A Bright Moon For Fools is the first book I’ve read since getting back into this literature lark that I really did not enjoy. It seemed like the kind of book I would really enjoy, the cover art is gorgeous, the plot revolves around a grumpy alcoholic running away from his problems, inevitably causing more, and the back cover promises (and puns) a “a bald new voice in British fiction.”
That is a bold, new voice that really wants to be an Amis, but like the rest of us doesn’t even come close. Our hero is Harry Christmas, a fat, drunk, English gentleman, on the run in Venezuela. Christmas is very much in vein of John Self or Jim Dixon, except his debauchery isn’t as funny or as interesting as Self and his vitriol doesn’t stack up to Dixon.
Jasper Gibson -co-founder of mildly amusing ‘viral’ site The Poke- begins the novel (his debut) with stabilisers and armbands on, as he cycles his (or my) mixed metaphor into a swimming pool. The bicycle being Harry Christmas and the swimming pool being a series of international airports. Things follow a well trodden path from here, Harry’s outrage at modern air travel is occasionally funny, but is more often the kind hackneyed material you’d get from club night stand up.
Once in Venezuela, Gibson’s narration and descriptions start to pick up, and live up to the poetry hinted at by the novel’s title:
“He crossed streets that ended in clouds and mountains. He found decaying squares and market stalls. Artisans lay beside their bracelets. A man with a white beard guarded trolleys full of books.”
When you have a hero with as many flaws as Christmas, making an interesting villain is a big ask. Most of the tropes that you’d usually use to make a reader dislike a character are being used in a charming way on the lead. It’s perhaps an interesting area to explore, having two characters with the same characteristics but making one our hero and one villain, and asking the reader if there’s any difference or if it’s all shades of grey. Another interesting angle with anti-heroes is to put the villain on the ‘right’ side of the law.
But they are both rabbit holes we aren’t encouraged to explore, instead Gibson gives us William Slade, an entirely flat, dull character. Slade’s depth comes from the number of psychopathic traits thrown on to him, none of which make him interesting when they really should do. Selecting a few of these and exploring them in more depth might have saved the character, instead he’s a long list of lazy characteristics. It also might help if the chapters where the narration follows Slade were longer than a couple of pages each time. Presumably Gibson kept these chapters short and too the point, but reflect Slade’s character against the more florid language found in the Christmas sections, but really this just exposes the flaws in Slade’s characterisation.
He has the following:
- A full range Oedipal issues, wanting the respect of his dead father and in love with his step mother.
- He’s a bully and coward.
- He’s severely delusional and a power fantastist.
- He’s monomaniacal and obsessive.
- And is, of course, a serial rapist.
Just a little note, that the next few paragraphs are going to be an awkward discussion of rape about the awkward discussion and depiction of rape in literature.
In Evan Saathoff’s excellent Madea Lives, he rips on Tyler Perry’s over reliance on what he terms “babyrape”, which is the sexual abuse of children to mark in no uncertain terms that this character is a ‘bad guy’. Gibson does a similar thing here, when Harry first tells the reader about Slade we’re told he’s a rapist, and we instantly know he’s a bad’un. Just to prove it, several chapters later we’re treated to the aforementioned rape from Slade’s point of view. It’s desperately unpleasant, and feels somewhat unnecessary, given that we already know he’s a rapist. The victim in this scene barely gets five words to say, and after the assault we’re never see or hear from her again.
Then it happens again, with Harry’s surrogate daughter Bridget, a character we’ve come to know as a vocal wit and sparring partner to Harry. After the assault, she is never seen again and again is silenced. By this point we really hate Slade, he’s a monster, but the use of rape here is just sexist laziness. The women have been used and discarded, by the character and the plot.
There is perhaps an interesting point to be raised here that Harry, by lying about who he is to Judith is also perhaps in a grey area consent wise. But the book never explores this, instead after the second attack, we’re treated to another debauched chase across Venezuela which ends with Harry paralysed with diarrhoea (Gibson gets close to full Franzen here) in another small Venezuelan town. This would all be par for the course of the novel, except now there’s the sexual assault elephant in the room. Harry recovers and eventually faces up to Slade (one of them dies, obviously), and the consequences of the assault. Bridget, of course, is nowhere to be seen.
Bottom line: There are some great descriptive passages in this book, hidden away behind hack stand up material, a dull plot and some downright awful scenes featuring sexual assault.