Mysteries of Motion

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

ph_0111207180-Calisher.jpg Hortense Calisher Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Mysteries of Motion is a long, sweeping, ambitious novel. It explores, through the framework of a voyage into space, a wide range of human movement: from the first flutters of an unborn child, to the union of lovers, to the migration of cultures, to the settlement of extraterrestrial colonies. Hortense Calisher displays in this, her fifteenth book, a virtuoso hand at plotting and character development as well as remarkable research skills. She writes expertly of such varied subjects as space flight, Washington bureaucracy, Iranian domestic routines, and Cuba under Fidel Castro. Although her novel is not entirely successful, it has much of value and interest to say about contemporary society.

Set in the late 1990’s, the book focuses on seven characters, all passengers on a spaceship taking the first residents to the United State’s pioneer “habitat,” an island that is a two- or three-week journey from Earth. All seven are international travelers, citizens of the world, and each is drawn to the new possibilities in space to fill a different inner need. The book begins and ends with first-person narratives from Tom Gilpin, a journalist who is the publisher of an influential news magazine. It is he who has suggested, to the consternation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and military officials, that the first residents of the habitat should be not only technicians and soldiers but also a representative group of civilians, old and young, healthy and sick, rich and poor.

His companions are as diverse a group as he could desire. Veronica Oliphant, a leading writer for his magazine, is a West Indian, six feet tall, black, beautiful, talented, and self-assured. John Mulenberg, Scandinavian by heritage, is an enormously successful international businessman who has been involved both in equipping the spacecraft and in selecting its passengers. Wolf Lievering resembles Mulenberg only in that both have at different times been attracted to Veronica. Lievering suffers from epileptic seizures, a condition that has the unexpected side effect of making him extraordinarily skilled at functioning in a weightless environment. The overriding element in his consciousness is the fact that he and his parents escaped from Nazi Germany; he is haunted by guilt at having evaded the fate that so many others suffered.

The last two official passengers in cabin six of the Citizen Courier are William Wert and his pregnant Iranian wife, Soraya. Wert, a former diplomat with the State Department, has been chosen to act as administrator for the habitat, but his primary reason for joining the expedition is a personal one. Soraya, nearing forty, was severely injured as a prisoner in an Iranian jail years earlier, and they hope that she will be able to deliver her first child more easily in the weightlessness of space.

The seventh and last of the central figures is young Mole Perdue, son of the NASA official in charge of the expedition. Mole is a stowaway on the flight, taking the place of his best friend. His decision to join the others is motivated by several different feelings: his hero-worship of Gilpin, his fascination with space, and his well-founded fear that there is something wrong with the spacecraft. At least subconsciously, he feels that he will be the Courier’s backup system, that his father’s love for him will insure the safety of his companions.

These characters become victims in a power struggle between those who see the habitat as a new home for human beings and those who want it to serve as an outpost of the United States defense system. As Gilpin and his companions learn during the course of their journey, the other civilians chosen for the flight were mysteriously taken ill en route to the spaceship and replaced—apparently—by a group of men seen by the passengers only on a television transmission reported to have come from cabins three and four. The cargo is found to include bombs, incorrectly loaded and immovable, which ultimately prevent the ship from docking safely with the island.

Mole, at the request of the crew, pleads with his father in a poignant television interview for permission to jettison the bombs, but Perdue (the meaning of the name—lost—now becomes obvious) has no authority to grant the request. The crew attempts to dock without permission, and both they and Mole die in the abortive attempt. The remaining passengers enter a strange period of life in limbo. Lievering keeps them supplied with food and drink from the well-stocked cargo bay, and, occasionally, through the remaining electronic ties with Earth, they see television news broadcasts on which their predicament is discussed euphemistically. They are, it seems, viewed as a security risk at present, but a rescue may be attempted later.

With only Soraya’s pregnancy to mark the passage of time for them, they begin to create their own civilization. They are different from other people now, Gilpin reflects, for they treat each other with “everlasting kindness,” knowing that they have “been preselected for a companion death.” There appears to be a rescue at the end; Gilpin types into his word processor, “What a wind your entry makes.” By this point in the story, however, Calisher has moved her characters so far from the atmosphere of the conventional adventure story that neither they nor the reader will feel their rescue to be of great importance. Are not all human beings orbiting on a...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 9, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, November 6, 1983, p. 7.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LX, Spring, 1984, p. 55.