An Answer from Limbo

by Brian Moore
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

In An Answer from Limbo, Brendan Tierney, a thirty-year-old Irishman who has emigrated to New York City, is supporting himself, his wife, and their two bratty children by working for a magazine while also trying to write his first novel. Moved to competitive action by a younger friend’s announcement that his own novel will soon be published, Brendan hits on what he regards as a great solution to speeding his creative career: He brings his mother from Belfast to look after the children, encourages his wife, Jane, to take a job, quits his own, and devotes himself unreservedly to his novel.

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Brendan’s maneuvers prove as simplistic as they are selfish. Mother Tierney turns out not to be the simple, stalwart person she appears to be. Her dreams and fantasies reveal a troubled heart and mind as she, with her unquestioning Catholic faith, comes to live among pagans as an unpaid, overworked servant, made to feel like an exploited intruder. Jane Tierney looks on religion as a vulgar superstition while employing psychoanalytic jargon as her dogma. Hers is a spiritual emptiness that she seeks to fill by having a humiliating affair with the office creep.

As for Brendan, his ruthless ambition to become a successful writer—rich, socially prominent, sexually magnetic—permits him to rationalize his sacrifice of his family to his work; he is certain that he is offering himself on the altar of art, as such authors as Gustave Flaubert and Thomas Mann have done. When he tells his mother that he has made art his religion, she only laughs at him. Moore is careful not to inform the reader whether or not Brendan has literary talent, saying only that a publisher does accept his novel. Brendan refuses to acknowledge his responsibility for the circumstances of his mother’s death (she suffers a broken hip and a stroke and experiences two days of agonizing pain in an impersonal, unfeeling environment). At her funeral, he has an unusual crisis of self-understanding:Is my belief in my talent any less of an act of superstitious faith than my mother’s belief in the power of indulgences? And, as for the ethics of my creed, how do I know that my talent justifies the sacrifices I have asked of others in its name?

On the book’s final pages, Brendan admits to himself that more powerful than his grief over his mother’s death is his author’s drive to observe the graveside scene carefully so he can write about it someday. He confesses, “I have altered beyond all self-recognition. I have lost and sacrificed myself.”

An Answer from Limbo is Moore’s most disturbing as well as one of his finest novels. The book is about cultural alienation, as Mrs. Tierney finds herself uprooted from her Irish Catholic norms in the secular wasteland of North America. It is about the emotional limbo in which Jane is cast, as she realizes that her husband and children do not love her, nor she them. It is, above all, about the consequences of a dehumanizing obsession, a private ambition that ends up ruining the writer as well as those around him.

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