To The White Sea: Zack Handlen's comments

To The White Sea: Zack Handlen'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.

Like Scott, I find a lot of the books I read through movies, so while I hadn’t heard of To The White Sea before he pitched it, I had read Deliverance. If you’re only familiar with the movie, the novel is worth checking out. It isn’t that different plot-wise from the film, but as with White Sea, the first-person narration is mesmerizing. Of course in Deliverance, that narration comes from Ed Gentry, the city-dwelling sophisticate played by Jon Voight in the movie, so it’s a little light on the lynx-loving, college-girl-murdering, swan-feather-plucking aesthetic.

One of the things I enjoy most in good first-person novels is how the voice removes the writer’s ability to guide us to moral judgments. It’s possible to read, say, Catcher In The Rye, and come away deeply moved by Holden Caufield’s struggle to find empathy and purpose in a shallow, alienating world; it’s also possible to think he’s a self-centered, nihilistic twit. J.D. Salinger surely had an opinion on this, but because the entire story comes to us through one character’s perspective, and because Salinger is too good of a writer to step in and point, we have to draw our own conclusions. Even better, that lack of clear intent makes it possible to maintain more than one perspective on the story—like, the last time I read Catcher, I still loved it, but I couldn’t help noticing how many of the people Holden considers “phonies” are only seen through his own inability to connect with anyone. So he’s self-centered, and but his struggles are still moving.

My experience with White Sea was a good deal starker, because clearly, Muldrow ain’t no nice guy. Because we start behind his eyes and stay there, we don’t have an immediate way to recognize his wrongness; the first few people he kills are easy to justify, and he’s resourceful and adaptable, which is how everybody likes their heroes to be. But then he keeps on killing, and it’s not so much that the murders aren’t always necessary (I don’t think all of them were, but it’s debatable), it’s that he experiences no horror in the act. Occasional stabs of regret, sure, but those are centered around the proficiency of the person killed, and not the murder itself. Then there’s the passage where it seems like he cuts somebody’s head off for no reason. I re-read this a couple of times, because I wasn’t sure if he’d just cut the head off a dummy, or if he really had decapitated the old woman by the water-wheel. Honestly, I’m still not completely sure, but it definitely seemed like he did, and that’s just not right.

Yet while I became increasingly disturbed by Muldrow’s actions, I kept rooting for him to survive, because the survival made for an exciting narrative, and because he deserved it even if his actions were deplorable. This created a terrific tension whenever a new character entered the story, because I was worried both for Muldrow’s safety and for the safety of whomever had the misfortune to stumble across him. Plus, without any clear sign from Dickey about what I was supposed to be making of the man, I kept being surprised by what he was willing to do, what he wanted, and what he obsessed over. By the end, I couldn’t help wondering if his actions, though increasingly ugly, weren’t some kind of pure representation of the Zen philosophy of nothingness. That invisibility he craves—the passages where he tries to explain it are amazing writing—means that his eventual death is actually what he was always pushing toward. You can’t be sure whether that’s it’s justice or transcendence or both.

On to Scott’s questions!

1. Well, I think I sort of answered the first part above; basically, I love a book like this because it expresses concepts about morality that I’m not comfortable putting into words.

2. White Sea had more story urgency. It had a goal, and forward momentum; Blood Meridian is more of a wallow than a sprint.

3. I felt like the war was largely irrelevant. It created a situation for certain aspects of Muldrow’s personality to flourish in, and then it was left behind. I don’t think he was created by war, but you could make an argument that the conditions of war encourage the persistence of men like Muldrow. Again, though, he just seemed so disconnected from organized, culturally acceptable violence that I can’t really connect the two.

4. Book kicked my ass. I dug the ending, but the line where he casually reveals he murdered the college girl he had an affair with surprised me, at a point where I didn’t think I could be surprised anymore by his capacity for harm. Another great thing about first-person is that it means the writer can control how information is presented, not only through immediate context, but by filtering it through the character presenting it. To him, the murder wasn’t any real thing, so the sharpness of the sentence seems incidental. I kept waiting for an explanation. I think either she caught him doing some kind of illegal hunting, or (and this is based on his reaction to the tribesfolk and their bears) he wasn’t happy with how she handled nature. The latter makes more sense to me.

5. I dunno, but “swan lake” is going to conjure up different images, for sure. I loved how unsettling Muldrow was in that sequence, especially; the way he could appreciate the beauty of a scene, and how that appreciation would in no way stop him from using it exactly as he saw fit. 

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