“Untying the Moon,” by Ellen Malphrus

Ellen Malphrus

Ellen Malphrus

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

It’s been four decades since Harold Bloom published The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom’s theory is that creative writers are hindered in their work because they maintain ambiguous relationships with precursor writers. He’s enlarged his theory these days by referencing precursor writers as “daemons.”

I mention this because in his foreword to Ellen Malphrus’s first novel, Pat Conroy notes they were both students of the late James Dickey: “Though Ellen is younger than I am, we both consider ourselves Dickey-shaped and Dickey-transformed and there are echoes of his magisterial world in all that we write.”

That seems to me to be a bit like strutting, a preening of pedigree feathers. Maybe so; Dickey was hugely gifted and a reigning influence, but I suspect that to consider one’s self Dickey-shaped or Dickey-transformed is to argue that the best of one’s talent is understood as evidence of Bloom’s theory, that ambiguous relationship with precursor writers, anxiety.

A Dickey-daemon, in other words, and a wish on the part of a writer for Dickey-deliverance—puns intended.

Malphrus’s novel can quite frankly stand on its own without any obeisance to Dickey. She’s in full control of her craft, offering the reader a sound story, told by a voice poetically clear.

There are two matters to be discussed here first of all.

No damage is done to the novel by depicting its features and peculiarities by the term “local color.” Bailey Martin’s boundaries are set early in her life, what the first chapter calls “High Tide and High Time.” She’s in New York when the novel begins but doesn’t “belong there.”

The boundaries are geographical but also cultural: In past high tides and high times, there’s her life’s 1962 self-conscious beginning in the far northwestern precincts of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula, bookended by a more contemporary high tide and high time in the South Carolina Low Country, that cultural region along South Carolina’s Atlantic, the sea islands. It’s swampy marsh country, sand hills and tidal estuaries and buildings constructed of timber and set on pilings, open breezeways and family loyalties which like the tides pull and strain. Malphrus’s novel is rich with cultural and geographical details which serve not only as setting but as subliminal character. The water is always there, as are the tides. The novel begins and ends on the same river which Pat Conroy notes, in the novel’s “Foreword,” forms a “perfect coda,” completing Bailey’s “restless journey.”

The second matter, then, is the structural role water plays since Bailey is a “water lover.”   Because the novel begins and ends on the same river, there’s a suggestion Bailey cannot live away from a river or an ocean. Her aquatic spirit wilts if she is away from those water sources too long. Sprite-like, she can live best on the margins of water and land. Dolphins haunt her memory and her imagination.

Having noted that, Malphrus’s novel follows intrepid woman Bailey’s disconnect from home and “belongingness”; her life becomes restlessly kaleidoscopic when the novel becomes “an on the road” car trip lest she become bogged down. Her kinetic “drive,” furthermore, both physical and metaphysical, underscores Bailey’s romanticism; her appetites are large and signify a constant desire for something more, as is the case with any character whose existential essence is to open herself to the world, untying the moon.

An appetite, however, can be precursor to dangerous if not fatal attractions; it’s Bailey’s romantic sublime both in her painting and in her living that connects her with strong sensations and attractions and commitment to environmentalism.   Life without its deepest shine is a life not worth living and she aims to achieve a life of ardor. The first half of the book, more or less, chronicles, then, a quixotic wanderlust.

She drives the coast of Maine and other parts of the country with a head-long pace which asserts the primal rawness of her appetites. The action flows onward in language liquid in essence until the novel presents us with Bailey’s love story. If her psychological tendencies at the novel’s beginning suggest an extroverted rush toward self-destruction, so, too, does her choice in men. Padgett Turner is a Vietnam veteran who has yet to find a way to cleanse his nightmares. Bailey becomes surrogate mother to Turner’s child.

Turner may seem a perfect match for Bailey Martin but in constructing their relationship what Turner has swept under the carpet of his own past emerges when his memories provoke depression and his temper erupts, darkly and deeply. His war experience has led to loneliness and alienation and even a complete hatred of himself.

Bailey’s childhood friend, Ben Simmons, whose appetites and needs are less raw and primal than her own, cautiously sounds warnings but Bailey’s extroversion has led her to believe that her love for Turner is the home at the end of the road.

She’s wrong.

High Time becomes 1989; traffic is crawling on the roads leading out of Charleston. The hurricane that has been Bailey’s life is now a Category Four bearing down on Charleston. Bailey takes Ben’s hand, “not like the hand of a brother but as the hand of man, and they make their way through the darkness together, Bailey and Ben, pulses swelling in the unearthly eye of the storm.”

Life settles after Hurricane Hugo and two days before Christmas “a winter storm spreads a soft layer of snow across the Lowcountry.”

What follows in the remaining pages are series of poignant sentences in rapidly shifting High Time vignettes:

       “Some people live their entire lives without marvels.”

“Desire leaves long trails in a bygone heart.”

And this note:

“Mariel Asherah Martin is born 11:36 A. M. on the twenty-first of June, 1990 . . . surrounded by water.”

There are still “Further Reaches” in Untying the Moon, another High Time, June 1993. One wonders, however, whether an untied moon would not drift too close to earth and too close to earth higher tides than usual, overflowing and unbinding, washing away a much more suggestive conclusion to an otherwise masterful first novel:

       “. . . but she [Bailey] is still becoming. Let her.”

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