A Bright Moon for Fools
Inside the Dog Press
hardback, 368 pages, £14.99
A Bright Moon for Fools, the brilliantly funny debut novel by Jasper Gibson, is the story of 58-year-old Harry Christmas: a bewilderingly witty, powerfully misanthropic anti-hero who deserts London for the more welcoming (or so he believes) Caracas. At first, we are given to believe that he is running from what he calls ‘the Rot’, Christmas’s term for the decline in the intelligence and quality of life available in Britain – but we later learn that he is also visiting the country of his first wife, Emily, in a kind of homage to her memory. And for Harry, the trip turns out to be much more difficult and predictable than he first believed.
The best thing about this book is the protagonist’s sense of humour, as sharp and as unpredictable as a discarded syringe. He drives the most innocuous conversation way off-course (“And how do you want your steak, sir?” “Right through the heart.”) and he has a knack for drawing out the flawed logic in conversations that might seem (to the speakers) to be intellectually seamless:
“They’ve closed the pool! [My granddaughter] absolutely loves swimming and they’ve gone and closed the pool because,” she lowered her voice, “the Muslim children don’t do it, do they?”
“I have no idea,” said Christmas, wearily sensing the direction of the conversation.
“I mean I’m all for civil liberties, but the police have got to be allowed to do their job.”
“In the swimming pool?”
Looked at empirically, he is about as likeable as a Martin Amis hero but because of his sense of humour it’s much easier to warm to him, albeit cautiously – and not just because he is funny, but because his sense of humour is the boldest, most obvious manifestation of his most valuable asset as a fictional character: he is difficult to predict and therefore difficult to pigeonhole. One minute we’re told that he’s leaving because he despairs of England – and of course we wonder if there’s some kind of Daily Mail-related subtext – but the next thing you know, he’s wondering if ‘Muslim women [were] the only smart people left in England’. Gibson is no caricature: he is a misanthropist and fed up of England, but he is not racist or xenophobic; he treats women terribly, but he treats everyone terribly, exhibiting a non-gender-specific dislike of humanity and a cold-hearted resourcefulness, a Ulyssean propensity to take advantage of vulnerable people to whom he can grow close – it just so happens that he is able (and willing) to seduce and defraud women rather than men. And because he can’t be categorised easily, he’s just as hard to dismiss as he is to accept.
This makes for a real page-turner: Gibson’s mischievous sense of humour is quite addictive, as Christmas makes his merry way through the world, recklessly lying and scheming, stealing and betraying. But Gibson also has a feeling for when the fun must end. For some time, Christmas’s various felonies and his deceits are given a kind of saccharin sheen, as though nothing can really go far wrong in the world Gibson has created. Even Slade is almost a joke at first: the mentally unsound, physically cumbersome, medieval battle scene-recreating stepson of Diana, Harry’s second wife, whom Harry defrauded and robbed just before he left the country. Slade is bent on violently avenging Diana, but the amateurishness of his quest (and his comparative stupidity) make it hard to take him very seriously as a threat – until both he and Harry realise that they can do great harm to the innocent people they come across without actually trying to. The surprising friendships Harry makes in Venezuela, and the love he finds, are neatly mirrored by the exposure of the fragility of it all. Gibson portrays this all with an expert touch.
However, where this novel doesn’t quite succeed is in its revelation of Harry’s character. We eventually learn that Harry’s mistreatment of Diana (and of more or less everyone he meets afterwards) is owing to a galling tragedy that befell him before the novel begins.
But this does not go far enough. In thetwenty first century, perhaps we no longer require novelists to excuse or justify the behaviour of their characters, however immoral that behaviour may have been. But the lack of a satisfactory explanation for Harry’s misdeeds – the shortcoming, ultimately, of Gibson’s psychological portrait – was disappointing. Harry is ultimately neither sufficiently explained by his past (people often experience devastating tragedy without committing serial felonies) nor judged by his present or by the narrative voice. Either of these alternatives makes sense alone, but because the novel encompasses them both, it’s hard to know how we are supposed to think of Harry – it becomes unclear if the sole purpose of Harry’s anti-heroic status was for comedy.
As a result, when the novel ends, we are finally unsure about the narrative’s perspective on the universe it describes: is it simply a cruel one, or do we sometimes get second (or rather, fifth or even sixth) chances, too? And, more importantly, how far do we deserve them? What does it mean when a man who has experienced terrible pain, inflicts pain on other people?
Frustratingly, Gibson raises these important questions without giving a real answer. However, despite its shortcomings, this is a very intelligent, captivating novel which deserves to be followed up by more.