No Moon, by Julie Reverb. Washington, D.C.: Calamari Archive, September 2015. 110 pages. $13.00, paper.
We begin No Moon with a paragraph-long chapter. There is no end punctuation. “I will say this only twice,” we are told in the opening line. And in fact, it is already the second time we’ve read this: that line is also the chapter’s title. And so, Reverb’s spiraling, lyric prose takes off, facing us backward as we progress. The narrator presents a series of unknowns: “I don’t know names and how I’ll make them out of letters that exist,” we are told. Later, an open question: “is this tinnitus or an SOS?” The chapter concludes like a poem, the final line resonating and twisting all that came before: “there are back-alley ways of speaking and remembering.” This notion, to be certain, will resonate and twist all that comes next as well.
No Moon, Reverb’s debut novel, is published by Calamari Archive, a fascinating small-press publishing company. Formerly Calamari Press, they dropped “Press” from their name in 2014, explaining on their website that it invoked aggression and the promotion and marketing of books. They shun copyrighting because, as their philosophy, holds “[t]o publish should mean to set free, not restrict.” My interest in Calamari grew after reading this on their website, but it began after reading their books. The work that they have set free into the world includes exciting and innovative fiction with a focus on language. Gary Lutz, Chiara Barzini, and Brandon Hobson are three Calamari authors who tell stories through surprising and artful combinations of words on the page. Their writing serves as reminders of what writing, and what language itself, can do. It should be noted that Calamari has rejected the idea of a mission statement. In lieu of one, their website reiterates a simple statement that they made back in 2010, “Any statement or manifesto about the press is contained in the summation of its books at this time.” Perhaps trying to amass an understanding of this embedded manifesto, I read Reverb’s No Moon. Undoubtedly, before it arrived in the mail, I was holding it up to a standard, expecting the same thing I’ve seen and loved in other Calamari books. This was unfair of me, I know. But No Moon, and Calamari, did not disappoint.
No Moons’s main characters are Billy—a crippled man who dreams of running a porn cinema—and Lucy—a young woman who naively dreams of glamour and becomes his star. In interweaving chapters, we see fragments of Lucy’s past. This begins at the beginning: “As a zygote, Lucy was facsimiled all of her later missed cues.” Growing up, her mother vacillates between two extremes of aggression, either pushing Lucy toward fame by any means possible or else ranting about the difficulty of keeping “her biggest regret alive.” In no time at all, Lucy is inducted into the family business. “My mother and her mother’s mother and the mother before that have all been Sheela na gigs,” Lucy’s mother says. “It’s in our blood what we’re famous for.”
Billy is one of Lucy’s admirers. He’s a man who “stalks through backstreets, grumbling at the mug in the air.” He’s also terribly lonely. “A quiet type. He smudges his hologram self against office workers and adult cinema exiters. He lingers when given his change, thinking of something to say. An astute observation. Weather talk. The latest planning permission. The price of tuna.” Billy’s dead leg drags behind him, as does his own haunted past. Our first view of him, as a child, includes this stunning view into the future: “The boy will grow up to drink, to draw panopticon circles around himself with compass legs.”
The “back-alley ways of speaking and remembering” are recalled again and again: by smoke signals sent through Lucy’s steaming soup, in the hieroglyphics of accounting that her absent father left behind, and in her mother’s ventriloquist’s skill of speaking for her. It is recalled in the actual back alleys of London. Here, Billy tries to print a flyer for the porn cinema (“Fun for all the family,” it reads) before he is told it violates company policy. Here, Lucy is tasked with walking the donkeys they will use in their show. “I’m not the bleedin Virgin Mary,” Lucy says in a rare moment of assertiveness. (But then she wonders desperate with donkeys as if she actually is.) There is a sense of loss and longing for something neither of the characters ever had. Yet there is humor too. Lucy’s nicotine addict mother becomes a human smoke machine used in the cinema. “It’s a farce,” Lucy says at one point. And she might be speaking darkly about her own life.
It is tempting to read No Moon as a series of prose poems or pieces of flash fiction. It is a slim volume, at just over one hundred pages, and the connective thread that holds it all together is, at times, hard to follow. Plus, there is plenty to appreciate on the level of language. But reading the novel as a cohesive whole places these pieces in a far larger framework. There are intriguing parallels to draw between No Moon and Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, another notable debut novel about, among other things, the roles that are cast for us that we must try to fulfill. Not only does Reverb write in a similar winding and powerful prose, she also manages to portray her doomed heroes on an intimate level while simultaneously situating them within the broader context at fault for their fates. Like Zambreno, too, Reverb implicates us in her protagonist’s plight. We are, for Lucy and Billy, a captive audience. We watch as Billy introduces the act and Lucy straps on her skates. And we wait eagerly for the show to reach its inevitable conclusion. Fittingly, it is like the beginning; a single-sentence stream, another back alleyway.
Rebekah Bergman lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, The Nashville Review, Everyday Genius, Necessary Fiction, and others. She holds an MFA in fiction from The New School and is an associate editor of NOON.