Impetus for a long journey into the white
The Surfacing By Cormac James Text Publishing, 320pp, $29.99 AFTER a winter in squeezing ice, locked into the Northwest Passage in search of John Franklin’s lost expedition of 1845, the crew of the fictional HMS Impetus, including stowaway Kitty Rink and her newborn baby, disembarks and waits for the timbers of the ship to cede to the Arctic crush.
Thoughts of mortality surface in the polar void, but after a few hours the pressure of the ice-plates inexplicably eases off. The hardy but exhausted party climbs back aboard. That evening every man ‘‘has a gill of brandy to toast McIntosh & Sons, Shipmakers, of Inverness’’.
This episode is an example of the repeated rhythm of ordeal and half-reprieve that takes place in The Surfacing, the second novel from Irish author Cormac James. We follow the prolonged travail of the Impetus as it leaves the Scottish coast and seeks its way deep into the remote Wellington Channel of Arctic Canada, on a hybrid route concocted from the various paths of the Grinnell expeditions of the 1850s, whose object it was to outface the extremities of the unknown and find Franklin.
To conjure up the detail of survival in an extreme environment, to draw it out in imagery and language sufficient to the characterisation and the historical setting, is, in a writerly sense, quite a quest in itself. Unlike antecedents such as Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, whose art of the voyage was to sculpt and tare content and style from their experience, it cannot be said that James is recasting here any formative sea-furloughs of his own. The impressive feat of his charged, compacted and sometimes oblique prose, chocked as it is with optical and linguistic instabilities, is as much one of the imagination as it undoubtedly is of research or obsession.
As with all polar or desert literatures one of the fascinations of The Surfacing is the near emptiness of its epic mis-en-scene, the white upon white of the endless yet minimalist Arctic, the peoplelessness and shiplessness of it all. This creates an atmospheric lack of distraction in the novel that charges each node of the narrative with a sense of pent-up destiny. Like weather from the horizon the critical moments arrive when reality releases its submerged conflict and crescendoes to the surface.
The stowaway Kitty, for instance, is discovered like an unlikely creature in the cabin; the captain’s long illness finally decays into his death; the ship’s doctor is forced to walk out across the treacherous instability of young ice to prove his acting captain’s command. After months of minatory watchfulness, pieces of action such as these ignite with telescopic intimacy, momentarily dwarfing the vast icescape, before trailing off again like snow-doused flares.
The point of this undistracted rhythm is that each time an emblematic moment occurs we are, like the expedition itself, propelled a little further in our understanding of how to bear limits and calibrate necessities. The intrinsic cruelties and sanctuaries of human relationships and cold earth are revealed. In the stark yet obfuscated landscape it is as if we gain insight into nothing but the in-built shape of our own human drama, understanding that it is itself as elemental as weather, a thing requiring patience beyond the trajectory of our ambitions and how they intersect with the physical and spiritual laws of the planet we inhabit.
To render such a journey as that which a lost ship makes, in something approximating the undoubted despair and courage, is the task James has set himself here. We might ask why one would bother fictionalising a polar expedition when the journals and writings of participants, including Franklin, are available, but the answer of course lies in the potential access the imagination has to the unknowable. James has clearly felt the aesthetic need to sound out the gap between the extant sources of such expeditions and the way polar regions and the first men who tackled them remain almost mystically out of reach of the 21st-century mind.
Having said that, whether or not the dayafter-day form James has chosen for the voyage gives enough torque to the pace of a naturalistic novel such as this is questionable. There are many tableaus that might have been resequenced through filters of retrospect, diary entry or even through the use of the kind of mental warping plausible enough among the optical illusions of the sea. One wonders also, given that Kitty’s youthful attractiveness has been responsible for her pregnancy and subsequent slightly hackneyed presence on the ship, why James sees fit to exclude almost all questions of sexual desire from the rest of the voyage, even with her ice-bound for more than 18 months on a ship full of men.
As the months and the pages of The Surfacing roll by, the traction of the dire situation increases accordingly, and one is left in no doubt that the linearity and repetition of the historical journeys he has based his fiction on are crucial to what James is striving to capture in the novel. The consistency of his pacing bears slow fruit but the further the journey goes on the more we are willing as readers to kedge our way through his rendition of a madly ambitious, environmentally magnetic but inhospitable world.
Detail from the cover of