Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Voyage of the Narwhal

Novels of discovery are among the oldest, most time-honored forms of fiction in existence. The Odyssey fit that category as did The Aeneid and the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West. In the Twentieth Century, novels of discovery generally fall into two sub-types: adventure novels and sense-of-wonder novels. Adventures are simpler to write and run the gamut from pulp adventures to rich, worthy epics. Sense-of-wonder novels are more difficult to write because they require keeping the reader intellectually stimulated without falling back on many of the clichés at the disposal of adventure writers. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama is a science fictional prototype of this sub-genre.

Being a fairly demanding reader, I prefer adventure novels that straddle the line between both adventure and sense-of-wonder but which also at least sneak over the line into literature. Thus I was quite excited when Andrea Barrett published her novel The Voyage of the Narwhal. She proved to me with her collection Ship Fever and her novel The Middle Kingdom that she can indeed combine sense-of-wonder–mostly in her love of scientific research, particularly natural science–with adventure and literature. But experience warned me not to expect too much from this novel, since high expectations often lead to resounding crashes.

But not in this case. The Narwhal is a ship traveling between Greenland and Canada in the late 19th century, headed for the Arctic. Apparently that was a popular direction for exploration, and the Narwhal undertakes the rigorous voyage for the usual reasons men engage in such brutal, risky voyages: the naturalist protagonist is seeking specimens from icy northern locales; the captain is seeking personal aggrandizement by discovering the fate of a famous voyager named Captain Franklin who vanished along with his ship while on a similar voyage of discovery years earlier. Franklin’s wife has been encouraging rescue missions, and the media has given such missions the type of publicity which encourages fame-seekers even more.

The first half of the book describes the voyage. Barrett is no wide-eyed adventurer though, and she examines the full extent of the voyage’s brutality and hardships. The captain is soon revealed as an egotist totally pre-occupied with achieving personal fame even at the cost of the lives of his crews and himself. His stubbornness causes the ship to be iced-in during the long winter of 1855-6 which caused incredible hardship on the part of his entire crew. Several people die in accidents caused by the unstable ice, everybody suffers from malnutrition and scurvy, from ice blindness and frostbite, from intense cabin fever and lack of productive activity.

By the time the long winter ends, it is obvious the ship is totally icebound and cannot even escape during the brief thawing of summer. After the captain leaves across the bay to Greenland for his own personal voyage of discovery–the entire weary, frozen crew refusing to accompany him–the remaining crew members wait until the last possible moment to flee on foot before being iced in by another icy, deadly winter. Thus begins an overland voyage with crew members alternately pulling sleds across ice and rowing through occasional open water. By the time they reach a whaling fleet which is itself winter-bound off the coast of Greenland, several people are dead and the others have all suffered permanent injury.

In the telling this all sounds fairly depressing, and at times it is, but Barrett balances harsh realism with sense-of-wonder, the latter mostly coming through the novel’s point of view character Erasmus Wells. A naturalist by profession, he spends the voyage serving both as the captain’s associate and as the ship naturalist. Hence we share rich portions of the life of a naturalist in the frozen northland, gathering both animal and vegetable specimens and relishing every new discovery. But we are also faced with the tribulations in which Erasmus is involved, tribulations caused by the nature of the voyage and the frequent irrationality of the captain. Erasmus’ personality does not make him a suitable foil to the captain, giving in meekly to the captain’s most outrageous demands. At times I wanted to scream as he went along with obviously flawed leadership because he was either unable or refused to protest against the orders of a less-than-reliable authority figure. But it wasn’t totally Erasmus’ fault; after all, the story’s setting was the 19th century, far removed from the late 20th, and people then were much more likely to follow their leaders to the death than to question their every slip and show of weakness.

And that’s only the first half of the novel. The second half takes place back in Philadelphia and examines the aftermath of the voyage. How an amazingly-similar expedition under a Captain Kane arrived back a few months earlier with Kane being widely hailed as a hero; but when Erasmus leads the survivors of his voyage back they are reviled in the press as traitors for abandoning their icebound ship and their captain, even though their situation is amazingly similar to that of the charismatic Captain Kane. Where the first half of the novel was a tale of exploration and sense-of-wonder encased in a winter’s wrapping of personal motivation and developing personal relationships during times of great tribulation, the second half is a study of failure on the part of Erasmus who must learn to live with being widely considered as a traitor, and celebrity on the part of the Narwhal’s captain who miraculously returns to Philadelphia accompanied by two Eskimos and writes a book about his adventures, blithely assuming most of the heroic actions on the voyage were his own, but all of the failures were attributable to his crew. Hailed by the press nearly as much as Captain Kane, he begins a worldwide tour describing his exploits and presenting his two Eskimos to the world.

To describe The Voyage of the Narwhal in a nutshell, it is a novel about failure and salvation. About the failure of the voyage itself; about how the captain salvages something from the failure through carefully-orchestrated lies and deception; about Erasmus’ personal failures as a member of the voyage and in his life back in Philadelphia. But it is also a novel of salvation. For a long time Erasmus does nothing to defend either his reputation, as he certainly has the right since, in many ways, he was indeed the hero of the voyage while the captain was truly the villain–although that is not how either the media or the public view it in hindsight and ignorance–or to defend his home and family from the captain who marries Erasmus’ sister and virtually takes over his house. But when it becomes obvious that the two Eskimos are suffering in their new environment, indeed dying, Erasmus’ anger is aroused enough to make him rebel against his personality weaknesses and take a stand.

The Voyage of the Narwhal contains many high points indeed, and represents Andrea Barrett at the very peak of her talent. Although it is certainly not science fiction–and even the most broad-minded critic would have difficulty fitting it into the alternate history sub-genre–it definitely satisfies all the same requirements that the best SF offers, as well as all the best literature offers. I recommend this book very highly.


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