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If Mosley's premise sounds like the John Travolta film Phenomenon writ large, however, it's both darkened and broadened by the shadow of the impending battle between the Blues and their nemesis, Gray Redstar, aka Horace LaFontaine, a hideous hybrid of blue strength and death's fury. Once the Blues, joined by such demi-Blues as Folsom Prison warden Gerin Reed and Ord's miraculously gifted daughter Alacrity, retreat into the surrounding woods and, ringed round by killer butterflies and sentient redwoods touched by the light, give themselves over to spiritual and carnal love, Mosley's fantasy develops distinct superhero overtones ('Alacrity was the greatest warrior in the history of the world. She was bold and kindhearted, savage and ruthless'). At the same time, the story, already heavily burdened with Chance's oracular meditations on history, racial difference, and the intertwining of violenceand love, begins to drag, as months turns into Grayless years, and to stagger under the weight of its apocalyptic premise, whose every manifestation demands a new set of superlatives. The finale is likely to leave readers as unsatisfied as Chance.
The result is an ambitious mess, inventive and visionary as Mosley's greatest admirers might wish, but torn between windy prophecy and comic-book heroics.
Orde stood atop the flat stone in Garber Park -- talking.
It had been four years since I'd cut my wrists. I still carried my woodbound book, but the tide had changed to The History of the Coming of Light.
"You are but a base stock." Orde spoke in a commanding but intimate voice. It was drizzling on and off that day, so his audience was smaller than usual -- fewer than eighty of his open-air congregation were there. Winos and unemployed clerks, dark-skinned nannies and their wealthy charges, the few blue novitiates (those who learned from the light but had not witnessed it), including me. And Miles Barber.
Miles was a homicide detective who dropped by about every other week or so. He usually came after the sermon. He didn't seem to like hearing Orde's words.
Barber was investigating the deaths of Mary Klee, Carla MacIlvey, Janet Wong, and a man whom people in the park knew only as Bruce. They were all victims of a poisoner that the police had privately nicknamed Mack the Flask. They were also regulars at Orde's sermons, friends of mine. Among the first friends I'd ever known.
"You are but a base stock," Orde said again. "Vegetables cooked down in an earthen pot. Soup with only the slightest hint of flavor left. One after the other there is no difference in you. You live and die, come together and fall apart, you have children and give them empty names. You are barely there and fast dissipating; like the shit in a chamber pot spilled in the sea, you are flotsam having found your way to the edge of a decaying pier."
Everyone stood close around Orde's stumplike rock. For all Orde's certainty, his voice was soft. His followers, acolytes, and devoted friends found that they had to push closely together to hear the words. Down in Berkeley, even in the city, they called us the Close Congregation.
We crowded together because the sermons he gave captivated us. There was something so true in his words that we clung to one another as if we were holding on to his voice. We were lulled and exalted because in some way the truth he told was him, not just some abstract idea.
"You're way out from the heart of your origin, cut off from the bloodline that could provide the nutrients of true life. You are dying, unpollenated flowers." Orde looked around with a kindly expression. "Your death means nothing. Your lives are less important than spit on the sidewalk. I can't even call you the seeds of something larger, better. You, who call yourselves living, are really nothing but the dead flakes of skin that some great shedding beast has left in his wake. The pattern of life is in you, but it is inert and decaying...."
It seemed true to me. I felt lifeless; I felt inconsequential.
Just months after his bout with the blue light, Orde had come upon me in the quad at Berkeley. He saw my sadness, named it, and told me that it was true.
"You are born dying and so are your children. And even though your leaders claim that you are making advances through the generations, you know in your heart that it isn't true. You get better at making mechanical things, chemical things, but you can't make better art. You can't understand the real in even a stone. The stone exists, but if I were to ask you what it was, what it really was, you wouldn't even understand the question. And if you did understand, you would pull out pencil and paper, microscope and atom smasher to try and answer. You would attempt in words to explain that it would be impossible to know the nature of being stone."
A breeze kicked up just then. Orde raised his head and smiled.
"You would be better off putting your finger to the wind, my friends. Lick your fingers, everybody," he said.
Most of us did. One old woman named Selma licked all four fingers from top to bottom.
I still remember the first time I did this exercise for Orde. I held up my hand and felt that most familiar and exquisite sensation. The air cooling my finger, drying it and moving on into the sky with the moisture of my life.
I was desperate back then.
"It feels good, doesn't it?" Orde asked.
"It's like the cold kiss of a spirit beyond your ability to see. You can feel her only for a brief moment and then she's off."
We nodded some more.
"You are lost," Orde said.
He stepped off his rock, walked into the crowd, cleaving the congregation, and went up into the trees. Feldman and Alexander, two of Orde's larger acolytes, blocked the way to anybody who wanted to follow him. He would be gone for the rest of the day. He'd probably go down to San Francisco, in the secondhand brown suit I'd bought him, to look for a woman.
It was time to look for a mate again.
Many of the Close Congregation followed him up to the point of the large carob trees into which he disappeared. They pressed up against the large bodyguards and called out, "Orde! Teacher!"
I didn't go running after him.
I had been with Orde for nearly four years by then. I'd left everything behind me and joined the Close Congregation. Orde and his words were my only connection left to life. The day we met I'd intended to kill myself. I'd been with him ever since. I knew he'd be back. I was one of the few who knew where he lived in town. I collected donations from the Close Congregation, kept his bank accounts, and paid his bills.
Orde had a lot of money in the bank, the large donations he collected himself in private interviews, but he spent very little of it. I controlled the checkbook, but all I craved was his truth.
Orde's words were the truth. You could see every image, feel every sensation he described. His metaphors (what we thought were metaphors) took on a palpable reality that hung in our nostrils, stuck in the back of our throats. Halfway through any sermon I would notice that I was no longer listening to his words but instead experiencing the phenomena he described.
"Hello, Chance," Miles Barber said.
He had come up behind me while everyone else drifted after Orde.
"Where's your boss gone?" the policeman asked.
"I don't know," I said. "He doesn't check in with me every time he splits."
"He go off like that often?"
"You know as well as I do," I said. "You come up here enough."
"He always go alone?" Detective Barber asked.
"We're never alone, Officer."
Barber's hair was thick and black, but his eyes were light gray. He wasn't tall and he always wore an odd-colored suit. That day it was an iridescent gray-green two-piece suit with a single-button jacket.
He looked and sounded as if his entire life were just off the secondhand rack.
"I don't care about your blue light bullshit, kid. I wanna know if your boss disappears with people from this group into the woods."
"You asked me that before," I said.
"I can arrest you anytime I want, kid."
"Yes, you can, Officer."
Barber took me in with his eyes. I had known many policemen. Ever since I was a child they'd been rousting me. I knew when a cop hated me -- my big frame, my black skin. But Barber didn't have time for that kind of hatred. He had a job to do, that was all.
I would have liked to help him. But I could not.
I couldn't, because helping him would have condemned the dream. Barber was a cop, that's all. He found out who did wrong, uncovered the evidence to prove it, and sent the wrongdoers to jail. He wasn't concerned with the subtleties of truth and necessity. He couldn't see above the small laws that he worked for.
I wondered, as he interrogated me for the fifth time, if he knew how close he stood to his precious truth. Did he know that three and a half years earlier I had been summoned from my Shattuck Avenue dive by Orde?
A man, I forget his name, who lived two floors below knocked on my door a little after 11:00 P.M.
"Phone," he said. Before I could get the door open he was already going back down the stairs.
There was a pay phone on the second floor that we all used to receive calls. I was surprised because no one ever called me. My mother never even knew the number.
"Teacher?" I asked. I had never seen Orde away from the park except for that first time we met. It had been only a short while since I'd been a member of the Close Congregation.
"Come to me," he said and then he gave me the address.
I was flattered by the call. I didn't ask why or if it could wait till morning. I just told him that it might take a while because I had no car or bike or money for the bus.
"Hurry" was his reply.
I found myself running down the nighttime streets of Berkeley.
Orde lived in a small house about six blocks down from Telegraph. There was no path through the uncut lawn to his door. I could feel the wet blades of grass against the bare sides of my sandaled feet.
He opened the door before I reached it.
The small entrance area had a doorway on either side. The room to the left was empty and dark except for a single flickering flame that I thought must have been a candle. The room to the right had an electric light burning behind a half-closed door. I turned toward the brighter light.
"No," Orde commanded. He gestured toward the flickering dark.
I obeyed him not because I felt I had to. I wanted to please him because when he spoke he seemed to understand all the pain of my life. He never blamed or made empty promises; he simply explained and left me to make my own choices.
We sat on the floor in the dark room on either side of a fat candle. He wore black slacks and a loose collarless shirt that was unbuttoned. The light played shadows on his shallow chest and gaunt face. His blond hair was in shadow, making his bronzed skin seem pale.
"You are half of a thing," he said, speaking softly and with no particular emphasis. But I felt the words wrap tightly around my mind. "The lower half," he continued. "The tripod, the foundation, the land below the stars."
I wanted to get up and run. Not to escape, but to work off the elation I felt upon receiving his words.
"You are sleep before waking, like I was before blue light. I look upon you as you would see a man who used his head to hammer nails. Poor fool."
The image was so clear in my mind, I worried that it might be a flashback to an old acid trip.
"Do you understand?" Orde asked.
"I think so."
"The blue light is God," I said.
"No. I don't think so," Orde said with a little wonder in his voice. "No. Not God, but life. Not lies or hopes or dreams. Nothing that is to come later, but right now. Right now. Here."
I had never experienced anything like sitting there receiving his words. The only thing even approaching it was an early memory I had of my mother's trying to show me the San Bernardino mountain range. I was three or four, and she held me in one arm while pointing off into the distance. All I could make out was "far away" and colors. But as she kept explaining and pointing, I slowly made out the mountains she described. The elation I felt at realizing mountains for the first time was a weak emotion compared with what Orde made me feel there in the darkness.
I'd heard him speak many times before, but it never had that kind of impact. It was as if I were transformed temporarily and for a brief moment I saw through his eyes, shared his expanded awareness.
"Do you understand?" Orde asked again.
"Can you see what I'm saying?"
"It's like the whole world," I said meaninglessly. "Everything."
"Everything must change," he said, making sense out of my nonsense. "But in order for that to happen we must multiply. We must grow until every animal and fish, every rock and drop of water is one. Everything must merge."
"Like an explosion?"
"Yes. But slowly. Over thousands of years. But it will never be unless we can mate."
"Why can't you?" I asked.
"I don't know. I try," he said. "But my blood is too strong. It devours the egg."
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by then. There was a wooden bench behind Orde and a pile of clothes or rags on the floor.
He stood up and walked toward the door with the electric light shining behind it. I followed him into the light.
It was a small dinette separated from the kitchen by a waist-high wall of shelves. A large table, topped with red linoleum, dominated the room, but it was the small corpse slumped back in one of the chrome chairs that captured my attention. It was Mary Klee, one of the Close Congregation. Head thrown back, dark foam down her chin. One eye was wide-open while the other was mostly closed. She wore jeans and a T-shirt.
There was a bowl half filled with what looked like congealed blood on the table before her. I'm sure I would have been sick if I wasn't still stunned by the power of Orde's words.
"I hoped that if we shared blood, her cells might have been strengthened." There was no apology in Orde's voice. "But even just to drink some of it, she died."
He stood for a long time then, pondering, I suppose, the future of his race -- the generation of blue divinity. I sat down across from Mary, looking into her cockeyed stare. I'd never seen a corpse before, but then again, I'd never believed in God before Orde told me that there was something higher than God.
The silence continued for half an hour or more.
"Can you drive a car?" he asked finally.
I must have nodded.
"Put her in the car in the backyard and take her somewhere," he said.
There was a junkyard in Alameda I knew. No one patrolled it at night and there were no fences. All the way out I wondered why I obeyed him.
"It's only words," I said out loud. "Only words, but Mary's really dead."
But I knew the answer. Those words had transformed me, made me believe in something that I could be a part of. Orde didn't mourn Mary. How could he? People were, at best, coma victims in his eyes. He hadn't murdered her; he had tried to elevate her life.
Detective Barber interrupted my thoughts.
"I know you think that he's your friend, kid," he said. "But you knew those people too. If you think he cares more about you than them, you're wrong. MacIlvey was his girlfriend and she's dead."
"We're all dead, Officer," I said. "Some of us just don't know it yet."
Barber shook his head at me. He was a good guy. At that moment I wanted to be like him. I wanted to forget the sad truth of Orde's prophecies.
Q: Science fiction might seem like an unexpected direction for you to take, but I understand you've always been an avid science fiction reader as well as a comic book collector.
A: I've collected comic books my whole life, that's certainly true. Even now I still do it. I remember buying "Fantastic Four #15" and "Spiderman #3" with Dr. Octopus. I've always loved comics. As far as reading science fiction is concerned, when you're a little kid, everything is fantasy. I remember the first novel I read was Winnie the Pooh, and then I remember going from Danny Dunn to Tom Swift, from Asimov to Bradbury, from Herbert to Zelazny, and then, later on, from Orwell to Gabriel García Márquez. The genre has a very wide base, wider than some people think. I've always liked it because you can't go anywhere new unless you imagine it. This is true in everyday life. If you can't imagine a better job, you can't have a better job. If you can't imagine an answer to a question or problem, then you probably can't find an answer yourself. And then there's always the racial thing, which is only a part of it. But if you're a black person in America the best world to imagine is an alternative world, whether it's the future or the past, whatever, it's alternative.
Q: Whom are you reading currently that you find interesting or engaging?
A: Actually, I'm going over some old stuff. I'm reading Philip José Farmer again because I like him. I'm reading Philip K. Dick, and I'm reading Barrington J. Bailey. I don't know if you know him; he's an English science fiction writer who I really like a lot. I think that's all I'm reading right now.
Q: Who do you consider your artistic influences? I know, for instance, that you're interested in the existentialists.
A: Well, certainly, Albert Camus is a part, and I'm very influenced by André Malraux, the French novelist, and people like Émile Zola. It's ridiculous that lately someone came out with the hundred most important novels of the century. That's so ridiculous. The most important novels of the century are the novels that changed your life. So when I say Winnie the Pooh is the first novel I read, it's also probably one of the most important novels I've read because it made me want to read. As far as the genre is considered, I just love Brian Aldiss, and Tolkien is also very important to me. Octavia Butler, in the genre, is important, but I really love Delany. Samuel Delany's work is just a tower. He's a towering figure.
Q: Was your love of science fiction what finally motivated you to write a science fiction novel?
A: I read anywhere from Danny Dunn to One Hundred Years of Solitude. It's a very broad range. I end up talking about Blue Light through a filter of science fiction because there's no question of magic in it, no question of fantasy either. But it's not what they call "hard" science fiction; it's not machinery. The machinery is genetics.
Q: So, it's not the science of mechanics; it's more the science of psychology.
A: Psychology and maybe DNA. The reason I decided to write it is a question of language. I'm a writer. I've got eight or nine books coming out that are nonfiction. But when people talk about my novels, well, first they're going to say, "He's a mystery writer" or a "black mystery writer." Okay, then I write a book about the blues. Whenever I write anything else they say, "Well, he's mainly a mystery writer but he also writes these gritty, inner-city kind of transplanted rural black people novels." I wonder if I'll ever get out of being typecast.
If they can't get me by genre, they get me by the language. So I said I would like to write in another language. Then I wrote a sentence, "A streak of blue light barely fifteen seconds in length hurdles out of deep silence into the din of a radiant sun." That's what I first wrote, and I said, "Now this in not my urban-hip-inner-city language." I like that, and it seems to go in that area that I love reading -- let's say "speculative fiction," imagining another world, imagining an alternative to what people postulate.
Where is all that dark space in the universe? Why do we assume that Earth sprang forth with life? Why? People just say it did, so we believe it. So the questions I had growing internally from what I read, plus my desire to write a new language, or a different language, led to Blue Light.
Q: Why choose the setting of the 1960s California Bay Area?
A: Well, it's someplace I know and I'm interested in, and I haven't really written about it. When I was a kid I used to go there all the time, and that was an important period in my life.
Also, one of the things about imagining another world is like seeing where we live in a new way. If you could look at an ant crawling across the top of your desk you could start to lecture this ant, "You realize, ant, that gravity is what keeps you on that desk." And you could talk about sugars and start explaining to her what she's doing and that maybe she's following the odors laid down by another ant to lead her to this food source. And she doesn't know what you're talking about. She's just going on her way doing what she wants to do.
It feels to me that humans have this notion that we know what's happening, that we know what's going on. I say, "Well, do you know what happened in 1965?" You'll say, "Yes, pretty much," or "Okay, I don't know, but I can go look it up." But add the possibility of the blue light, something is happening.
If I were to write four books I want to write, I'll end up talking about the future, but right now I want to talk about where the roots of the future lay, in a world none of us were aware of.
In the 1960s, we all thought something else was going on, we all thought something else was important. People were going to church. People were joining the military. People were banning the bomb or blowing up churches. But whatever they were doing, it was all meaningless, compared to something else. And I think that's always true. I think it's true for you and me right now in the world. We think we know, and we don't know.
One day, a thousand years from now, some creatures remotely related to us will be looking back at us and saying, "Did you see that? They were so stupid, they were sitting there while beauty and magic were right there. They could have reached but they didn't. It was there but they missed it." Sort of like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.
Q: Narrator and chorus and more: Who is the character Chance?
A: The notion for the novels, one of the beginning moments, is the racial note. You have this guy who is very black but his mother is white, and she is raising him and his father's gone. So he's living in a world where he doesn't belong. He is the alien, the other. He is the outsider, and he hates it. He wants to be a part of this world he sees and he can't, so you have this existentialist dilemma fortified by social prejudice. The novel quickly starts to talk about existentialist dilemmas, those questions that I was alluding to before that we don't understand like: What is a soul? Do we have a soul? Do we know there's a soul? Why can't we even quite believe that we have a soul? Rather than looking for meaning in one world or another, Chance is actually searching for his purpose in the world where his feeling of self connects with everything. The blue light lights his way.
Q: Is there any self-exploration through Blue Light, or is it just an examination of ideas?
A: I can answer that with certainty but not a lot of specificity. When I first started writing, I wrote Devil in a Blue Dress. Then I wrote A Red Death, then White Butterfly. I was working on Black Betty, and I was doing an interview, and it dawned on me in the middle of the interview that the driving force behind my writing all these novels was that I wanted to write about black male heroes, and I hadn't realized it before. Everything I wanted to do -- writing about Soupspoon Wise or Robert Johnson in RL's Dream, or writing about Chance in this book or Socrates Fortlow in the short stories [collected in Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned] involved writing about black male heroes.
Now, Blue Light is something else. Chance is, of course, still a black male hero. But there's something else I'm trying to explore, something I'm trying to discover, and I haven't quite gotten there. I haven't gotten any closer than Chance has gotten. So at the end, where Chance is not quite certain anything has happened, or he has reason not to believe, that's kind of where I am, too. I still have questions about what I'm thinking, because it's a big universe.
So there you have it. I truly enjoyed Blue Light. The same sense of wit, the economy of style, and the author's unique voice, which make the Easy Rawlins novels such a pleasure to read, are evident here. There is mystery here, and there are wonders to behold. The man known as Chance is our guide through the dangers of death personified and the beginnings of a strange new direction for the race called humanity.
Thanks very much to Walter Mosley for taking the time out to stop by and talk with me. On a side note, I've just finished reading RL's Dream, and that, too, was a strange and beautiful journey into the land of the Blues.
Posted June 9, 2013
Blue Light: Red light warning
I guess you had to be struck by blue light to appreciate this book. What a frustrating disappointment. I was looking
Posted March 3, 2012
Posted June 24, 2002
When the Blue Light struck the Bay Area those who witnessed it and even those who didn¿t had their lives changed dramatically as the result of it¿s appearance including the narrator, Chance is a lonely man, a dejected Ph.D. candidate who¿d recently failed at ending his life. He becomes a member of the ¿close congregation¿ ¿ a group of people of who¿d experienced the blue light as well as those who wanted to know about it. Their leader Orde¿ became Chance¿s mentor and ¿brother¿ after a ritual was performed on him. The story traces the path Chance takes as a member of the congregation and his experience with the ¿blues¿ (those who were directly hit with the blue light). Having never fit in with any group because of his biracial heritage, he finds amongst this group of strange folks a family made up of different ethnicities, ages and backgrounds. The main characters (blues and others) are introduced in rapid succession. The stories of these characters and Chance¿s involvement with them are intriguingly told but with a bit of gore. If the reader can get passed the gore the story becomes quite readable, a story about living life against the specter of death. For this reader the blue light represents an elevated life that allows that person possessing it to experience life to a greater degree than the rest of us, however the blues life ends just like everyone else¿s, with death. This book was at the least disturbing and at the best, interesting. It¿s even been theorized that none of the events told even happened but were a hallucination or dream of the narrator. You decide.
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Posted December 5, 2001
Posted January 17, 2001
After buying this book based on previous readings of Walter Mosley works, I was set to enjoy a story that would let me connect with the characters. Sadly, this was not the case. The story, at best, seemed disjointed and rushed. The characters never evolved to be people that you could care about. And the confrontation between evil and 'other' had no depth to it. Not one of Walter Mosley's better works, in my opinion.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 22, 2001
Walter Mosely's writing style will captivate you, in fact it is the catalyst that brings you to the end of this trite novel. However the unfathomable plot and foolhardy character's make you wonder, when will this novel end? Mosely's attempt at the mystical is by all means fulfilled. The 'blue light' awakens those who perceive, touch, and experience the bounty of death, and it is the character death that leads Mosely's diverse characters into the depths of the woods. The culmination occurs in a place where the fearless 'blue lights' believe they are safe (and you thought this group was enlightened). You would think in the early stages of the novel that Mosely is attempting to reveal a divine group of individuals, who are on the brink of understanding the essense of life, however the end reveals this story is nothing more than a ficticious tale of good versus evil.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.