To The White Sea: Ellen Wernecke'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 finished To The White Sea over Thanksgiving, when like most Americans I was suffering the thousand tiny pinpricks of commercial air travel. In the event of a crash, I wouldn’t have survived since I didn’t bother to tape my butter knife to my leg first, but otherwise I think this was the perfect environment to read Dickey’s tale of brute nature and the acts necessary for survival. (I raced through No Country For Old Men on a similar flight; really puts that forced landing in Minneapolis into perspective!) Donna mentioned a detail-heavy passage in Little House On The Prairie; I was put in mind of Hatchet, Gary Paulsen’s young-adult adventure story about a 13-year-old plane-crash survivor in the Canadian wilderness. This isn’t to malign Dickey’s prose, which operates on a different level, and Muldrow is exquisitely prepared for this encounter with nature, as demonstrated by the scene in the barracks beforehand where he reveals several of his tricks to the green gunner, including his conviction that his mental capability will be able to save him. And I was content with the view from inside Muldrow’s head in To The White Sea… up to a point. Then I started to wonder about the ingredients of such a man, especially those he hadn’t chosen to reveal up to that point, and my thoughts wandered away from the time-marking of each day’s perils.
Speaking of his upbringing, Muldrow says his father “told me he wished had been raised like he was raising me,” but alludes to some incident in which he outstripped his father in something. He mentions the college girl he saw naked, who was hoping he would take her into the wilderness. Then he mentions burying her in a creek. Dickey might argue that Muldrow’s history up to this point isn’t necessary for our understanding of the story, but losing the suspense of those first 120 pages left me open to distractions like that.
That said, the episode that stayed with me most comes along a little after that, when Muldrow comes to the house and is forced to lurk around inside behind sets of paper screens that can betray his every noise and movement. It delivers Muldrow perhaps his only equal opponent, the old man of “marvelous quick” armed with a samurai sword and a better knowledge of its interior. In the end, Muldrow outsmarts the man, but shows his humanity. But don’t confuse that with mercy: “I felt building up the need to take a risk,” Muldrow says while he’s lurking around the house, and decides to enter without a real aim, killing not only the old man, but also his defenseless wife.
For most of the book I was flipping back and forth between seeing Muldrow as a concentrating, calculated killer doing what he had to do to survive, and a man suffering post-traumatic stress disorder to the extent that he had begun to see things that weren’t exactly there. He abandons the idea of leaving Japan—the image a typical downed soldier would cling to on such a long, cold ordeal—and trades it for the image of an island that is literally off his map. He plays with his knife for hours on end, believing it to be his “mark.” While watching swans, he hallucinates that he can fly, and states that camouflage can make an animal not just invisible, but disappear. As clinically as he participates in a stampede, kills a man for his boots, and coldly labels the firestorm as merely “a time I wouldn’t want to go through again,” I began to feel that Muldrow was not an animal at all, but a man who has compartmentalized his witnessed horrors so as not to be forced to deal with them, and whose chilling words are the method of self-conviction by which he pushes himself forward into life.
I don’t want to let Muldrow off the hook by allowing that his environment forced him to become some kind of animal. (Besides, as the episode with the herd of goats shows, he doesn’t truly fit among them either.) Killing for clothing doesn’t seem like something an animal would do—it’s the act of a man who has extended his need for survival into a measure of greed. He didn’t need two feather-suits. Despite Muldrow’s actions, he clearly lives by some kind of code—or is it only efficiency? I couldn’t make up my mind, which is probably why the final paragraph in this book is so vivid.
I definitely had a sense of déjà vu from Blood Meridian, but that book has the significant advantage of not being narrated from one perspective. McCarthy’s prose is so much more visceral, Dickey really can’t compete. Still, the physical closeness in which the killings in this book are committed caused them to affect me more than Blood Meridian, even though arguably, the deaths were more necessary for Muldrow’s survival as a lone enemy.
The horror of war never left me, and as Muldrow periodically reminded himself that no one in the country would help him, readers are not allowed to relax into his solitary odyssey as being absent of true predators. (Of course, that turns out not to be true with the Zen Buddhist monk, but it’s almost as if Muldrow resents him for his help and his unmanly, un-American way of living.) Muldrow may be a predator himself, but a few worthy opponents could have easily taken him at any point. I also thought it was interesting how Muldrow ascribes to the Japanese the opposite of every quality he values in himself, from his calm (they’re “excitable” and “talk fast and loud”) to his powers of observation (citing their inability to stand up straight). And of course by “interesting,” I mean racist.
I think the narrative could have worked without the backdrop of the war, but having it there pulls up a set of expectations we have from traditional wartime literature, in whose absence our hero trudges on. We never meet the young enemy combatant who exposes Muldrow’s humanity by dying in an especially poetic way, or the kindly country resident who makes a plea for peace. And when I realized I was unwittingly waiting for them to show up, I was trapped into seeing the draw of the loveless tundra for Muldrow. The understated way in which Dickey describes the chaos after the firebombing, which is more vivid in the Colonel’s telling at the beginning of the book (“All payload, all fire”) than in Muldrow’s eyes, overwhelmed me both with what he didn’t consider worthy of record, and the pathology of the man recording them.