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Mortal Leap - MacDonald Harris i will never be able to say enough about mortal leap: the plot and its turns, the characterization, the relationships, and above all, the intelligence and heart that went into this book. this deeply resonant, erudite and accessible, sadly out-of-print novel is pointedly prefaced by a quote from pascal (pensées, vi:17):

He who loves a person on account of their beauty, does he love the person? No; for the small pox, which kills the beauty without killing the person, will destroy the love. And if one loves me for my judgement, for my memory, does he love me? No; for I may lose those faculties without losing myself. Where, then is this ME, if it is neither in the body nor in the soul; and how love the body or the soul, except for these endowments, which are not what constitute the ME, since they are perishable? For could we love the substance of a person's soul abstractly, and without reference to its qualities? This is impossible, and would be unjust. One never loves the person then, but only the qualities.

it's heavy, i know. there's a lot to think about right there, before he even begins. but what's wonderful about mortal leap is that it's a very contemplative novel, yet it also manages to be witty, and quixotic, fraught, and surprising too, even when i think i know what to expect: the scenes in the solomon islands are very primal, still tying back to the overarching questions. And then there are the sly, off-the-cuff remarks where a doctor brings up bierce, or sweet little returns like the poplars coming back around, a connection that he couldn't shake.

i should say that rod found this treasure and recognized it as a novel so good that it could not languish in obscurity so he began to champion this book. and people began to listen. rod graciously mailed me the book. i read it once, then started again, having ordered a copy off the internet for myself, ready to pass rod's on to another friend (karen next, i think). i read the new copy, the third time through, and stuck sticky notes on what i thought were all crucial passages -- doubling its thickness with curled yellow feathers, that indicated sparks of pure insight, beautifully written passages in a intensely human, haunting and reflective novel.

after the third reading i took to just picking up on a random stickied page, and starting again. the jimmys (hi jimmy!) of the world are shuddering right now, a chill in their bones brought on by my brazen re-readings, my squanderings of time. but what's it all about anyway, right? and mortal leap was so full of thoughts that i wanted to think about, that i began to despair of doing it justice in a review. and yet, it is a grand book, and i think, an important one, and so demands that i give it its due. for we are all flitcrafts and prufrocks, and we know larry backus and ben davenant, inside our beautiful padded cells, these skins containing jumbles. i was preoccupied by the turns in this book, the cleanly written account of the life of a man who takes on another man's life, who remakes himself. the pseudonymous macdonald harris has an extraordinary style: his protagonist is disarming from the first, companionably explaining that he doesn't have any answers to the question "who am i?" but certainly has thought a lot about it. but let him put it plainly:

Who doesn't have a dark place somewhere inside him that comes out sometimes when he's looking in a mirror? Dark and light, we are all made out of shadows like the shapes on a motion-picture screen. A lot of people think that the function of the projector is to throw light onto the screen, just as the function of the story-telling is to stop fooling around and simply tell what happened, but the dark places must be there too, because without the dark places there would be no image and the figure on the screen would not exist. Fine, let's look at the dark places. To do this we have to roll the film back to a previous incarnation of myself: I am twenty-five years old, looking the same as I do now except a little thinner and more cocky, without the scars and the furrow between the eyes. In this somewhat faded photograph I am wearing a dirty cap with gold braid on it, the third engineer of a ship which through a piece of stupidity was sunk in the Solomon Islands in the fall of 1942. It was an event of no particular military or historical importance; a merchant ship had no business being in that part of the world in the first place and that was the year they were getting the gas oven into high gear at Auschwitz. What possible significance can be attached to any individual fate, the things that happen to any single collection of bones, ligaments, reflexes, sensations in a time when six million people were exterminated according to the latest scientific methods? It was not an important agony, looked at objectively. What happened was simple, even banal: I became naked, died, lost parts of my flesh and most of my ego along with a few illusions such as a belief in the uniqueness of my personal scrap of consciousness and the cosmic importance there of, and went from there. All that was left was something inside that I don't know what call -- a soul? Even the theologians don't believe in that anymore. Maybe it's better to believe in ghosts.

that's just the second page. the second page!! it's a classically modelled text: the author states the intentions of the novel quite plainly at the beginning, a precis communicated so companionably, immediately trusting the reader so implicitly, embracing them in an everyman voice that is remarkably real. we are all in this together, he assures us, not just trying to understand the question "who am i?" but also, "to what purpose"? for consciousness can be a trap, and self-awareness only makes us realize that we are stuck inside our own head, alone, undefined, struggling to figure out who the hell we are, what our places are, and what we mean in the grand scheme of things. capital "p" Purpose, plagues us. but for people like our man in the mirror, the protagonist (who really succeeds in shucking his name), that Purpose is easily found, and that's where I found this novel a little hard to accept, and a little too convenient a beam, the bar before the book's eponymous moment. and the purpose he finds, it's not what i am looking for -- i cannot reconcile to it, though i know it is a way that works for others. and so i dwell over the flurry of flagged passages of this book that resonate, trying to figure what i can take away to build on, because so much appeals to me in this thinking, as i continue to look for the answers, for the beam falling, for the bar before the mortal leap -- the description of which i was very tempted to transcribe here (i wanted to transcribe so much!), except that is arguably the zenith of this novel, of the wisdom it relays, and so please seek it out, and read for yourself. :)

** i would love to talk more about mortal leap: maybe i should post a thread in the fiction files, and link to it here, so here's the link: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/902426-mortal-leap-and-other-books-about-identity i tried not to put any spoilers in this review, but i think there are a bazillion in my comments already anyway. you are forewarned!:P