Im­pe­tus for a long jour­ney into the white

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gre­gory Day

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.

The Sur­fac­ing

De­tail from the cover of

by Cormac

James

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