Jenny McPhee

"A Man Of No Moon"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage MAR 14, 2009)

“Bottles of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola, packs of Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields, the music of Glenn Miller, Art Mooney, and Dinah Shore, all in abundance, mocked their wartime prohibition while annihilating memories of their shortages and black markets. The scene might have been perceived as a flaunting of the spoils, only Italians, perpetually in a state of decadent denial, refused to acknowledge that we were the conquered, not the conquerors.”

A Man Of No Moon by Jenny McPhee

We are able to enjoy fictional characters that we would be unable to tolerate in our personal lives, and in fact sometimes the nastiest people make the best sort of people to read about. I’ve just finished Jenny McPhee’s novel A Man of No Moon, and while the characters weren’t nasty in the traditional sense, their self-focused hollowness is disconcerting at the very least, and the three main characters are ultimately unpleasant, destructive people.

The novel begins in Rome with the suicide-obsessed protagonist, Italy’s “greatest poet” translator Dante Omero Sabat attempting to jump into the Tiber. An American soldier prevents Dante’s suicide, and as he yanks the poet back from the edge of the river, his comments reveal that he doesn’t understand the choice that Dante has made by trying to take his own life. To the soldier, and probably to most of us, suicide is little more than a waste. But to Dante, suicide represents the inevitable conclusion of a childhood obsession and also an escape from the memories of WWII.

Saved from death, Dante then attends a party at the home of his friend Tullio Merlini. The year is 1948, and the movie industry is enjoying a post war boom. At the party, Dante meets two American actresses, sister Gladys and Prudence Godfrey who seem to be total opposites. Gladys is much more outgoing and adventurous, while Prudence is restrained and cautious. Dante finds that although he wants them both, ultimately he is drawn to the enigmatic Prudence.

This first night is the beginning of Dante’s affairs with the two sisters, and for a period, the three drift in and out of each other’s lives, traveling around Italy, and often falling into bed with one another. These characters move through a glittering, privileged life and yet none of them are happy and none of them seem capable of grasping anything beyond their own shallow satisfaction.

The book’s title is a reference to Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, referenced in A Man of No Moon when Prudence and Dante discuss literature and the folklore belief that a man born on a night with no moon is destined for unhappiness and possible suicide. Dante’s obsession with suicide continues throughout the novel and includes the formative memories of his fascinating Aunt Pia and a detailed list of reasons why people commit suicide.

While a large segment of his mental life is spent contemplating suicide, Dante’s physical life is spent having sex with a range of women. This hedonistic bent seems in glaring contrast to Dante’s general melancholy. How does one spend time contemplating methods of ending it all and yet have the self-confessed goal of wanting to “sleep with as many women as possible”? How does Dante rapidly switch from trying to jump into the Tiber to mingling at a society party? This ultimately created a dissonance for me that I was unable to overcome except to condemn Dante’s suicide obsession as a manifestation of his self-obsession. And the difficulties of Dante’s character were not helped by passages mentioning Prudence’s farting during sex or lines such as “She came many times, and then, with the skill of the adept, let me reach my apex while inside one of her infertile orifices.”

Ultimately the novel, which includes shades of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sense of generational doom, is based on a fascinating idea but it’s largely unconvincing. Dante’s past, his suicide obsession and the disturbing memories of WWII jar with Dante’s "present," and his self-absorbed life of privilege amongst the glamorous film stars and intellectuals of post WWII Italy.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 2 reviews
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"No Ordinary Matter"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 3, 2004)

"It made no rational sense, but she immediately felt a deeper bond with [Alex], as if she were recognizing an old friend instead of seeing someone for the first time. Of course, this profound 'feeling' could easily be explained by the fact that she'd seen him already many times on television. She looked again. Still gorgeous."

No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee

If this sounds like a scenario from a soap opera, it's supposed to. Veronica Moore, the woman who is responding to Alex in the quotation, is a scriptwriter for the long-running daytime drama, "Ordinary Matters," and Alex is a new actor, about to begin work on the show. Veronica is beginning to tire of her own romantic relationship with Nick, an artist, with whom she has lived for many years, and her initial attraction to Alex grows very quickly. There's only one problem: Alex is the unsuspecting father of her sister Lillian's unborn baby.

Lillian, with both an MD and a PhD in neuroscience, has a practice in which she treats people whose brain injuries and/or traumatic experiences have produced bizarre behaviors. With her biological clock ticking and no prospective husband on the horizon, the gorgeous, blonde Lillian has seen Alex at a bar, deemed him a suitable sperm donor, taken him back to the apartment, and then dismissed him, planning never to see him again. When she finds herself pregnant, her decision does not waver. She wants no strings—she wants a baby without a husband, no one who might have claims on the baby.

As the story alternates between the present and the past, showing the Moores' bizarre family history, the story of Veronica and Lillian grows in depth and complexity. Though Lillian is professionally treating a child who is mute, following the death of the child's mother, we discover that Veronica also went through a period of muteness when her father was killed in a car accident, which she survived. Only eight years old at the time, Veronica always believed that she was partly responsible for her father's death. Their mother was never able to relate to her daughters, and neither Veronica nor Lillian grew up able to trust other people. The sisters have remained remarkably distant, even when they are in supposedly intimate relationships. When Veronica suddenly falls totally, helplessly, in love with Alex, she withholds that information from Lillian, and when Lillian later establishes a ménage with a patient and the patient's father, she withholds that information from Veronica.

Though life on the daytime drama "Ordinary Matters" is full of the outrageous events, bizarre coincidences, and random acts of fate that are characteristic of all soap operas, the lives of Veronica and Lillian Moore soon become much more outrageous than anything Veronica ever dreamed up in a script. Every melodramatic disaster than could be predicted comes true in this plot—characters have hidden pasts, love goes wrong, a tuba-playing private investigator discovers secrets, characters are not who they think they are, families are brought together and then pulled apart, "dead" people come to life, and people's recollections of the past prove faulty. Plot-wise, this is as over-the-top as any romance or melodrama you may ever read.

McPhee is a unique and surprising writer, however, a writer with a firm grounding in science. Her wild plot is not just presented for its own sake or for sensationalism, but to illustrate true science, which, while hidden, underlies people's behavior, even bizarre behavior. McPhee raises questions about how our emotions work, how we think, why we behave as we do, and how we cope with random acts of fate. Her soap-opera-like "romance" ultimately concerns itself with biology and neurobiology, including details of Lillian's pregnancy, the neurology of the senses, the "neurobiology of humor," the physiology and neurology of the brain, the meaning of consciousness, and what constitutes brain injury as the result of physical trauma, as opposed to emotional trauma. A dominant theme is the inability of humans to predict the events that can either open their lives to wonderful new opportunities or destroy their hopes.

Though the mixing of elaborate melodrama with pure science may seem strange, McPhee manages to make it work, to a large extent. One problem that arises, however, is that science within a novel requires some explanation. It creates a kind of analytical, objective tone, inimical to character development and in total contrast to the emotionalism of the plot. Readers also like to see characters developing through their actions, something that does not happen when characters and actions are used to illustrate specific (scientific) ideas. Although Alex remarks that "an audience does not expect a story to be literal," Veronica's comments may be more appropriate: "It wasn't that she felt manipulated, it was that she hadn't been manipulated well enough. And because she didn't believe the story, she didn't trust it." Though this intellectual soap opera is entertaining, and the science underlying it is fascinating, ultimately this reader wished that the novel had manipulated her just a bit more effectively. Still, the novel is fun to read, often humorous, and full of ironies, and that, of course, is "no ordinary matter."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews


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About the Author:

Jenny McPheeJenny McPhee grew up in Princeton, N.J. where she attended Princeton High School and recieved her B.A. from Williams College. She won a St. Andrew's Society Fellowship to study Comparative Literature for a year at the University of Edinburgh. She did two years of graduate study at the University of Paris VII Jussieu in semotics and philosophy. She worked in the editorial department of Alfred A. Knopf for six years.

She is a writer, an Italian translator and a film program coordinator. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, and Brooklyn Review, and her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and Bookforum, among others. She is the translator of Paolo Maurensig's Canone Inverso and of Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II. She is on the board of the Bronx Academy of Letters.

Jenny is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize writer John McPhee and the oldest sister of writers Martha McPhee and Joan Sullivan.

She lives in New York City with her husband and children.

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