Linear time doesn’t exist in Madison Smartt Bell’s new fever dream of a novel Behind the Moon, at least not for long. The fractured narrative centers on a young woman named Julie who falls into a deep Badlands cave while fleeing would-be rapists. In her liminal, un-, or semi-conscious state, she’s able to interact with the prehistoric paintings on the cave walls. Elsewhere, in interspersed sections, her mother—who gave her up for adoption years earlier—is lured to the hospital to which Julie has been transferred and where she remains in a coma. A shady shaman also steps in to help, or to attempt to. The novel works in disordered and mystical ways. It maintains a remarkable ability to surprise.
Bell is likely best known for his trilogy of historic novels about Toussaint L’ouverture and the Haitian revolution and the widely taught craft book Narrative Form: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, but it would be a mistake to snooze on his back catalog titles like Save Me, Joe Louis and Waiting for the End of the World. I find myself going back to his short stories every few weeks, especially those in Zero db and The Barking Man. Over the past three decades, Bell has proven capable of changing direction in his work, but a singular American voice resonates throughout his oeuvre. A. M. Homes has called Behind the Moon “a visceral, full-body primal experience.”
Bell cotaught (with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires) the one and only creative class I took as an undergraduate at Goucher College. In a letter at the end of the semester, he wrote to me, “We’ve already gone over most of these stories pretty thoroughly so I won’t go into them again except to admire your patience for painstaking revisions—much greater than mine as a student (or even now, sometimes).” I’m still an obsessive rewriter. Something I wrote in that class formed, many years later, the basis of my first published story, so to claim that Bell’s guidance and inspiration have been foundational to my own writing life would be a vast understatement. But that’s only part of the reason it was such a joy to exchange emails with him about Behind the Moon near the end of April. Read More