Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 30, 2022

Moon Sugar, by Angela Meyer

Moon Sugar is the latest release from Melbourne author Angela Meyer.  Following her debut flash fiction collection Captives (2014, see my review), came her first novel, the award-winning A Superior Spectre (2018, see my review).  Like A Superior Spectre, Moon Sugar is a genre-bending novel, and it shares some of the same preoccupations, venturing into a frightening future that might not be within our control.  The new novel further develops Angela’s interest in masculinity, gender and neuroscience, but in the wake of pandemic lockdowns it also explores the precariousness of modern life under the corrupting power of late capitalism.

In negotiations about knowledge-sharing, Meyer depicts the billionaire’s natural inclination for profit in competition with balancing those opportunities with the greater good.

[Mila] thinks about those studies that Kyle mentioned, about how power causes psychological corruption.  ‘How do you decide what good is? In beating your competitors to market, don’t you sometimes suppress ideas that could be even more helpful?  Or more affordable? (p.208)

The central character is Mila, 40, financially vulnerable and single not by choice.  Coming on top of getting into (HECS) debt with various arts degrees. the disruption caused by the pandemic has hit her finances hard.  She’s a fitness instructor who had to pivot her classes online, and now she has a dwindling $11,000 in the bank, and a 2008 Mazda. At an age when most of the previous generation were secure in home ownership, she’s renting, and like too many in the modern economy, she knows that homelessness beckons if she can’t make the rent.  (There are parents as a potential backup, but her relationship with them isn’t great.) The biological clock is ticking, but a hopeful relationship with Scott failed.  He was the one she’d hoped would bring the comfort of intimacy and the longed-for child. She turns to an online dating app with a difference.  SugarMeetMe connects young male sex workers with older women, and that’s how she meets Josh.

Though she struggles to pay for it, Mila enjoys the transactional sex and paid commitment to meeting her needs but this relationship seems to be developing into more than that. And her finances improve when she joins Josh in some confidential medical research — they get paid for it by people she recognises as egoists with a God-complex.

This is how the world is increasingly run: cashed-up idealists who are in too much of a rush to properly consider any long-term projects, wanting to be heroes of the people in the moment, be the first and best. (p.129)

Shortly after this, however, Josh goes missing while on a trip to Europe, just before he’s due to meet up with his best mate Kyle. The authorities write it off as a suicide, and that sets Kyle and Mila off to Europe as amateur sleuths who try to track down his movements, hack into his apps and question his contacts.

However…

These familiar elements of a crime novel (incompetent, disinterested police; wily amateurs) are offset by an introductory SF chapter which lurks in the back of the reader’s mind. Set 24 years ago, it features John, an astronaut covertly researching a mysterious lichen.  It had been accidentally irradiated while he and his partner Rick were on a mission, distracted from their safety checks by competitive games to impress Sally back at ground control. Back on earth, the lichen has unexpected effects not entirely benign:

The lichen at least helped him understand the way Sally, he, his daughter, even Rick were all connected and continuing atoms and gases, infinite universes opening out from each moment.  And yet, he still has to cope with being here, now, without her corporeal form. (p.3)

***

While Josh, absent for most of the novel, is comfortable with his identity, both Kyle and Mila lack confidence in who they are.  Despite her given name being Ludmila, Mila isn’t certain about her ethnic heritage: her mother is evasive about whether her grandmother was Slovak, Polish, or Czech, while her father was a run-of-the-mill ten-pound Pom.  Her identity as an intellectual is fluid too…

In her twenties, she didn’t just want to connect with someone of depth and mystery like Kafka, she had wanted to be Kafka, the brilliant one. But…

In her thirties she realised it was perhaps better to accept she was Max Brod — to recognise and foster potential in others.  She wonders now if she is neither; if she is more like one of Kafka’s flailing characters: hungry, misrepresenting herself, running up against walls. (p.73)

But with Josh, she feels as if she’s in a sublimely unstructured new phase.

Her lack of future-planning and regimentation.  The control will come back now, though, when he’s gone. Won’t it?  She shouldn’t let it.  She is new.  She is a phoenix.  She may not be a mother, a spouse or a home-owner or successful businessperson, but she is a lover. It’s an identity she can own, even just inside herself. (p.135)

With a nod to the love triangle of a romance novel, Meyer develops the affection between Kyle and Mila.  Younger than her, Kyle is a really nice guy who suppresses his own needs in order to be kind to others.  He recognises that this is a part of his identity which makes him always a ‘sidebar’:

… never destined to be Batman.  He suspected as much.  Someone has to be Robin.  And in a way he already has been — the shorter, cardigan-clad companion to the tall, bright and queer superhero Josh. (p.142)

As well as this and other pop references (‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Call of Duty’ and the ‘yes men’ in The Simpsons), Moon Sugar also features allusions to European folklore about a witch queen called Libussa, and works of literature and artworks.  Mila reads Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and marvels at herself because she did not fall apart at the end of the relationship with Scott. Kyle receives a gift of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea not long after he viewed an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust. Mila makes a literary pilgrimage to Kafka’s meeting place with his friend and biographer Max Brod. Seeking to connect with the absent Josh by visiting places he’s been, Mila and Kyle visit a Berlin museum where Kyle is drawn to the romanticism of Gustave Courbet’s Die Welle, Nature reflecting the turmoils of the human heart. 

At the Pergamon on Museum Island, he ponders the transience of modern life:

In the museum’s cool interior, his breaths come short and sharp.  He looks at the Pergamon bodies twisted in marble, ancient: Apollo, Zeus, Athena… his friend’s body frozen in its beauty on a digital cloud.  Not one that will last as long as this.  How can Kyle commit him to time? To sculpt him, to paint him? He has none of those skills.  Other people knew Josh only in fragments, Except maybe Mila, he will admit, despite the brevity — and circumstances — of their relationship.  (p.107)

It is when Mila is contemplating David Friedrich’s Arbet im Eichwald that she experiences her first visual hallucination and an intimation that she has some curious new power…

Moon Sugar has already been widely reviewed, at The Guardian, at Readings, at The Canberra Times  at CassMoriarty.com and ArtsHub, as well as other paywalled sites.  These reviews mostly focus more than I have on the mystic elements and the issue of post-Covid damage to intimacy.  I think Moon Sugar is less interested in the recent past than in the precarious and morally dubious political and economic future.

Author: Angela Meyer
Title: Moon Sugar
Cover design by Josh Durham, Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9780648414056, pbk., 243 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Responses

  1. I’ve just finished reading this so will come back to read your review after I’ve reviewed it myself.

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    • Can’t wait to see what you think!

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  2. I have this too so will come back … when I get to it.

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    • Is it one of your book group choices?

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      • No, a review copy sent to me but you know, I have so many to get through.

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        • Ah well, it’s a good thing to have reviews spread out a bit!

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          • With me they usually are … and the publicists and publishers seem to find it ok, though occasionally some don’t send me a book if I say it will be months. Fair enough too!

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