11 February, 2009

Contradiction in Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger

Somehow Penelope Lively found the checklist of subjects I like to see explored in literature that I leave lying around, because her novel Moon Tiger, which won the Booker Prize in 1987, contains all of them: lyrical, sweeping accounts of histories both personal and international; objects imbued with the etymologies of their names; people overcoming their questionable excesses of pretentiousness; the violent impact of war and progress on society; hot, ancient deserts; varying perspectives, beliefs, and suppositions causing people to misinterpret each other, with conflict arising from miscommunication and a tension arising from the various ways in which several people can see the same thing; and people struggling to understand the strangers within themselves--the people they were and the actions they do that contradict who they think they are and who they want to be. Check, check, and check.

Claudia Hampton is a popular historian who, with death imminent, decides to write a startling new chronology of the world from her deathbed, entirely inside her head. Her history will free associate; the dinosaurs of the Jurassic will roam freely with the Victorian construction workers who unearthed their bones, and her own opinions and memories and connotations of both will earn just as much factual merit as scholarly opinion, so that a recollection of bathing on the shore with her little brother and discovering an ammonite fossil will be just as important as any geological-biological description of the rise and fall of the ammonite species. Her world history, which is Moon Tiger, will be life as we live it, with complications, contradictions, confusions, regrets, pining for the future, and fondness for the past all jumbled together, and so the book drifts freely from personal narrative to historical explanation, between various overlapping and contradictory viewpoints, through several nonlinear time frames, making declarative statements yet admitting to the shakiness of Truth.

Claudia is at once a feeble old woman and a brilliant wunderkind, a neglectful mother and a life-saving surrogate mom, a controversial and florid populist and a harsh critic of popular entertainment, an independent sexual partner and a devoted lover, a judgmental sibling and an incestuous admirer, a pretentious bullhorn and an insecure human. At what moment were parts of her personality born? At what moment did aspects die? With all these forces competing, how will she be remembered by those she offended, betrayed, loved, and ignored?

Central to the story is her daughter, Lisa, the offspring of a prolonged affair whom she quickly dismisses as dumb at a very early age. Caught up in her own world of intellectuals and unready for motherhood, she judges her three-year-old for being unable to discourse, rationalize, and argue effectively. To her dumb daughter, all wide-eyed and full of ignorant wonder, she is Claudia, since Mom is a stupid and immature name. We, perhaps more willing to trust in a child's eventual advancement and development and its need for certain attentions and bonds, see Claudia's flaws reflected through her own arrogant dismissals, and when Lisa is an adult--an average mother with an above average intelligence and a below average self esteem--we see the chasm that Claudia's poor choices of four decades ago has eroded between them, an unbridgeable gap of misunderstanding, with Claudia still convinced that her daughter is a bit simple and Lisa wrongly convinced that she knows more about her mother than her mother knows about either of them. Lisa, clinging to memories of affairs and secrets that her mother will never know, embraces the satisfying idea that she is able to make herself more than meets the eye, that anyone who writes her off as easily understood is sorely mistaken, even if they never know so. We all perhaps hold onto these secrets, mementos, guilts, desires, and memories that are unique and individual, that allow us to believe that even if we are unearthed, humiliated, dismissed, and attacked, some private part of ourselves will remain intact and untouched. Lisa's insecure defense against an all-knowing and presumptuous mother carries into her other relationships; despite having a loving marriage, she carries on an extramarital affair that only she and her lover know anything about--an extraneous affair, from many viewpoints.

Lisa fails, though, in assuming that her secret defense is a personal innovation, that offenders like her mother don't have hidden stores of private energy. As her mother dies, a fading and crippled woman, she avenges her bad childhood by dismissing her mother as an arrogant, mistake-prone bitch incapable of loving anyone. Given our insight into Claudia's mind, we know this is a huge mistake, and perhaps the worst curse that Claudia has bestowed upon her daughter is her own proclivity toward making narrow assumptions about those around her.

In the end, Lisa's revenge is thwarted by Claudia's sudden revelation of something completely inconsistent with her outward behavior toward her daughter: an apology leaves both of them surprised and perplexed, trying to make sense of the tangled mess of ideas, traits, contradictions, and actions that comprise the gray regions of history, personality, and truth.

Moon Tiger is a fantastic book about ancient Egypt, dinosaurs, World War II, the French and Hungarian revolutions, love, death, and childhood thoughts that I highly recommend to everyone.


JLH said...

Stephen -- I found your blog by searching blogs for Lively, one of my favorite writers. I think I would enjoy reading your posts, BUT -- it's really hard to read on the (otherwise attractive) brown background! Could you consider a color change? I love "Moon Tiger" and several others and would like to read what you have to say.

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