The Hesperides Tree
Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)
by Jason Picone
The difficulty of relating the disparate fields of literature and science, the invasiveness of technology in people's lives and the search for the mythical Garden of the Hesperides are all at the center of Nicholas Mosley's latest novel. Narrated by a nameless teenager, The Hesperides Tree is a brilliant fiction of ideas, supplying a multitude of theories and worldviews while ultimately deferring to the reader's judgment in how to best sort and decipher the book's plethora of information.
Like many of Mosley's novels, the characters in The Hesperides Tree are brainy and thoughtful aesthetes whose lives are engrossed in erudite debates and dilemmas. The male protagonist struggles to decide on a concentration in college, unable to discern whether natural science or literature is more likely to answer his soul-searching questions about his role in life. While the young Englishman decides to pursue literature, the choice fails to satisfy or solve anything, resulting in only more questions concerning why no academic discipline can seem to truly educate him. His friend scorns the impotence of the academy, arguing that "human beings can alter the world, but they don't do this by talking about it." The academy also fails to provide any advice to the protagonist on how to keep pervasive technologies from corrupting him, a constant worry that troubles him.
Though it has become commonplace for contemporary novelists to sound off on the increasing self-alienation that people suffer at the hands of technology, Mosley manages to infuse the subject with a fresh feel by including a number of nefarious new developments. In terms of the author's range, it's impressive that a man who is almost eighty can not only convincingly assume the first-person voice of a teen-ager, but can also write compellingly on how internet porn impacts his young protagonist's sexuality. The young man attempts to resist the seduction of pornography, but is fascinated as well as repulsed by it:
One could . . . embark on a laborious journey past advertisements and warnings and promotional lures until one reached a site where bums and breasts bloomed like exotic flowers and vegetables. . . Some of my schoolfellows had the use of credit-cards and by giving their numbers one could go deeper into the haunted forest with strange images of animals and ghouls and torture-chambers and children. But then it began to seem that the tendrils and roots of the forest were stretching down, round, up, to entrap one . . .
Beyond the lure of the internet, the narrator is disturbed by other technological advances; he reads reports of an experimental bio-weapon, the actual existence of which is unclear. The weapon kills only individuals with a certain genetic make-up, an ideal weapon for an aggressive party afraid of harming their own. Coupled with his fear of overt destruction is the looming millennium and its insidious bug, a techno-illness he likens to the bio-weapon. He believes both have the potential to silently infect and destroy, killing off choice peoples or systems while passing over others.
Unable to explain the world and its increasingly destructive tendencies through his studies, the narrator turns inward, searching first within himself, then reaching out to his family and friends for the enlightenment that has heretofore eluded him. On a trip with his family to western Ireland, he spies a young woman, Julie, with whom he immediately feels a deep connection. When chance eventually thrusts the two together, he wonders about the role coincidence plays in shaping lives and whether or not he has the power to control his destiny:
The idea that one lives in a world of potentialities amongst which one has the ability if not exactly to choose then at least to be aware of the possibility of choice . . . and by this to make available one thing rather than another . . . this was a fancy that it had seemed to me one might take note of like a beautiful stranger passed in the street: but what would it be to possess it, experience it, live with it as if it were normality?
Eventually, he and Julie journey to an island that may or may not be the Garden of the Hesperides, a mythical, Eden-like realm. There they discover what they suppose to be the Tree of Life, though they realize they might be mistaken. The young couple wonders whether it makes any difference whether they are actually in a mystical place or are simply forcing the myth's actualization. Such thoughts lead them to question the role myth-making plays in everyday life; ultimately, both deem it to be a useful practice that confers power back upon the individual, giving one the ability to choose his or her individual fate, while at the same time drawing upon the world's shared mythologies.
The back of The Hesperides Tree mentions, somewhat ominously, that it is "quite possibly the last" novel that Mosley will write. Appropriately, one of the characters observes that, "If it's become a business of not being able to put things into words, then what's the point of going on saying this? . . . Writers don't seem able to put what life's like into words." If it is to be his last novel, Mosley's latest is a worthy epilogue to a career that spans fifteen works of fiction and fifty years. The novel's closing words, "Stop talking," are a wonderful conclusion for a writer that has so frequently observed the difficulty in communicating one's thoughts via speech or writing. A fitting finale for such a humanistic artist, The Hesperides Tree investigates the individual's relationship to humankind, munificiently lending a number of possible methods for living both with oneself and the world.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001