One of my favorite episodes of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" involved Mary and Rhoda attending a party given by friends of a younger man Mary was dating. The generation gap widened perceptibly when one of the young folks decribed his idea of a good time as going downtown, acting weird, and hoping someone would notice.
This first novel by a San Francisco native who currently teaches at the University of Connecticut at Storrs betrays a similar desperation for attention at any price. Every page, every sentence, proclaims, "Hey, look at me, I'm mind-boggling, shocking, totally outrageous." The writer's stance places the reviewer in a neat predicament: Do I denounce this novel as the latest manifestation of a decadent society--and risk taking my place with the hapless philistines of yesteryear who trounced innovative artists from Baudelaire to Burroughs? Or, do I rush to pay tribute to this book as the product of an extraordinarily original mind--and risk taking it at the author's estimation instead of at my own? Or, might it really not be best to do what experienced New Yorkers do when a lunatic acts up on a the subway: Ignore it--and risk letting it go its way uncriticized?
"The History of Luminous Motion" sets out at once to shock the reader with its craziness and violence while short-circuiting any objections by contradicting its own premises. It is narrated in the first person by a brilliant, weird, psychopathic 8-year-old named Phillip who writes like a brilliant, weird, psychopathic 18-year-old. Phillip takes a pretty good line for a teen-ager, but only by putting his words into the mouth of a little boy can the author be sure that they are truly astonishing. The only problem is, Phillip doesn't sound like a little boy, not even the little superboy he's supposed to be. He sounds like a very big boy who's taken one too many creative-writing classes.
We first meet little Phillip traveling in the back seat of his Mom's car: "No matter where we went we seemed to be where we had been before. We were more than a family, Mom and I. We were a quality of landscape. We were the map's name rather than some encoded or strategic position on it. We were like an MX missile, always moving but always exactly where we were supposed to be. There were many times when I thought of Mom and me as a sort of weapon."
Mom, for her part, says things like, "Culture's just a scheme of rules and regulations we've all quite happily agreed to. It's not all cliches, baby . . . Culture's got our best interests at heart. Culture's just the walls of a house. It's that house I always told you we lived in, only I didn't realize the house was culture before."
After years of driving from town to town, picking up strange men, Mom finds a man named Pedro to provide her and Phillip with a real home. Phillip has a hard time adjusting to "normal" life. He seems, at first, jealous of Pedro, but then seems to like Pedro. He decides to kill Pedro, who, in return, makes posthumous appearances advising Phillip on how to kill his real father, who, shortly after Pedro's demise, conveniently returns to the picture. As Mom retreats into alcoholism, Dad shows up to look after the family. He's a good provider, showering the boy with presents and sound advice. Mom, still strung out and withdrawn, becomes pregnant. Phillip moves toward patricide even though--perhaps because --he likes Dad: "I was going to return Dad to that world where he truly belonged, that fundamental world of basic particles which breathed underneath our realer world of mere events."
Phillip has lots of portentous ideas about mass, energy, matter and reality, and what goes on in your head, and stuff like that. He makes a pair of friends: Rodney, a premature juvenile delinquent, and Beatrice, an infantile Marxist-feminist (although of course she, like the boys, is finally too clever to fit into any mere category)--and they sit around drinking, smoking, sniffing glue, investigating Satanism and concocting poisons for Phillip's father.
No, this is not a socially aware novel about victimized children from broken homes who are corrupted by evil influences. As the narrative makes clear, the evil is far more radical. We are invited to view it in several ways: as a manifestation of mass, energy, motion, time-space, et al.; or as a special condition of this particular boy's mentality; or as the intersection of mind and matter. The reader may well find himself wondering whether the "brilliant" metaphysical ruminations are supposed to make Phillip's crimes more interesting or whether the crimes are supposed to add excitement to the ruminations.
In the end, our narrator "grows up": becomes "normal"--or so he says. If we've learned anything by now, we've learned not to trust him. He is returned to the bosom of his family. Dad is recovering from the wounds Phillip inflicted on him, Mom has given birth to the baby she was expecting, but Phillip seems to believe that this is a new, foster family.
To give credit where due, the writing is skillful, the concept genuinely offbeat. But does it pass the acid test of being a book one regrets having to put down and looks forward to picking up? No. It could be argued that no genuinely new or original work would be appreciated, judged by such a standard; that no work dealing with repellent subject matter would pass such a "taste" test. But, far from being original, this novel is another latecomer in the tedious line of bad- seed stories, most recently exploited by Knopf editor Gordon Lish in his novel about murder in the sandbox. Whether the subject matter is phony or genuine is hard to say. It strikes me as phony, but I don't think it finally matters very much whether this novel is echt pathology or only a cunning forgery.