To The White Sea: Donna Bowman's comments

To The White Sea: Donna Bowman's comments

The livechat discussion of To The White Sea will take place this Thursday, December 3, at 3:30 p.m. CST. Check this space at that time for the link to participate.

I've always loved novels that feature long descriptions of How To Get Stuff Done.  The first time I can remember encountering this particular trope -- and falling head over heels for it -- is a sequence in one of the Little House On The Prairie books that describes how to make a door latch.  Over and over again, I read the carefully delineated steps (boring holes, attaching strings, whittling and sanding wood), picturing them in my mind until I could see the whole apparatus crystal clear. 

As soon as Muldrow climbed into the cab of the crane and planned to wait until the firebombing the next day, I saw that this novel was going to be one long description of How To Survive In Enemy Territory, and I settled back to look forward to How To Disguise Yourself As A Native, How To Find Food, How To Travel Undetected, and How To Avoid Dying Of Exposure.  James Dickey gave me all of that, and more.  I never tired of turning the pages to see what his protagonist was going to do with that bag of feathers next, not to mention what boat he would find or steal or stow away on to get to the northern island.  Naturally it bothered me when he killed some poor panicked Japanese man to get his clothes, and even worse, when he stabbed the woman in the water; there was absolutely no recognition of those people as fellow human beings, and it was clear that something was missing in Muldrow.  But I saw that this was all part of How To Survive.  Hunting is not just for animals.  You do what you have to do, and that means there's no time for sentiment. 

Except there seemed to be ample time for sentiment about things other than human.  Muldrow sees himself as a wild thing, a kindred spirit to the animals, and he believes in living an animalistic life.  Which means that the religious ceremony of the bear people as they prepared to slaughter the cubs sickened him.  No time for that kind of propitiation.  It's predator and prey.  You enjoy your status as predator, and if you happen upon the occasion to kill a fellow predator before he kills you, then you do it without futzing around or feeling guilty or grateful.  Yet the symbolism of dominance, wilderness, strength, and beauty increasingly fills Muldrow's head, pushing the reality of the war and the army and everything else farther and farther away.  How To Get Stuff Done gives way to page after page of rough mysticism -- poetic, evocative, even inspirational, but out of kilter with the task of survival. 

I'm not suggesting that Muldrow thinks the two are mismatched.  He sees the emulation of the fisher marten, kinship with the bear, camouflage of the snowshoe rabbit, cunning of the lynx, all of it as the key to survival by becoming part of the great white north.  But I think Dickey portrays him as delusional -- gloriously so, sometimes, but still to a certain extent pathetic.  There is not just one way to appreciate the light, the cold, the movement, the power of nature.  There's not only one right answer.  Muldrow's problem is that he is horrified and disgusted and dismissive of other answers.  He's an Alaskan fascist, ironically enough.  That became clear to me during his visit to the Zen monastery, when he ridicules the American monk and all his colleagues for their rock garden.  Until then, with a few caveats, I had thought Dickey intended Mulgrow to be admirable.  At that point, and then again during his recuperation with the bear people, I saw that Muldrow is a man with an enormous blind spot, one that prevents him from really being human, and that his animalism is horrible as well as awe-inspiring. 

In the final pages, it seems to me, there's some redemption.  Muldrow has a glimpse of another human being -- the falconer -- as a true fellow.  Rather than taking advantage of him, Muldrow takes care of him and learns from him.  And it's not just a skill he learns (after all, he's willing to learn skills from the Nips he so despises).  It's an attitude toward being alone, toward nature, toward the hawks.  For the first time, Muldrow transfers his loyalty from the totems he brought to Japan to a creature he found there.  And although his acceptance of death doesn't necessarily fit into this progression -- it was never survival he was trying to accomplish, really, but the kind of being alive he could only perform in one place, and that was done -- I believe that when he buries the old man, he achieves humanity for the first time in the book.  It may not be a complete soul he grows at last, and of course he never becomes reflective about his own history, but there's movement away from the animalism into which he tried to completely disappear during his journey. 

So my enjoyment of Muldrow's survival expertise was tempered by horror at the gaping hole in his human instincts, an unease that grew as the novel progressed and finally found some relief at the very end.  It's like Dickey wrote the book in order to convict me personally.  You like watching how humans get things done?  Here's the ultimate expression of that -- a human who gets things done by setting humanity aside.  How do you like them apples, Donna?  And at the end, when Muldrow addresses the reader, "You will be able to hear me, just like you're hearing me now," I felt pierced to the quick.  It's a reading experience that will stay with me forever, in that eternal instant when we can stop Muldrow from dying, closing his eyes and becoming an unthinking part of nature, just by lingering on his words. 

I think this whole post has been a discussion of Scott's first question (and let me thank you, Scott, for choosing this magnificent book), but let me just say on his second question that I didn't see this in the same light as Blood Meridian at all.  The solitude of it distinguishes To The White Sea from Blood Meridian, the latter being so much about how human beings posture about power and tell stories about it.  This one was a shocking portrayal of how a human being acts power out and tells himself stories about it, without ever recognizing them as stories. And that was the revelation for me, that Muldrow thought he knew the true nature of things and could keep that to himself as a way to gain power over all around him by tapping into that power of the true nature.  That he didn't know his knowledge was one story among many. 

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