Of his longer fictions, Roland in Moonlight is the strangest, and the most accomplished. It builds off a series of columns Hart began to write during the middle of the previous decade, in which he has a long series of conversations—about cognition, about the Beatles, about the ontological primacy of spirit—with his dog, Roland. “Novel” is not really the right word for the book. Although it loosely follows some storylines—Roland’s discovery of texts by Hart’s pagan uncle Aloysius; Hart’s struggle with near-fatal illness; the gradual revelation that all human evolution has been guided by dogs—its main interest is in the development of ideas and characters through talk. It becomes an extended argument against philosophical materialism, prosecuted, successfully, by Roland, who must often pause to explain his more startling apothegms to his slower-witted companion. Near the end, Roland enjoins Hart to continue to “believe all of it,” and Hart agrees that he cannot “relinquish any dimension of anything that I find appealing or admirable” from all the world’s religions.
Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) retells the story of the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. I found it entertaining and clever in many places, and illuminating in the way that it fits so many of Hart’s spiritual and intellectual concerns into a single framework. A young boy, Michael, living on a world called Kenogaia, is entrusted by his father with a secret: there is a new object in the sky, headed to earth. (This, according to the theopolitics of Kenogaia, is impossible, and, worse, illegal.) Not long after this, his father is arrested by a pack of lycanthropic civil servants. With his friend Laura, Michael must find the extraterrestrial vessel when it lands—for it carries Oriens, the prince of the universe, who has come to this rather mechanical world to overturn it. To do so, Oriens must, with Michael and Laura’s help, find his sister, who has been kidnapped by a demiurgic sorcerer and forced to dream Kenogaia into existence. The religious system of Kenogaia resembles those varieties of orthodox Christianity that Hart rejects. For example, people are kept in line by the threat of an eternal hell. Departing from the spiritual elitism of some Gnostic writers, Hart makes it clear that none of his characters are “merely” physical: everyone we have met throughout the novel, it turns out, is a spark of the divine, including several distinctly dislikable characters. Reading the book gives one a powerful sense of how “gnosticism” and “love of this world and its creatures” hang together for Hart.
Will these books interest readers who aren’t otherwise concerned with Hart’s worldview? Roland in Moonlight is too strange, entertains too many important questions, and is written with too palpable a love for Hart’s family and his dog not to command the attention of philosophically inclined readers. Some readers will dislike the book’s whimsicality and excesses, but Roland’s digressions on the mind-cosmos relationship make these a small price to pay. There is craft, even genius, in the pacing of the early chapters, the way Hart leads the reader, by hints and coincidences, into a world where fairies exist and dogs talk. The opening chapters of Kenogaia, too, are pleasantly haunted, in the manner of children’s fantasy from the sixties and seventies, when authors were less afraid of giving children nightmares.
It isn’t only Hart’s view of the world that has been consistent. It’s also his style. Clause follows clause like the folds in a voluminous garment, every noun set off by beguiling and unusual modifiers (plus some of his old favorites, like “beguiling”). In one way, at least, he is the least American of writers, in that adjectives and adverbs do not give him that twinge of guilt that so many of us have picked up from Hemingway and Twain, the suspicion that we are using them to distract the reader from our failure to describe some particular action or detail—some verb or noun—precisely enough. Even here, Hart’s style is consistent with his theology. Being is expressed as fully in its train of effects, its little ripples and frills, the words that rise to consciousness long after it passes by us, as anywhere else. There is no Realer Real hiding in bare nouns and verbs behind the scrim of our perceptions and feelings. This is, if I’ve understood it correctly, one of several arguments he makes in The Beauty of the Infinite. So the writer may as well use whatever comes to hand. And ornateness is just Hart’s mode, anyway; one might as well fault Kraftwerk for using computers.
Both books—indeed all of Hart’s fictions—are overlong. Even in “The Devil and Pierre Gernet,” the most perfectly shaped of his stories, the ending arrives only after one has grown restive and fidgety. Like the devil in that story, Hart can’t stop talking. In Kenogaia, as in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the diffuseness of the ending, driven perhaps by the need to balance out all of the author’s allegorical accounts, robs it of much of its emotional impact. Roland in Moonlight depends less on dramatic structure, but I still could have used about a hundred fewer pages of it.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.