Novel: Billy Moon by Douglas Lain

Reading Douglas Lain’s Billy Moon (2013) is like stepping into a weird dream. It’s a quirky, surreal alternate history that reimagines the past of Christopher Milne (aka “Billy Moon”), the son of author A.A. Milne and the basis for Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh books. In the fifties and sixties, Christopher has grown up to resent his father’s co-opting of his childhood, so much so that he tries not to carry the Pooh books in his own bookshop. Christopher’s simple English life is ultimately disrupted when a radical French student named Gerrard, who possesses the strange ability to see into the past and the future, invites him to Paris in the spring of 1968. Christopher arrives just in time to witness, and participate in, the civic unrest surrounding protest of the de Gaulle regime, a volatile period that transformed French history.

Reading a novel often feels like immersing oneself in another person’s passions, and I felt that particularly strongly while reading Billy Moon, an amusing, dream-like reimagination of a past about which I knew very little. While the plot is slow to develop, the individual scenes and sentences carried me through, full of Lain’s trademark comic vision and left-turns into the unexpected. Eventually, the storylines of Christopher, Gerrard, and another French student, Natalie, converge in the explosive upheavals of May 1968. It’s here that the story comes together thematically, as Christopher’s quiet desire for simple comforts comes into conflict with the revolutionary discontent of the protest movement in Paris. This seems the crux of Lain’s interest, for while the novel is a surreal entertainment on one level — sort of like reading a baffling but charming French New Wave film — it’s also a political novel that uses its obscure subject matter as a window onto contemporary complacency in the face of need for change that never seems to come.

Lain’s short fiction has often delighted me for its humor, inventiveness, and unpredictability, but Billy Moon was even more unexpected: an ambitious, thoughtful, and peculiar literary fantasy. Its quiet narrative meanders and explores, but ultimately adds up to something that resonates beyond the page.

 

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