But Cynthia, as morbidly realistic as she is quick-witted,
understands the meager gains to be had from the job: in a society
that doesn't reward smart, independent women in proportion to
their intelligence, a clear line will always separate her from
the astronomers (all men, of course) who get the real security
and glory to be had from searching the skies diligently for new
Unless, of course, she happens to fall in love with one of
It's not a likely match between the 'middle-aged' widow and
Hugh Allison, the handsome, twenty-seven-year-old Harvard graduate
who seems more interested in esoteric theories than in straight
science. But then, they're both iconoclasts, in their own ways,
and they're equally driven by abiding fears about the future.
For Cynthia, the reason is simple: she's scared of going through
life impoverished. Hugh's fear is decidedly more complicated--and
resoundingly modern. He rejects the older astronomers' notion
that immortal glory is to be had in new scientific discoveries,
telling Cynthia that "I suspect a comet is the most awful
collection of debris. It may look like a gas lamp over there,
but that's just the light it takes from the Sun." Far from
telling us something important in their hurtling, crisscrossing
circles, the planets and the stars merely mimic our own equally
blind and meaningless spinnings. But if the astronomers are ambitiously
pursuing something that amounts to nothing but dust and ashes,
that brings poor agnostic Hugh up against...that's right, dear
reader: meaninglessness and the existentialist's dark abyss.
Hugh is scared, in short, of being forever lost and forgotten
in a world that bounces darkly, willy-nilly, on.
Of course, most of us who hover over the abyss merely close
our eyes and tremble. But not Hugh. With a fervor accelerated
by an apparent malaria infection (the Observatory lies in a mosquito-infested
swamp), he dreams up a scheme to use a powerful, French-made
aplanatic-mirror projector to cast his (and Cynthia's) reflected
images into deep space, where they will, in Hugh's fevered imagination,
experience the best immortality we can find in this dark world.
Naturally, no love story--especially a good old-fashioned
one in which the lovers struggle so mightily against heartless
fate--is complete without a villain, and in Two Moons,
he takes the form of Roscoe Conkling, a real-life U.S senator
popularly known around Washington as the War God for his manly
physique and his love for fights, political or otherwise. But
like everyone else in Two Moons, he's worried about his
future. As a Republican who had been close to the Grant administration,
he's finding his power and influence on the wane, but he's not
one to walk away from a challenge--including the amorous conquest
of difficult, independent women like Cynthia May. But it isn't
mere sexual attraction that drives him to Cynthia. "She
was fighting her way toward some new kind of life," Mallon
writes, "and [Conkling] yearned...to have her provoke a
revitalization in him as well." Cynthia--playing Venus to
Conkling's Mars--finds him repulsive, but when she realizes his
power over the Custom House will help Hugh get his projector
into the country without paying impossibly high import duties,
she gives in to his advances. But endeavoring to outsmart a War
God is kind of like the story about the mouse who ties a bell
around the cat's neck: your only hope lies in his staying asleep,
and you never know when he's going to wake up and realize what's
Moons is that rare achievement, an historical novel
that so completely transcends its genre that even readers who
shirk historical subjects will find it makes for addictive reading.
But it's not a mere speed trick--a writer's gimmick--that propels
readers through the novel. Mallon writes in a patient voice whose
expectation of our extended attention is commiserate with his
historical subject. His sentence structure, the length of his
chapters and the casual, unhurried pace with which he unfolds
his carefully layered story matches up wonderfully with a past
era's slower pace. Readers today might find themselves admiring
a contemporary writer's quick, throwaway wit or speed (as if
novels were in competition with action flicks), but they rarely
get to enjoy the sort of layered complexities in which Mallon
works so well.
Much of the credit for Two Moons's success must lie,
of course, with Mallon's skills in creating strong characters
whose plights move us emotionally. But he is equally skilled
at making his characters' long-lost world come alive to modern
readers (an indispensable skill for an historical novelist, of
course). Some of this historical evocation comes from strong
research being used in the obvious ways--through extended city
descriptions, clothing descriptions, etc. But Mallon is often
far more subtle, and it shows his talent at imagining his characters
in a fully articulated (if historically distant) world. One of
the better--if small--examples of this comes in a seemingly idle
discussion among the astronomers about the prospect of the city
being lit by electric lamps:
"Allison," said Henry Paul. "Think of a whole
city, every single house shining with its own electric lights,
tens of thousands of them."
"We'd have even more trouble seeing than we do now,"
said Harkness, imagining the astronomers done out of their nights.
"But think how much work everyone else would accomplish,"
offered Henry Paul.
"I don't know," murmured the commodore. "I'd
miss blowing out my lamp."
The commodore's 'murmured' line--said, it seems, almost to
himself--is a particularly neat writer's trick, and it gives
us a good indication of Mallon's subtle, deceptively complex
skills. Henry Paul and Harkness's lines serve a straightforward
function, sketching quite easily the awe we today could easily
imagine nineteenth century individuals feeling at the prospect
of widespread electricity. But the commodore's line is another
sort of beast altogether: by letting the commodore express a
wistful love of an antiquated habit, we for the first time understand
what such a forgotten daily task might have felt like to someone
who had performed that task all his life and isn't so sure he
wants to lose a part of himself in the name of progress. And
yet look at how little space Mallon gives to the commodore's
aside--that he manages to pack such a complex idea into such
little space is indicative of intelligent, fully conscious writing
on a rarified level, indeed.
This leads us to what is possibly Mallon's most important
skill as a novelist: he knows--in a very real sense--what he
is up to thematically, and he manages to make virtually every
sentence serve a higher thematic purpose. And this, I think,
is as good a definition of a mature novelist as any. As a novelist
who understands and respects all aspects of his art, he is exemplary,
and Two Moons shows him at his best.