book: A Trip to the Stars (2000) by Nicholas Christopher

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A genuinely astonishing piece of work. For much of the time I was reading it I thought it was one for the ages, the best book I’d read this year and perhaps for several years; but a number of niggles built up toward the end, and then finally a true howler meant it was knocked from the pedestal it had come to occupy in my mind. Even so, this long novel represents a splendid achievement.

It’s 1965. Given up for adoption as a baby, orphaned by his adoptive parents and now orphaned by the adoptive grandmother who took him in, young Loren has no one left but his adoptive aunt Alma who, a university student, barely knows him and doesn’t know what to do with this child who’s suddenly her responsibility. While she’s still panicking, she takes him as a birthday treat to a small planetarium. There, among the jostling crowds, he’s snatched from her. It’ll be fifteen years before the pair are reunited.

No, this isn’t a crime novel, although there are crimes a-plenty in it.

Loren, as he soon learns, is really Enzo Samax. His abductors are led by his fabulously rich great-uncle Junius, a polymath and obsessive (who for some reason I imagined throughout as being played by Morgan Freeman). Junius takes Enzo to the Canopus Hotel, a building on the outskirts of Las Vegas that the old man has bought and made his home, where he entertains a changing group of house-guests whose interests are as varied and eccentric as one could imagine. They, and Junius himself, give Enzo the kind of home-schooling one might wish for in one’s wildest dreams. Junius’s — and soon Enzo’s — fascinations are also the novel’s: astronomy, cartography, navigation, arachnology, pomology, planetaria . . .

We spend alternate chapters with Alma who, having renamed herself Mala to get away from her old self, becomes a nurse in the Vietnam War, falls in love with a wounded airman and then, when he disappears, carves out a life that seems never to come together for her and sometimes plumbs the depths of dissolution. Given paranormal powers first by a deliberately induced spider bite and then again, when those have waned, by a spectacular car crash, Mala spends some while as a stage clairvoyant before returning to her own fascinations, with stars, with islands, with observatories . . .

The two lives, Mala’s and Enzo’s, are widely separated, and yet every now and then there are tantalizing overlaps between them, little coincidences that the participants generally don’t notice. Obviously fate will eventually bring Mala and Enzo back together — one of those coincidences is not so little — but, until it does, we’re treated in effect to two novels linked primarily by their shared obsessions.

Chief among those is astronomy. As you may have guessed, most of the non-real-world proper nouns are astronomical terms, mainly star names. The pieces of shrapnel pulled from Mala’s lover in the hospital ship off Vietnam form a constellation, and he incorporates it into an astronomical bracelet for her. When Enzo is given a puppy called Sirius, the star of that name — the Dog Star — seems to have disappeared from the night sky, as if it had come to earth temporarily to be Enzo’s companion. One of Junius’s eccentric guests at the Canopus Hotel believes that Atlantis was destroyed when an asteroid plummeted into the ocean alongside it. There are astronomical links studded throughout the book like, well, stars studded in the night sky.

I’d be hard-pressed to say that A Trip to the Stars is a magic-realist novel, but it certainly contains a healthy dash of magic realism and there’s a sort of magic-realist sense throughout it, even during the straightforwardly mimetic sections. This air of imagination is one of the reasons why I found the novel so infernally readable: even the most mundane things were given a sense of wonder.

At the same time, I didn’t find A Trip to the Stars a quick read — quite the opposite. It’s a longer book than the page-count might suggest (biggish pages, smallish print), but what slowed my progress was really that I found it impossible to skim passages. The pages are so full of images and thoughts (I was going to say “ideas,” which would have been true, too, but less to the point) that I needed to follow every word to properly absorb them. At one stage I said to my wife, “I’m finding this book quite hard work.” She said, “Why not give up on it, then?” I had to explain to her that the hard work was one of the reasons I was enjoying the book so much, was finding it so very rewarding.

But then there were those niggles. Some are tiny: except in one instance, where he gets it right, the author gives taxonomic names as Genus Species rather than Genus species, which probably wouldn’t bother most people but irritated me as if it were a recurring spelling error. Some are less so: up to about page 300 the nuts and bolts of the writing are pretty impeccable, with only a couple of tiny flaws that I assumed were merely proofing oopsies, but thereafter things get a bit sloppier, the odd little grammatical errors more frequent, as if the copyeditor had been told to get a move on, don’t you know we have a deadline to meet?

And then there’s that howler I mentioned, which came close to bringing the whole edifice of the novel tumbling down for me — like a sudden bum note two minutes from the end can wreck a whole symphony. An astronaut among the cast is going to be part of NASA’s first manned expedition to the far side of the moon, and

The only natural source of illumination on the far side is starlight . . . [page 458 of the Dial Press first edition]

Huh? The following paragraph digs the hole deeper, with technical details of the conditions that might pertain if this were in fact true. But of course it isn’t. Presumably influenced by Pink Floyd, the author seems to think the moon has a dark side, which it obviously doesn’t. The area of the lunar surface that we don’t see gets (give or take) exactly as much sunlight during the month as the part that faces earth.

This schoolboy error, coming just forty pages from the end, made me reassess everything that had come before. Magic realism works because of the “realism” part, the foundation upon which the magic flourishes. I was fairly certain there hadn’t been any similar ghastlinesses in the other bits of astronomy thrown into the text, and was to a lesser extent confident about the cartography, but what about the arachnology? The pomology?

So I came away from A Trip to the Stars seeing it as a flawed masterpiece. On the other hand, even flawed masterpieces are fairly few and far between in our age of corporate fiction, so we should be grateful for them.

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