Monday, February 12, 2007



Ultravioleta by Laura Moriarty
(Atelos, Berkeley, CA, 2006)

[First published in RAIN TAXI, Vol. 11 No. 4, Winter 2006 (#44), Ed. Eric Lorberer]

Laura Moriarty’s Ultravioleta is a novel about a spaceship named Ultravioleta, a spaceship that is made of paper, or more precisely, of “personal letters” that are “passionate, desperate, and philosophical.” As the reader soon realizes, the novel is itself the very spaceship described in its narrative, posing a paradox akin to mathematical logic’s “set of all sets” (which must contain itself as a member, and so becomes self-swallowing).

This game of reflexivity is played throughout the novel: in Moriarty’s vision, the human universe, invaded by an alien race known collectively as the “I,” has been wholly transformed into language, making people and things susceptible to constant revision, if not contradiction. After the invasion of the “I,” writing becomes the primary means of travel. Characters, who frequently doubt their own existence, think or write themselves into outer (i.e., inner) space, limited only by the “Case Barrier” that defines the boundary of the universe. Halfway through the story, Ultravioleta sets sail in an attempt to break through the Case Barrier and attain the Paradise beyond––a space where “I” can finally, fully relate to “thou.”

Along the way, the novel offers a picaresque tour of a solar system in which semantic forcefields have replaced the laws of physics. People and things, no longer able to be distinguished from words, resonate richly with all the associative power of their names: Mars, named after the god of war, becomes the scene of an endless war; Marys (the clones of Mary?), being orthographically related to Mars, are called to fight in the war. Marty, another Martian, is Ultravioleta’s shipbuilder, while Pontius Pilate, the story’s most villainous “I,” serves as its pilot.

The characters flit like quanta between Earth, Mars, and a satellite orbiting the Jovian moon of Europa. This satellite (made of paper, of course) is the site of The Gutenberg, a vast Borgesian library which is also a hotel, administered by Ada Byron (one of several characters bearing the names of historical or literary figures; the historical Ada was the mathematically-minded daughter of the poet Byron). One by one, the characters assemble––i.e., their thought-travel writings are archived––at The Gutenberg before embarking on the Ultravioleta.

The story of Ultravioleta––whose mission is destined to fail, or to succeed by failing––dramatizes the fate of the thinking subject whose only access to the object of meaning is by means of language. For behind the sign stands only another sign, and so on endlessly: even in a spaceship made of words, the thought-traveler never can reach the terminus, or ground, of thought itself. The best that can be hoped for, Moriarty seems to indicate, is a dialogical oscillation between self and other, or within the self as other.

And Ultravioleta is very much a dialogical novel, in which the characters––with phrasings that are by turns ironic, erotic, philosophical, frantic, and funny––literally write themselves, and each other, into existence, all the while pondering their own fictionality. Dialogism at this rate of reflexivity begins to shade into monologism, or into a kind of philosophical prose poetry in which the author’s voice bifurcates into multiple, yet self-similar, voices (as in the writings of Edmond Jabès).

The poetics of the novel, in one respect, accepts the basic tenet of postmodernism in general and Language poetry in particular: namely, that reality is a linguistic construct. In another respect, however, that construct is posited here as a latticework spinning in the void, or as a vessel traveling into the unknown. The shipwreck of Ultravioleta is caused, as one of the characters puts it, “by thinking about what can’t be known,” a distinctly Romantic impulse. It is not skepticism but longing that has the last word here.

Moriarty’s earlier work has typically incorporated aspects of the fantastic, as in the medievalism and Orientalism of Rondeaux, or in the exoticism of Persia. And L’Archiviste, a long poem about an archive as vast as a city, was inspired by a French graphic science-fiction novel. With Ultravioleta, Moriarty greatly amplifies these tendencies: indeed, the novel is rife with allusions to other works of speculative fiction. The “I,” for example, may trace their ancestry to Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites; and in Ultravioleta’s climactic scene, the characters discover a sentient ocean at the heart of Europa, a notion clearly indebted to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

Ultravioleta represents a highly original synthesis of experimental poetics and science fiction. Here, language is treated not only as a social construct to be poetically deconstructed, but as a medium, seemingly transparent and all-pervasive as air, that permits flight.


Andrew Joron is the author of several books of poetry, most recently FATHOM (Black Square Editions: New York, 2003.) A collection of his essays and prose poetry, THE CRY AT ZERO, is forthcoming from Counterpath Press in 2007.


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