By Cormac James
Bellevue Literary Press, 2015
384 pages, $13.56
Reviewed by N.T. McQueen
In reading Cormac James, there is a synergy between words and action, tone and diction. In The Surfacing, a novel about the ship The Impetus in 1850 and its mission to find Franklin’s lost expedition in the inhospitable and treacherous Antarctic, the reader, through language, is placed on the painstaking voyage in a vicarious way. Much like Morgan and the predominantly Irish crew, the reader feels the isolation and emptiness of, not only the landscape, but of the ship itself. The hopelessness of an improbable mission and the barriers and obstructions, the frigidity of ice, all are conveyed in meticulous detail through every syllable. From Morgan’s detachment from emotion to his lover and their unborn child to his perspective of his cabin mates, the hollow poetics of James’ sentences echo the frigid setting, making the reader wonder, similar to how readers have contemplated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is colder: Morgan’s heart or the ice which they painstakingly traverse?
One can’t deny the McCarthy-esque use of declarative sentences works well in the narrative to convey something far deeper than what it appears on the surface:
In places, the bootprints of those who’d hauled it could still be seen in the snow, that freeze and thaw had turned to stone. Gently, Morgan placed his foot in one of the frozen prints. It had been made by a foot much bigger than his own.
For these sentences, there is no other substitute in terms of aesthetic mirroring tone and depth to the visual image. The absence of quotation marks seems to add to the despondent nature of Morgan and, also, seems fitting. Though punctuated by beautiful, metaphor-rich sentences, usually reserved for the ends of paragraphs and chapters, one can’t help but wonder the purpose of the novel. The structure is episodic, almost written as journal entries with dates and months, but these episodes tend to pile upon one another in a way that begs the question: why? At its core, the novel is about Morgan and his own emotional thawing, but, the journey to this Joyce-ian epiphany trudges along like The Impetus; further and further from understanding and the warmth of emotion towards an inevitable, failed mission. When scenes create tension and build toward symbolic action, the narrative seems to snuff out the momentum and the reader is pulled back into the monotony of life on a ship in the Arctic, mimicking The Impetus’ constant struggle with the grasping, cold grip of the floe.
There is much to admire in the beauty and simplicity of James’ diction. The tone of the novel complements the subject and keeps you reading enough to wonder what transformation could take place in Morgan, Kitty, De Haven, or even Myer. However, these characters are so bereft of empathy it makes the reader linger in a dangerous place of indifference. We learn about the characters on board the ship in fragments, often from heart-breaking letters from home like passing of Morgan’s father and other, more untimely deaths in the crew’s family back home. However, even these glimpses of humanity are not enough to warrant interest, even when some of these characters perish in the unforgiving landscape.
When addressing a historical novel, it is important to ask the question: how does this retelling enhance or alter a perspective on a certain historical event? The Surfacing is successful and fails all at once. Respect must be given at how James uses the setting to speak the story without really saying anything. The landscape, The Impetus, the impending birth, all speak of Morgan’s emergence into endurance and responsibility. By taking the context of a rescue mission, the true rescue is of Morgan who, up to the point of Miss Rink’s pregnancy, has been hardened by the conditions of his life and crept ever closer to moving beyond any emotional sensitivity. Whether he is truly rescued from his own callousness is up to the reader.
In the end, the preference may come down to interest in Franklin’s lost expedition or nautical fiction in general for prospective readers. Other novels like Dan Simmons’ The Terror focus on the mystery of Franklin’s expedition as well and may be an appropriate companion for fans of The Surfacing. For those who simply admire well-written, deep, poetic sentences, then James’ fiction can satisfy that itch as well much like Paul Harding’s Tinkers (which is published by Bellevue as well). The novel simmers with a quiet beauty and solemnity on the surface, but there seems to be, like the ice under The Impetus, nothing to feel.