Monday, March 22, 2010

Marcel Theroux's "Far North": Book Review

"My father spoke six languages but couldn't hammer a nail straight." (215) "It takes no words to do good." Makepeace Hatfield lives "at the end of everything," in "a late chapter in the history of humanity" when global warming scorches the center and shoves a few survivors to the far north of Siberia. There, her father and a few Quaker settlers sought, earlier on during "climate change" as they call it now, a frontier that replaced the westward expansion, towards the welcoming sun, with a harsher challenge that again recalls the American West with its narratives of Manifest Destiny and brutal conflicts that accompany idealistic renewal.

The clash of the dog-end, the remnants of civilization and cities, with those remnants (women tend to be relegated to their ancient roles as gatherers and bearers; men as manual labor and/or thugs) able to survive by their wits, their cunning, and their cruelty dominate the harsh tale this settler's daughter tells. It's a version of the road novel, the picaresque novel, but it's grim rather than humorous. Slavery returns and some choose it to stay alive. Technology appears to have regressed to scavenging scrap metal and relying on what can be built during daylight, measured by handprints.

"The best way to tell how long a thing will last is ask how long it's been around for. The newest things end soonest. And things that have been around for a good long while will last awhile to come." (47)
Makepeace sums up her survivalist philosophy.

Theroux's at his best when channeling this harsh landscape through the eyes and ears of one living off the land as one of the last people who sees a book as knowledge rather than as kindling. He tells neatly of how the Siberian promise for the American settlers soon turned to their own open-air stockade as the starving hordes, few as they'd be, still overwhelming the Quakers and back-to-nature adherents, made their way to the few frozen realms that were spared the climactic collapse.

"In the old days, living on the road was a boon, because it brought in trade. You got the lowest prices and the freshest news of anyone. But after a time the news was only bad. First people turned up hungry, then desperate and begging. Finally they'd just arrive quietly in the night, cut your throat while you were sleeping, take everything you could carry, and vanish like smoke before first light. Even the worst of our town learned to shun that road after a time." (36)

There's subtle allegory to our American expansion myths, as well as Noah, Adam & Eve, and Prometheus. I was reminded of Russell Hoban's "Riddley Walker" and Walter M. Miller Jr.'s "A Canticle for Leibowitz" as post-apocalyptic morality tales mixed with adventure and reflection within scenes allowing little articulation of a clever wanderer's deep thoughts. Some characters seem too easily summed up, but given Makepeace's sharp but honed-down point-of-view, this may reflect her own necessary ability to quickly get the sense of any stranger, for anyone not trusted, and few can be in this pitiless dystopia, represents a rapist, a murderer, and at best a thief.

A few points in the plot appeared towards both beginning and end to be underexplained, but this elision may be credited to how the narrator earns her insights, or when she chooses to reveal them. I did sense a bit of editing that compressed so as to hasten some final revelations, and I wondered why, as this wasn't a movie, why this sense of directed excision stayed with me as a reader. Why "quietus" and "milliards" for "millions" were employed threw me off a bit, but language does evolve even as, heartbreakingly told, Makepeace forgets the constellation names as part of all the acquired knowledge from civilization begins to fade from the memories of those forced back to primitive conditions.

In this moral, "Far North" poignantly reminds us of our fragile progress. I finished this thinking about how our civilization may indeed be rooted but a generation deep, and how quickly under catastrophe and fear our advances could be severed from those who follow such devastation on a shattered planet reverting back to a time when we were barely here to register our presence. All in all, Theroux's continued the legacy of father Paul and uncle Alexander (see all the latter Theroux's books reviewed on this blog and on Amazon US over the past year or two). Marcel's presented a strong novel and despite a few too-ambiguously revealed details, tonally quite a convincing, cautionary tale. (Posted 12-24-09 to Amazon US)

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