The Moonlit Way by Robert W Chambers
Monday, January 11, 2016
There's good Chambers and bad Chambers and The Moonlit Way (1919) is firmly in the latter camp.
This ponderous and preposterous tale - that of an American artist drawn into a Prussian plot in the early days of World War I - is mostly an excuse for rampant jingoism and patriotic drum-beating. Virtually every other page is given over to a lengthy rant about 'Teutonic conspiracies' and the 'porcine Hun', as well as notes about how Britain fights on the 'side of Christ' and 'pacifism is a type of sexual perversion'. The latter is a lengthy diatribe given by a fictional doctor, so you know it is true.
Garry, our square jawed artist/scion of a rich family, is a typically Chambersian character and is painted by route. Although wealthy, he's committed to his art, and The Moonlit Way begins with him in Paris, pretending to be an impoverished student and enjoying himself immensely. It is there he encounters the dancer Thessalie, a beautiful young noblewoman who is the toast of Europe and the object of many a skeezy lordling's fantasy. Thessalie has been bartered to a French politician by the Teutonic Illuminati, and, when Garry meets her, she's hiding from her future husband.
After some meandering scene-setting (which, to be fair, is more enjoyable than the book's so-called plot), Garry and Thessalie are reunited in New York. Garry is still slumming (with servants) in a shared artist's studio, Thessalie is now starting a new life, pursued by Hunnish Assassins.
Thessalie slowly but steadily entangles Garry (who has no problems) in her plight (which is legitimate, if ridiculous). Garry discovers that the life of an artist is grand, but bringing The American Way, The Redemption of Christ and Good Old Fashioned Fisticuffs to the Hun is even better. The two eventually team up to foil some sort of complicated and unspecified conspiracy involving an Irish cargo ship - which, in the great scheme of things, seems hardly worth the Teutonic investment in pursuing Thessalie for over a decade.
Slightly more interesting is Garry's Pygmalion-style love story with Ducie, the daughter of his studio's landlord. Although nothing to do with the primary plot, and utterly inconceivable in its own special way, it has a folksy romantic charm to it.
If the Notorious Hun is medically, scientifically, philosophically, theologically, and physically crucified by The Moonlit Way, it is worth noting that other races and nations fare little better. The Irish are divided cleanly into 'good' and 'bad' types. The former being melodramatic, inspired, artistic and easily-manipulated, the latter are the same, plus 'drunk'. The few African-American characters are divided into 'loyal' and 'disloyal' (no other personality trait is valued), the one Turkish character is, of course, a conniving villain, and, entertainingly, all Scandinavians are shifty.
Only the French are spared - Thessalie begins as a genuinely interesting character who faces actual moral quandaries. Even though she's casually reduced to a love interest and a damsel in distress, she still shows surprising fire throughout. Renoux, the artist-turned-intelligence-agent has some of the few genuinely clever moments in the book, and is a rather dashing sort of agent. The book presents the type of grotesque racial essentialism that normally appears only in High Fantasy, with all races and nationalities boiled down to a few immutable identifying characteristics.
Chambers' usual talent isn't absent as much as it is sidelined, and, although hiding behind the thick curtains of propagandising, occasionally a bit of it can be glimpsed. For the most part, these vignettes are so rare as to add to complete the overall disaster that is this book - reminders that the author is capable of far better. There's the beautiful prose regard for nature - when, for no reason, Garry, Ducie and Thessalie all decamp to the countryside, Chambers lapses into descriptions of forests, fields and sunsets, and it is unmistakably beautiful.
There are also satirical, but still romanticised, views of the artist's life (including some sly digs at the proto-hipsters of the 1910s), presumably based on Chambers' own experience as an art student. However predictable, there's also a sort of breathless captivation in the romantic moments - there aren't any surprises in either the romances or their conclusion, but Chambers does have a knack for describing what love feels like in a gushy but glorious way. Overall, the moments of high society and social satire - dinner parties, dress-shopping and dancing - are a decided pleasure when set against the spiralling disaster of the overarching plot and the tentacular grasp of the rampaging Hunnish hordes. It is a shame, as Chambers is a far better writer when it comes to social issues and star-crossed lovers than he is as a Kipling-inspired jingoist.
Of course, to judge The Moonlit Way solely as a thriller, or even a romance, is probably to do it a disservice: it is message fiction, and a heavy-handed example at that. Even in an era of yellow journalism, Chambers' stories about German plots - be they the 'hundreds of thousands of spies' in The Moonlit Way or the tunnel through Switzerland in In Secret - are utterly ludicrous, but they served, I suspect their purpose.