They say that funerals are for the living. Similarly, the ghosts that haunt Angela Meyer’s second novel exist in the same way – revived as they’re remembered by the living. Meyer’s ghosts are famed, glittering figures from history – David Bowie, Marlene Dietrich – alongside inventors and philosophers, whose work and ideas coalesce in the background of Moon Sugar.
The book begins with death, although as a whole Moon Sugar is radiantly life-affirming. On a trip to Europe, free-spirited Josh disappears in Berlin. Although no body is found, his family receives a suicide note via text, which is enough to shut down any potential investigation. But it’s not enough to quell the curiosity of his best friend, Kyle, or one of his lovers, Mila. Desperate to know the truth about the last moments of the man both desired to know better, Kyle and Mila independently journey to Berlin, where they meet, and start to piece together Josh’s final days. Their search brings more questions than it answers, about Josh and about the mysterious experiment he and Mila had participated in together some months before he left.
Meyer writes in a sort of literary surrealist hybrid, obviously troubled by the fate of humanity and the world itself. Thematically and stylistically her work echoes books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks – all of these works employing a more flexible, non-linear narrative framework than straightforward realism to grapple with the challenges of the future. But Moon Sugar is deeply concerned with the events of the very recent past – with isolation, the pandemic, and the climate crisis – and the way these mirror events from the deeper past. Are we, as humans, unable to escape the cycle of wanton destruction and greedy capitalism that is turning our attention so far away from the things that really matter?
The “experiment” that Mila and Josh took part in is an extension of the novel’s prologue; an untethered scene in which an ageing astronaut (a nod to Major Tom?) contemplates his own mortality and the thought of his daughter growing up alone. He is surrounded by a mysterious rust-coloured lichen and hints to magic tricks that he will show his daughter. There are many hints that magic exists throughout the novel, which Meyer presents as both power and parlour trick but equally as giving hope and potential. It is a form of truth-telling and the capacity to know and (somewhat) to enact change. Perhaps it’s undeservingly optimistic to suggest that humans might wield such power unselfishly, but Moon Sugar remains defiantly hopeful even when grappling with grief and collapse.
At one point, Josh remembers “something he heard about taking drugs, that sometimes it’s like a zipper opening and that if you keep trying to pull up the zipper you’ll have a terrible trip but if you just let the zipper open and accept whatever spills out you will have a good time”. The drugs, the magic, are incidental, portals to a version of truth. The power of this novel comes from Meyer’s capacity to imagine so expansively beyond the limits of our current existence. Queerness and desire are part of this, bringing a fluidity to the narrative that allows it to morph as it goes, and working against standard binaries and conventional expectations across character, form and genre.
Josh, Mila and Kyle – despite perhaps being unlikely to ever meet outside the novel’s construct – show a willingness to step into uncertainty. For Mila and Josh this is easier – they’ve already demonstrated their willingness to experiment, to explore the possibilities of their desires. For Kyle, written as a more anxious, straight character, embracing change is much harder. And yet, when confronted with power beyond the scope of his imagination, Kyle reflects on how frustrating it is to watch films in which “people take too long to believe in something supernatural. […] If he chooses to go along with it, he can get straight to the ‘what do we do?’ part.” There’s certainly something to be said for getting on with things, rather than sitting around freaking out while the house is on fire.
Coupled with these lofty ambitions is Meyer’s obvious skill as a storyteller and her genuine passion for genre fiction. In her previous works – her debut novel A Superior Spectre, as well as her novellas and flash fiction – her willingness to combine intellect with experiment has stood Meyer apart from more conventional literary writers. And in Moon Sugar, she draws on the best elements of genre – the thrill of crime fiction, the possibilities of sci-fi, the wonder of fantasy – to create something that is playful and decadent.
Moon Sugar by Angela Meyer is published by Transit Lounge in Australia ($29.99)