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An Answer from Limbo

The fourth book in what I will inevitably come to refer to as my Moore-athon is also his fourth: An Answer from Limbo (1962). It’s not clear why his first novel Judith Hearne and third novel Ginger Coffey should be in print, while his second, The Feast of Lupercal, and this, should not. Or perhaps it is clear: the better known books have a more immediate appeal, and a more singular protagonist, but all four share qualities that make them linger longer in the memory after reading than most other novels I’ve read this year.

Like The Luck of Ginger Coffey, An Answer from Limbo deals with ambition (a subject I find fascinating) in an Irish emigrant in north America, but the approach and the outcome are very different. This time it’s Brendan Tierney, a man who left Ireland to live with his wife in New York, and who at the age of fourteen hoped “that I would become a great poet, that I would devote my life to the composition of a masterpiece and that, at the age of thirty, coughing blood in a last consumptive frenzy, I hoped to die, my gift still clear and unmuddied.” Now he has almost reached 30, and his masterpiece – a novel rather than a poem – is not yet complete. He is consumed with drive, mainly via his feelings for his friend Max, whose book has been accepted for publication:

How many works of the imagination have been goaded into life by envy of an untalented contemporary’s success? More, I would wager, than by any sight of talent rewarded.

The main problem is the ‘pram in the hallway’ – Tierney has a wife and children to support, and has to hold down a job to keep them in their apartment in Riverside Drive, “once an elegant address but now running down.” So, when he receives word from back home that the money he is sending his mother is not enough, he hits on the bright idea of bringing his mother over to New York to look after their children, so that his wife Jane can go out to work and he can be freed to work on the magnum opus.

The story that follows is told from the points of view of all the people whose lives unravel around Tierney as a result of his selfishness. His mother (”the stranger who is my parent”) does not conform to her son and daughter-in-law’s godless ways. His wife Jane dreams of “dark-haired ravishers.” He puts his own needs before his children (”But they have their whole lives ahead of them. This is my one chance”). The new family unit does not thrive:

Brendan said something harmless. The talk staggered up on its feet and went on in weary pilgrimage, talk about the flight, talk about the children, talk about New York, talk that was like the meeting of three strangers in a dentist’s waiting room, talk to pass the time until they could decently get free of each other.

And that’s to say nothing of the downturn in Tierney’s sexual relationship with his wife (”What’s the matter?” I said. “Nothing.” “Well, come on, then, take your dress off”). Tierney begins to see everyone in life as either with him – and his novel – or against him (”What enemy could I strike dumb with this tale?”).

Moore’s ability to keep all the plates spinning is impressive, and the story moves on with his usual smoothness. Nonetheless I felt that the dozen or more characters whose minds he inhabits were a handful too many, and the book would have had more force and directness if it came from the points of view of just the central characters. There is drama throughout, and like Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal, it builds to highly charged scenes toward the end.

We also see the substitution of religion which was to become a theme in Moore’s fiction (as in The Doctor’s Wife). “My book for me,” says Tierney, “is the belief that replaces belief.” He denounces his mother’s traditional faith – “a performance of deeds in the expectation of praise” – while seeing that this describes his own writing perfectly.  For me, my belief in Moore is unshaken, even if this is not his finest book.  I have faith in this man.

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Posted by on December 22, 2008 in An Answer from Limbo, Reviewed by John Self