The cover design. The blurb by Colum McCann. There was no way I was not reading this book. And sometimes that kind of prejudice will lead you into a piece of literary heaven.
It is rare to read as deeply moving a novel as this. Some books just give you a certain feeling. Even though the book might be heartbreaking, the feeling it gives you is not a bad one. I liked being in the book, being a part of the events. The language so poetic, so grand, I just wanted to reread the sentences over and over.
Aged ten, Duncan “wakes” to life, with no recollection of his life spent at the catholic orphanage in the Mid-West. His insomniac nights are spent freezing next to the fireplace in the company of Father Tobin, or curled up frozen on his bed with the static of a broken radio to console him. Through the static Duncan hears the voices of the astronauts who he believes never made it back to earth. Along with his father, mother and the angels, they’re all there in heaven.
When Duncan’s mother Maggie comes to reclaim him, Duncan’s world is turned upside down. As his only memento of the orphanage, Duncan brings the broken radio along to his new life in the San Francisco sun. His mother tells him that she only left him at the orphanage when he was six, and she’s surprised he doesn’t remember his childhood with her. The pictures in her room trigger no recollection in Duncan. As Duncan settles into his new life, the blank where his father should have been eats at him. But his mother refuses to tell him who, or where, his father is.
Maggie has heartbreaks of her own. She works at the cancer ward, seeing dying patients every day. One night a week she sings at the local pub, with a voice that was once the best voice of her generation, but is now all but gone. Often a bottle accompanies her to bed, sometimes alongside her childhood friend Joshua, a Vietnam war veteran with his own demons.
Duncan loves Joshua, even though Maggie tells him Joshua was never the same after the war. Joshua sees angels and indulges Duncan’s ideas about the dead astronauts. In his mothers’ absence, Joshua becomes a pillar in Duncan’s life, and for a while the threesome play at being a happy family.
Imagination and stories are important motifs in the novel. Father Tobin tells Duncan “a” story of how Duncan came to the orphanage. For lack of the “real” story, he tells him “a” story. And Duncan reflects: “…then there are words, the rounded, fluid, liquid feel of them pouring from his mouth and creating something out of nothing – he trusts in their precision and in the objects they create. He trusts in their imperviousness, and, once uttered, their irrevocable destiny” (p.22). Duncan often sees things he cannot possibly see – the astronauts, his mother’s face in the moon, Joshua in the tunnels where he works. As a parallel, Joshua’s angel spotting seem to suggest that this is a coping mechanism, but one which might not necessarily healthy.
Echoing Buzz Aldrin’s words and then book Magnificent Desolation, some of the themes in the novel are already hinted at in the title. Duncan is obsessed with the moon landing. He seems to connect the absence of his father to the idea that Buzz Aldrin and Armstrong never returned to earth. And there is a sense that he himself can never return “home” to the orphanage.
This is a novel about grief, loneliness, hopelessness. About magnificent desolation. In the course of reading the novel we get to experience the landscape of that desolation, which stretches on and on and on. And Duncan cannot change it.
This Magnificent Desolation is truly poetic, truly grand, truly magnificent. And absolutely heartbreaking, as one of my customers said.