In doing so they met the challenge issued a mere eight years earlier by then President John F Kennedy, an accomplishment of such technical and logistical scope that it exceeded even that of the Manhattan Project or the construction of the Panama Canal.
Yet Apollo, as Kennedy promised, was not just “one man going to the Moon”, it was the journey of “an entire nation”. The only question being what would happen to that nation when it fell to Earth?
In This Magnificent Desolation, which takes its title from Aldrin’s description of the lunar surface, Thomas O’Malley articulates the crisis in American society stemming from the future’s failure to live up to its promise.
The novel opens with a boy born deep in the winter of 1972 as the final moonwalkers lope across the Taurus-Littrow Valley. However, the America which Duncan Bright inherits is defined more by the ignominies of Vietnam than by its victories in the Space Race. It is a country in which Apollo, a superpower’s consuming material and imaginative passion for a decade, has vanished almost overnight.
Raised in a Capuchin orphanage in frigid Minnesota, Duncan grows up believing his parents to be dead. At age 10, he sees a television special about the space programme and transforms what he learns into a compulsive fantasy that the astronauts never made it home. Through this, O’Malley merges the Catholic spirituality of the Brothers who raised Duncan with the greatest of 20th century technological achievements and the worst of the boy’s own parental anxieties. The astronauts become “angels” for the young Duncan, beings “lost like his father and unable to come home”. He hears them calling in the night, his ancient transistor relaying “the distinct beeps and clicks of the Apollo radio transmissions, and then the urgent voices of the astronauts, but he cannot make out what they are saying”.
Despite such fancy, O’Malley plays his otherworldly communiqués entirely straight. This Magnificent Desolation is neither a work of magical-realism nor of alternate history. The voices on Duncan’s radio are part of a coping mechanism.
The novel’s unrelenting air of misery persists even when Duncan’s mother Maggie unexpectedly reappears to take him back to San Francisco. It is a change of scene which, after 100 pages in the orphanage, is as jarring for the reader as it is for Duncan. Which is of course exactly as it should be. In California, Duncan sits on a barstool while his alcoholic mother, a failed soprano, sings in a local bar; he rides pillion, literally in the back seat of his own story, while her on-again, off-again boyfriend Joshua “quotes Dante’s Purgatorio aloud to himself in the dark”.
The touching and achingly real bonds which form within this surrogate family provide many of the novel’s best scenes. The emotional sturm und drang of Maggie and Joshua’s lives become, in O’Malley’s second great creative conflation, as darkly fascinating for Duncan as the distant vistas of selenian maria visible from his rooftop perch. To the boy’s eyes it is as though the pair are playing out “a romance from when they were both teenagers and lived in the same neighbourhood”, a remnant of a time when anything seemed possible.
While the lives of the characters may be imperfect, This Magnificent Desolation itself is the opposite, a beautifully structured work pivoting around a re-showing of Frank Borman’s famous Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast from lunar orbit — “God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth” — which occurs exactly halfway through. More than even Armstrong and Aldrin’s landing, Apollo 8’s initial circumlunar flight is a moment in which America seems poised on the cusp of something glorious. Nevertheless, Apollo’s focus on national prestige over scientific endeavour is what inadvertently creates the America which Duncan inhabits. It is a country where everyone is a Space Age Alexander for whom there are no new worlds to conquer.
O’Malley’s 20th century is one where the possibilities have failed to materialise. Instead of the past, the moratorium here is on Duncan’s dreams of a better tomorrow; in place of, say, Clarke and Kubrick’s freewheeling space stations or Roddenberry’s “new life and new civilisations” — both contemporaneous with the early stages of Apollo — the America of this novel is perversely Earthbound, its science and technology stuck at an infuriating level and its dramatis personæ mired in memories of a pointless foreign conflict. The truth of this threatens to break characters such as Joshua, an ex-Green Beret who once believed “in JFK, believed in doing for my country, never mind what my country did for me”.
Joshua’s reward for loyal service is to be “cast into darkness”. Indeed he is left so damaged by his Vietnam experience that he may be incapable of being saved and, in contrast to Duncan’s sad heroes of the sky, he works now on a dangerous tunnelling project beneath San Francisco Bay. Deep below the ground, he and his crew unearth pieces of the past, billboards and bones and the clipped wings of aircraft from World War II, all sunk through the seabed or folded into underlying strata by repeated earthquakes. Though what he is really digging for is a “chance to die”.
O’Malley, who holds an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, favours a dense, lyrical prose which affords primacy to the image over everything else. He expertly contrasts Duncan, Joshua, and Maggie’s tortured interiority with descriptions of the snowy Minnesotan hills and San Francisco’s “humpback city”, with his evident love of landscape making this a powerful realised American novel despite its author having been raised in Ireland and England. Judicious quotation from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal adds further verisimilitude through the signals received by Duncan’s radio.
Not plot heavy, This Magnificent Desolation gathers together its strands and vignettes in an almost impressionistic fashion towards the end. The result is a moving and deeply affecting fiction which calls for engaged, even obsessive reading.
It is a work of great artistic merit but also one of great sadness, and if it has a drawback it is to be found in the self-consciousness by which it tackles its despairs and disappointments. O’Malley’s relentlessness in this regard threatens to overwhelm the reader, let alone the moonstruck characters, yet it does so by design.
After all, how can there be a better tomorrow when one cannot stop thinking about yesterday?