In Their Arms by Thomas Moore — Joe Rollins

Thomas Moore’s second novel, In Their Arms (Rebel Satori Press, 2016), begins with a proposition: ‘the world is full of warmth…’ Offered not as a trite observation but as an outstretched hand to a figure on a precipice, this notion becomes a vital mantra for the reader plunged into Moore’s world. ‘Remember,’ Moore seems to beg of his reader, ‘the world is full of warmth,’ no matter how cold it might appear. And Moore’s world is certainly cold. In Their Arms maps a nightmare geography, a terrible and glittering sprawl of fantasy and abuse. And yet some warmth does still persist in the back streets of Moore’s creation: a faint animus of meaning that haunts the urban and digital spaces of this slim novel. Moore flirts with the abject, yet never allows his novel to degrade into pure nihilism. Instead, In Their Arms is a rare thing: a novel at once unafraid to confront the darkest recesses of the human condition, and yet unwilling to allow the light to be snuffed out completely.

Guided by an unnamed narrator, In Their Arms weaves through a series of endlessly mutating spaces: gay club ‘darkrooms’ playing host to predatory sexual encounters, online message boards populated by bug-chasers and submissives, cruising bars and cruising apps that orchestrate the sexual fantasies of anonymous men, web pages of the damaged and disaffected. Moore’s narrator relays these sights in the affectless tone of the chemically dependent and chronically bored, yawning his way through tales of work, parties, orgies, and death. The milieu reads like a jacked-in Burroughs, the narrator an escapee from Ellis’ L.A. haze.

True to its genre, nothing really happens in In Their Arms. The narrator writes art reviews in the day, and cruises at night. He goes to parties and bars. He fucks and is fucked by many unnamed men. Yet nothing so emphatic as a plot is ever realised. The narrator’s career remains in stasis, his friends at a distance, his sexual encounters largely meaningless. His city could be any city. He travels from here to there, yet he never gets anywhere. The blank, impenetrable tone of Moore’s prose further belabours this stagnation. The writing is glass-like: transparent, spare, often beautiful but offering no purchase. Combined with the affectless narration and plotless narrative, one would be forgiven for abandoning the novel at the opening chapters, for dismissing it as just another surface-level literary exercise in ennui. But bear with it.

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Skimming through a cruising app whilst half-listening to his friend recount his last breakup, the narrator stumbles across the profile of an old hookup and his connected Twitter account. Later in the evening he scrolls through the feed, watching ‘as the last couple of weeks of his life show in reverse order.’ Moore transcribes the tweets for us and soon whole chapters appear composed entirely of these transcriptions. Later they’re joined by Moore’s renderings of the Tumblr feed of a fifteen year old girl, the daughter of an artist the narrator once interviewed. Anyone who spent fraught teenage years on the microblogging platform will recognise—and perhaps cringe at—Moore’s painfully accurate portrayal:

– A photograph of an American Apparel sign.
– A gif of Lindsay Lohan smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke to the side.
– A photograph of a pale girl with Sea-Punk style coloured hair.
– A cat on a fluorescent pink and green background with ‘FUCK YOU’ written in Comic Sans.
– A screen-grab of an iPhone message that says ‘If we ever have sex I’m gonna moan your URL’.

As Moore’s text begins to assimilate elements of the internet, its structural conceits unfold. These sections of pure transcription are synecdochal of the text of In Their Arms itself, which deftly abandons conventional narrative in favour of the curation and decontextualisation of the social media feed. Like a puzzle box, Moore hides the key to his text at its centre, in the art reviews the narrator produces:

I talk about the artist using paintings as a queer space in which meaning and facts and specifics are bent out of shape and displaced by a dream-logic where things make emotional sense as opposed to narrative sense.

Like the artist’s painting, Moore’s novel embodies a ‘queer space’ of emotional logic. It’s to the rhythm of feeling, rather than narrative, that In Their Arms pulses: loneliness, regret, desire, and disgust all punch the surface of Moore’s blank prose. Regret, especially, pervades the novel, figured as a persistent desire to rewrite, retouch, or erase oneself in line with Moore’s characters’ schizophrenic online lives. Technology is a utopian answer to these impulses, and Moore frequently captures its Faustian appeal:

I want to fit into a real life memory as it’s happening and stay there, like I’m trapped and ecstatic in a gif of the greatest moment that I’ve ever felt that I’ll be able to feel forever.

References to gifs undoubtedly pay homage to the author’s friend Dennis Cooper, whose recent series of gif novels have made the format his own. In Their Arms owes a great deal, stylistically, to Cooper, though it never feels purely imitative. But Moore’s debt to Cooper is more than just stylistic, and the publication of In Their Arms feels both timely and poignant given Cooper’s recent—now thankfully resolved—issues with Google. Moore himself has stated that his contact with Cooper through the blog is single-handedly responsible for driving him to write. In Their Arms stands on its own as a piece of experimental literature, then, but it also stands as a monument to the artistic—and for many personal—significance of Cooper’s blog.

Perhaps appropriate for a literary descendent of Cooper’s, Moore’s novel wears its flaws on its sleeve. At times In Their Arms appears to stumble, sometimes on a sudden shift in tone that feels inorganic, or a rawness to the prose that feels under-edited. And yet these missteps may be forgiven. An abrupt tonal shift here and a hurried phrase there all contribute to the novel’s digital scrapbook ambience. In Their Arms is sometimes messy, but that’s kind of the point.

Towards the end of the novel Moore’s narrator, faced with an inarticulable sense of meaninglessness, breaks down in a bar. In the monologue that follows, a glimmer of hope—of warmth—appears:

Within all of that mess, there’s such beauty. I know that. I feel it. Its just in the lags and dips that things become frightening.

Mess, finally, is what In Their Arms is about. Moore deftly navigates its dips and lags in an effort to uncover the beauty it conceals. This beauty comes in many forms, from the traditional—the throb of a club, the satisfaction of an orgasm—to the transgressive—the ‘weird high’ experienced by the bug-chaser upon discovering his HIV positive status, or the submissives who talk about barebacking like it’s ‘some kind of undisputable truth.’ Moore treats all equally.

In Julia Kristeva’s famous work on abjection she writes that ‘the abject is edged with the sublime.’ Moore’s narrator unconsciously evokes this seminal text when he tries to articulate the obsession driving him into the darkrooms and chatrooms he frequents: ‘to try and find something that’s still out of reach in terms of my understanding of it.’ With this desire as his impetus, the narrator flirts with the abject in search of the sublime. Occasionally he strays too far, and plunges too eagerly into the darkest corners of his world. In rare moments, though, he succeeds in finding the beauty between the frightening lags and dips, and in these moments, the world really is full of warmth. Moore refuses to indulge these discoveries. They don’t mark some imagined apotheosis or artificial catharsis for the narrator—Moore isn’t interested in those fictional contrivances. Instead, guided by the rhythmic structure of the novel, which cyclically folds back on itself ad infinitum, these moments of beauty embody no more than a high-point in the endless oscillation of the narrator’s life, a flicker of light in the darkness, a brief glow of warmth in the cold. Moore’s novel adeptly walks a fine line. It is at once tender and transgressive, delicate and grotesque, abject and sublime.

Thomas Moore has written two collections of poetry, Surfaces and Hospital (both via Broken Blood Press), and one novella, GRAVES (published by Kiddiepunk Press). His work has been appeared in various publications in the UK, USA, France and Sweden. A Certain Kind of Light, published by Rebel Satori was his first novel. He lives in the West Midlands, UK.

Joe Rollins is a PhD student at the University of York, UK, working on autonomy and resistance in 1990s American fiction. He tweets at @joe_rollins5

In Their Arms is forthcoming from Rebel Satori.