Oyster Boy Review 13  
  Summer 2001
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'Serpent' by Nicholas Mosley

Zoë Francesca

Serpent is the third book in Mosley's "Catastrophe Practice" series. The other four are: Catastrophe Practice, Judith, Imago Bird, and Hopeful Monsters. First written in 1981, Serpent was revised by the author in 1990. On one level, Serpent is a modern retelling of the story of Masada, an ancient fortress where Jews committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. The plot, however, takes place entirely on an airplane. A screenwriter (Jason) boards a plane bound for Tel Aviv to convince a Hollywood producer (Epstien) that his new screenplay on Masada can never be made into a film. In the back of the plane, the screenwriter's wife (Lilia) and child meet up with a possible terrorist. On the ground, a psychology major turned security guard and his wife, a physics student turned airport official, do battle with eerie "protesters."

The chapters where we must plow through existential conversation between characters from Jason's screenplay are somewhat tedious compared to the present-day action on the plane. They remind us too heavily of the pedantic goals of the book: a discussion of whether it is better to sacrifice oneself for society or to survive; whether life is a "going concern" or a "calamity," and whether we are all really actors.

What takes this novel to an exciting, experimental level are layers of speech and articulated thought that make up the text. Plato argued, we are told in the book, that ideas are more real than experience because experience depends on ideas. In Serpent, ideas about politics, terrorism, and betrayal become real, presumably because they were thought of before they happened. This is what keeps the book's suspense high. We quickly learn that premonitions are bound to materialize into events, and halfway through the book the pace picks up as the airplane and its passengers get out of control.