Poet and academic critic Thomas Heise's new novel, "Moth; or How I Came to Be With You Again," follows an idiosyncratic and deeply self-involved aesthetic program that could easily have led it far astray, but instead the book reads like a dream. Composed in densely lyrical sections of two to six pages, "Moth" flutters through the narrator's life and memory to impart a highly imagistic vision of his intermingling past and present. The novel's exoskeleton is spare, with little definite information about who the narrator is or what quotidian elements make up his life, focusing instead on his ever-unfolding interior existence, employing a shimmering web of words to weave together the disparate aspects of his memories and reflections.
As the book progresses, the reader slowly gleans a few facts about the narrator's parents, about his childhood abandonment and subsequent time in an orphanage, and about his difficulty connecting to life as an adult, but the real substance of the novel is in the texture of the words themselves. Heise has a gift for creating an airy, floating sense in the reader that defers meanings and expectations while at the same time making each line as clear and palpable and memorable as possible. Heise's imagery is extremely precise, and his language is sharp and tactile, offering much for the reader to absorb and creating an interior logic that feels as satisfying as any concrete narrative.
While there's not much in terms of plot for the reader to tease out or piece together, the book's design itself yields rich pleasures to unfold and decode. The various sections all utilize different sorts of imagery and narrative strategies and densities of language, and at first these differences simply seem to follow the arbitrary, wandering path of each section's flutterings, but as section follows section, symmetries begin to come clear. Many of the sections are headed with a place name and date that would ordinarily signal where and when the action takes place but that here seems to have almost no bearing at all on the story. Instead the headings draw lines of connectedness to other similarly structured sections, creating an elegant game of pattern and repetition, as with a lepidopterist tracing arrangements of mimicry on moths' wings.
For all the pleasures that "Moth" affords through its innovation, its major missing element is the characterization and human interaction that a more traditional narrative might provide. At a certain point, the reader wishes for a conversation, or for a kiss. But at just 160 pages, "Moth" fills its contents with enough riches that it's over long before it gets old. This is a book that will haunt and intrigue and will almost certainly inspire an immediate second reading.
David Wiley is a writer and freelance editor in Minneapolis.