Friday, 20 October 2000

John Masters: Trial at Monomoy (1964)

Edition: Odhams Books Ltd.
Review number: 659

This was an interesting novel to have read soon after Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Masters is attempting a similar purpose, on a smaller scale, and is much more successful and convincing.

The story is about a small town, Monomoy, in New England, during an extremely severe winter storm. Snow cuts it off completely, and it seems as though the whole town might be destroyed - it is below sea level, protected by natural sea defences which are in danger of being overwhelmed. The different reactions of the various people in the town, which cover the scale from calm competence to rampaging looting to hysteria, are the core of the novel, and this is where there is the similarity with Rand's writing. Both writers are interested in the differences between those who think ahead, prepare, use intelligence and are prepared to work, and those who cling to others, are parasitic, or blinded by irrelevancies. The reason why Masters succeeds here is because he is interested in people whereas Rand wants to make philosophical points. His characters are not just black or white, clones of one another; each is an individual and he manages to make a large number well rounded - something of great importance in a novel about a whole town. The crisis changes and develops the characters, as you would expect - though this is something that Rand signally fails to do.

An important part of the novel is the reference to Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play which has a production organised in the town's hotel, where many of Monomoy's inhabitants are gathered and snowed in for several days with nothing to do. Some issues of relevance to the novel and the play are explicitly mentioned by some of the characters (particularly to do with how much we deserve what happens to us), but I am sure that there are more, hidden parallels. I have however never seen or read the play, so was unable to pick any of these up; I would advise a prospective reader of Trial at Monomoy to read The Iceman Cometh first.

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