, yet it also paces itself from becoming too overly excited in that realm by paying homage to the fact that moving through the Canadian countryside creates a steady sense of sadness, an unbearable grief which occasionally camouflages itself as being utterly hilarious or absurd. The relief that comes with laughter about the depressing past and present is often followed by a wave of empathy for people who destroyed everything, because they simply kept assuming instead of checking in. There is wisdom in the ways Homer and Bruno communicate these existential failures with losers of love and faith and those who were abandoned by their common sense and will to live. There is humble humanity in the basic understanding that whatever humans do, especially when more than one of them is involved in the doing, will trigger an “avalanche of meaning,” and that the task of being human might be to recognize and consider as many of the nuances and reasons as one can.
Yet all that wasn’t my main enchantment with this novel. It was something else, something much harder to come by these days. Something like . . . hope. A certain kind of hope though, one that seems actual, somewhat reasonable, or even achievable. A healing hope situated between absurd, desperate, and lovely. A sort of mature, natural hope that could endure and last, if one found a way to practice it every day. It was a very curious hope, a hope for being open to change, but also a humble, slightly stumbled, slowly growing hope for being granted miracles, and a peculiar, possibly very ancient, giddy hope for being able to experience wonders created by witches, Gods, wolves, and blooming plants. A devoted hope kneeling on the floor heads down able to survive loss. A trustworthily guided hope with a capability of dealing with destructive desires, but also an incredibly thankful hope for meeting people who question everything and who don’t get tired to interpret the multiplicity of the world without judging it first. And lastly, a sort of divine hope for being given the chance “to do the right thing.” That was in fact mind blowing. That it didn’t seem to be that difficult suddenly. As Toni Morrison has said: “If you look at the world as a brutal game, then you bump into the mystery of the tree-shaped scar. There seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony. All of which are wholly free and available to us.”
Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others.