Part One: In which Douglas Lain’s debut novel “Billy Moon” introduces alternate realities, and Christopher Robin fails to escape his stuffed animals.
“I’d like to meet Christopher Robin,” my daughter once told me. She was four years old and — as it happened — we were visiting England and within a reasonable drive of Ashdown Forest.
So, we embarked on an expotition, “Sing Hey!”, to the 100 Aker Wood.
Our quest eventually led us to the very bridge where Pooh had invented the game of Pooh-sticks. We tossed sticks over the side of the bridge and rushed to the other side to see which one came out first. It was a wonderful afternoon during which we shared a dream.
In our dream, Christopher Robin never grew up to become a soldier, writer, husband, father; the story-book child was still there, just around Pooh-corner.
I mention this interlude because it was not until reading Lain’s “Billy Moon” that I recalled how much I wanted the dream to become reality that afternoon.
Perhaps this is why I was so captured by the author’s sympathetic and surrealist interpretation of an anxious man grappling with the ambiguity of his own existence. Dreams slip slyly in and out of Christopher’s life, leaving evidence that past, present and future can be folded as easily as paper; rendering both memory and reality questionable — and, honestly, who should know this better than the man who had grown out of the boy, who was himself the stuff of make-believe?
When a real cat becomes a toy, Christopher is mystified and confused, but it is only the beginning. The hallucinations continue, and evidence that the unreal is intruding into his hard-won reality continue to accumulate. He tries to hide the evidence away, but Uncertainty means that he must keep checking on it — an action echoing Eeyore with the balloon that was his birthday present: “taking it out, and putting it back”.
…and meanwhile, a boy in Paris — whose name is Gerrard Hand — experiences a moment of transition, in which memory intrudes on his present. He recalls the stories his father had read to him of Winnie-the-Pooh, that the Forest would always be there for those who were friendly to bears, and so it is that 100 Aker Wood comes to him. The hardwood floor of the Police Museum, where he is on a school excursion, becomes soft mud and he suddenly understands that doing nothing, can also be something. That he could be in both places at once, both the real and the dream, leads Gerrard to derail the authority of the adults around him simply by denying them.
Time continues to be conjugated as Christopher Milne discovers things from his past and future appearing in his present. In this alternate reality, Chris Milne’s child is born a boy with autism, and so now Christopher struggles to connect with his son just as he does with himself. Meanwhile, Gerrard’s dreams and realities begin to infuse each other to the point where the dream Forest is as real for him as the ground on which he walks.
Part Two: In which Christopher Robin meets Gerrard, leads a student riot, borrows a bear, and helps dig a hole into the reality beneath the story.
Gerrard is now seventeen, he has entered university at Nanterre, and found himself in the company of the leaders of the “Situationist International“, but only because of a girl called Natalie, who is on a quest to discover free love through an exploration of Francois Sagan’s novel “Bonjour Tristesse“:
“..to realize it, not only for herself, but for and against the university.”
Seen as a form of “holding pen” to keep down the numbers of unemployed, the university — and Paris itself — becomes a space in which the future waits to be born through the minds of the people occupying it.
Gerrard’s fascination with Natalie drives his involvement with the activists and the impending riots, yet the themes of detachment continue. Gerrard seems aware that he is a character in a novel, while Natalie strives to live her life — and discover free love — by re-enacting the life of a fictional character. Gerrard encourages Natalie to test her reality, and she discovers that she is dreaming.
Lain’s use of story, interwoven with philosophy, history and layered metaphor (Gerrard realizing that he has “derailed” the wrong personal narrative, while he is standing at a metro station, for example), results in a novel that is as spontaneous, sprawling and as revolutionary as the historic events to which it is tied:
“…in France, 10 million workers joined students in rising up against the powers-that-be, turning factories into debating chambers and whole chunks of society upside down for a few surreal weeks. May 1968 became an instant myth and a national watershed.” (1968: A year of revolt around the world.)
Enter the dislocated man, Christopher Robin Milne, who receives a letter written in a dream from a strange and intriguing French correspondent called Gerrard Hand. Christopher unpacks the impossible objects he has collected over the years — the toy cat that had also been a real animal, the poster from the future, a candy wrapper that has no place in his present, an unexplained copy of “Bonjour Tristesse” — and accepts the impossibility of Gerrard’s surreal and accusatory letter; that in order to escape his father’s fiction, “…you’ll have to find him again. The bear is waiting for you.”
Thus, Christopher’s narrative melds into an entirely different one: the Paris riots, where he is swept up by a tide of confrontation, violence, and unrest that resulted in a form of political and social metamorphosis. Gerrard finds Christopher in a jail cell, under the very same police museum where he had confronted the dichotomy of his reality as a child, nursing wounds inflicted by the heavy handed police. Together, they “test reality” — in a haze of sleep deprivation, Christoper by turn leads and accompanies Gerrard as he attempts to find the dreamscape of the Hundred Acre wood, to use both the real and fictional Christopher Robin during a time of crises and upheaval “…as material for another dream.”
Along the way, Gerrard convinces a lonely and confused zoo keeper — still at his post in a city on strike — to release into their care a bear, because “Christopher Robin is an expert in bears.” The borrowed bear, called William, is real yet acts in a fictional way. In a similar way, Christopher Milne uses the fiction of his own childhood as a metaphor for the student uprisings and the spontaneous discovery of their own power. “Paris is the Hundred Acre Wood,” Chris said. “We need to find the North Pole.” And so, the man and his bear, set off on an expotition that leads through dream and impossibility to acceptance, and for Gerrard the possibility that he had not only “derailed” Christopher Robin but “Paris, and from the looks of it the rest of the world”.
Part Three: In which Christopher seeks a route back to normality, Natalie is left with the empty spaces, Gerrard falls through the hole that he made and this reviewer is left with a derailed narrative and a fresh start.
In a tangle of dreamscape, where past and present dovetail and alternative realities collide, Gerrard drowns in his dreams, Natalie fails to save him, and Christopher Milne steps back into the ordered regularity of his life at his bookshop, with his wife and child who have been as altered by the events of 1968 as France has, or perhaps they have become not so much altered as “alternate” since the philosophical dreamscape triggered by Gerrard seems to have made the impossible real.
Due out from Tor Books in August 2013, Douglas Lain’s “Billy Moon” is a strange, meandering mash-up of Philip K. Dick, magic realism, philosophy and history. It is at once confusing, intriguing and informative, and a vehicle with which Douglas Lain occupies your mind with his obsessive — yet seemingly detached — detail.
Lain cleverly leverages historic characters and events, while taking you on a jaunt into the realm of dreams, the underpinning of identity, political and social upheaval, tricks of perception and — with echoes of Jostein Gaarder’s wonderful novel of philosophy and discovery, “Sophie’s World” — an exploration of a multi-layered existence in which “… in order to be realistic you have to accept the impossible.”
Confused? Me too. In the end, I can’t be sure what to make of this novel. I know that I enjoyed it, as one might enjoy a train ride where you can stare out the window, enraptured by the flashing images of passing landscape. I know that I discovered a great deal about a fascinating character, both real and fictional — that of Christopher Robin Milne — and a very important event in the history of social evolution that occurred in 1968 in Paris. I know that I very much appreciate Doug Lain’s invitation to read his novel pre-release as he embarks on his promotional tour, (see below) and I know that I wish him all the very best. Moreover, I know that as a result of reading this book, I now look upon my own “reality” in a very different way.
After all, what are dreams? I now think back on that warm summer afternoon with my little girl and having read “Billy Moon”, I’m filled with a sense that for a very brief time, I really did occupy a space in which, impossibly, both dream and reality were one.
I will also admit that while reading Doug Lain’s novel, my own personal narrative and dreams were in the process of being derailed by choices I had made in the past and a combination of circumstances that I could no longer put away in a box.
I have had to set aside my dreams and I am left with a sense that the person I thought I was has been proven fictional. This is a very strange sensation and something that I am dealing with right now.
So, it seems to me that “Billy Moon” is a timely novel: it is an exploration, a challenge and a metaphor. However, I warn you, if you try to “unpack” it, the book makes sense on some levels and on others, none at all.
“With the Think the Impossible Tour I’m aiming at promoting both my new book and the idea of “the impossible” or of contradiction. Taking my philosophy podcast Diet Soap and my novel Billy Moon on the road I’ll be interviewing Andrew Kliman from the MHI,Margaret Kimberley from the Black Agenda Report, McKenzie Wark author of the Hacker Manifesto, Daniel Coffeen sophist and pop philosopher, and a few others about what, for structural reasons, can’t usually be discussed in a Capitalist society.”
Do I recommend this book? Oh yes, but only if you’re prepared to buckle in for a ride.