The 'boy who never was' is one Máni Steinn Karlsson, a sixteen year-old who has sex with men for money in Reykjavík. The year is 1918, and Máni's reality is unstable, infected by cinema, always threatening to tip over into dream. In Sjón's telling, this story is neither a fairytale, nor a study of abjection. Máni often enjoys his encounters, and his love of the cinema leads him to Irma Vep, the anti-heroine of Louis Feuillade's seven hour epic crime movie, Les Vampires, in which an 'eponymous gang of nihilists... hold French society in the grip of fear'. Irma, who wears a fetishistic black bodysuit (unthinkably shocking for 1915, when the film was made) 'scales buildings like a shadow and breaks into apartments and government offices before making her escape over the rooftops.' Like the boy dreaming about her from his seat in one of the city's two cinemas, she is outside society, committing her crimes 'with the cheerful zeal of one who has turned her back on the laws of her fellow men.' Máni finds his own Irma in Sóla G—, a motorbike-riding girl in black leather who seems to have escaped from the screen into the more mundane register of his daily life.
At times Máni threatens to dissipate in an almost-physical way. 'He dissolves his body, turning solid into liquid, beginning from within and rinsing it all out.' Like Irma Vep, he is a shadow, one that 'passes from man to man, and no one is complete until he has cast him'. For the solid citizens who pay him for sex, he is the unacknowledged supplement to their identity, the aspect of themselves that they can only claim in silence and darkness. As Máni's own dark dreams colonize his waking reality, the distinction between the fetishized 'light puppets' of the movies and the victims of the pandemic disappears completely. Sóla and Máni, 'dressed in black from top to toe, with black gauzes over their noses and mouths and dark goggles over their eyes' fumigate a cinema with chlorine, doubling a scene in Les Vampires, where the nihilists rob a roomful of socialites by incapacitating them with knock-out gas. Chlorine gas is, of course, also a weapon that has recently caused devastation on the Western front, the new century's nightmare of technological warfare entering the auditorium, providing yet another doubling, another note to reverberate in the echo chamber of Sjón's tautly-constructed narrative.
Máni is, of course, a fictional character, a 'boy who never was', but Sjón uses him to tell a story that turns out to be very personal, in ways that don't emerge until the very end of the book. The cheerful sexual outlaw surrounded by infection is a figure that we know only too well from the AIDS epidemic, and Moonstone is, among other things, an elegy. Though it is a deeply felt novel, Sjón's prose is never histrionic or overwrought, balancing rage and hallucination (echoes of Artaud and Ballard) with a certain gentleness of spirit, an affection for precision and small scale. The result is sure to delight his fans and convert many new ones.