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Serious Moonlight

In "Nocturne," James Attlee goes in search of moonlight - to Japan, New Mexico and London's river Thames.

Book review, March 12, 2011

The price of purity, Calvin Trillin once observed, is purists. There's no pleasure in life, however remote or rare, that a connoisseur won't try to ruin for you. Do you like stilton? The true taste of the cheese is destroyed by air transport. How about Japanese tentacle-porn manga? The golden age of tentacle porn was decades ago. Or consider a pleasure as basic and eternal as moonlight. As it happens, I'm currently admiring a full moon over the rooftops and back alleys visible out my kitchen window, but a new book by the British writer James Attlee informs me that modern urban glare has ruined real moonlight and I'm being suckered by a worthless imitation.

"Nocturne" is the record of Mr. Attlee's personal quest to recapture moonlight in its original, primal form. You wouldn't think this would be all that tough: Just drive out to the country on a cloudless night, take in a few silvery bucolic vistas and then beat it back to civilization before the bars close. But that's not the way of the connoisseur.

Connoisseurs aren't just out to spoil everybody else's fun; they live to make even more absurd difficulties for themselves. Mr. Attlee won't be satisfied until he experiences pure, undiluted moonlight under the most perfect conditions and from the most remote vantages. So he travels all over the world – to a moon festival in Japan, a midnight lunar viewing on the lip of Vesuvius, a new-age moon-observation project in the depths of the New Mexico desert – like a naturalist in search of the ultimate endangered species.

These expeditions prove highly suspenseful. Mr. Attlee's quest is dogged by so much bad luck that it starts to resemble a comedy of errors by way of a Jacques Tati movie. The moon festival gets rained out, the desert sky myst eriously clouds over at the last minute – chapter after chapter, the essence of moonlight remains tantalizingly out of reach. By the end, he is back home in London, trying to hire somebody to take him out onto the Thames after dark, just so he can get one last shot at his goal before he wraps up his book. (Spoiler: It's another flop.)

This is all great fun, even if you can't tell for sure how comic it's meant to be. Mr. Attlee comes off as the soul of gentility, but he's given to spluttering, Daffy-Duck-like rages on, for instance, the subject of NASA. He's livid that a mob of American vulgarians have dared to touch his sacred love-object. He complains that the lunar landings harmed the moon's ecology – but since there's nothing living on the moon, it doesn't have an ecology, and it is hard to know what he's worried about. He is also profoundly revolted that the Apollo crews were so barbaric as to leave garbage behind them on the lunar surface – including their own solid waste. "We should not be surprised," he writes, "that the American astronauts, commissioned to plant their country's flag, should further mark their territory by s–ing on the moon." If they'd only had more class, they would doubtless have postponed their bathroom breaks until they got back to Earth.

Even better is Mr. Attlee's pretense that there's something roguish and intellectually dangerous about his quest. He claims that moonlight isn't just neglected or ignored; it has somehow become taboo. By taking it up, he is supposedly going to earn the enmity of the anti- lunar taste-makers who control modern culture. Moonlight, he writes, "is regarded as off-limits to contemporary writers, too kitsch, debased, and sen ti mental to be worthy of serious consideration." I'm sorry that Mr. Attlee doesn't go into more depth about this all-pervasive ban. I would dearly love to know why writers like Paul Auster ("Moon Palace"), the late Harold Pinter ("Moonlight") or for that matter David Bowie ("Serious Moonlight") didn't get the memo.

So is he serious? Impossible to say, because his natural mode is the grandly self-inflationary. He can barely write about a drive in the Southwest without making it sound like "Heart of Darkness," and his idea for that moonlit boat ride on the Thames is described, sincerely, as an "obsession." (A more accurate word would be "whim.") The style infects the simplest practical questions – like who, exactly, is ponying up the cash for his plane tickets. Mr. Attlee reluctantly makes a single enigmatic reference to a hush-hush "funding body" and then changes the subject as fast as possible – leaving the distinct impression that the answer might be MI5.

All this intrigue is necessary, I'm afraid, to cover up a gaping hole at the center of the narrative. The great secret of connoisseurship has always been that it's not that much fun: You can hardly bring yourself to enjoy the particular hunk of stilton in front of you when you're measuring all the ways it falls short of the Platonic ideal of cheese.

But "Nocturne" hints at a secret even more dire: The ideal itself, assuming you ever attain it, isn't any fun either. There are times in Mr. Attlee's travels when every thing falls into place – the setting and the atmospherics are perfect – and real moonlight is there for the taking. But just at that golden moment, our man loses interest. He gets distracted by peripheral details or starts meandering down tangents about the representation of the moon in art. (On the subject of art, incidentally, Mr. Attlee is quite know l edgeable and entertaining.) The experience of pure moonlight is never described, and the suspicion grows in the reader's mind that there simply wasn't much to say about it. The direct encounter with the grail turned out to be a bore.

Mr. Attlee does come dangerously close to admitting this at the end – it might be the only moment of genuine drama in the book. But he chickens out. Rather than concede that he has been wasting his time and ours on what is basically just an up-market knockoff of "Eat, Pray, Love," he hides the guilty knowledge within a fog of generic uplift: "What have I found at the completion of my journey? Not an ending so much as an ongoing process. With the moon, after all, there are no such things as endings; this seems to have been the point of it, as far as humans were concerned, from the beginning of time."

Oh, please. I hope to God he didn't try to fob this stuff off on that funding body. They would surely have demanded the plane fare back.

This article appeared March 12, 2011, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Noctune: A Journey In Search of Moonlight by James Attlee (Chicago, 309 pages, $26)