Thursday, November 12, 2009

Book Review: The Sea

In The Sea three stories—two from memory, one in the present—move together simultaneously through the narration of an aging art historian named Max Morden. Max has recently lost his wife to cancer, and has returned to a seaside village where he spent a summer as a boy in the company of the Graces, an upper class family whose complicated relations teased out Max’s burgeoning understanding of “adult themes:” love, death, the mysterious genitals, etc. In particular, he re-examines his romantic relationship with capricious, often-cruel Chloe Grace (what a name!) and her mute twin brother Myles. His scouring examination of people is bitterly funny, and his immediate and unmitigated grief enables him to rediscover the intensity of his feelings as a young boy and trace them to his current full-grown, neurotic, somewhat self-loathing, bloviating, and lonely old man sentiments.

Max uses his arcane and precise vocabulary to reveal his story in all its terrible complexity and beauty, in the way a surgeon might use a scalpel to lay open the complicated viscera of a corpse for a room full of medical students to pick over in awe and disgust. And Max does not find there in his depiction (nor would the med students) the sum of all the parts, the whole—life, or meaning. Nature remains inscrutable. You can see him trying to count all the moments—a first kiss, a slap in the face, a misunderstood conversation—always with an eye to taking an inventory of his own personality to come to some understanding of the origins and destinations of these unknowable feelings. He is good at seeing how things work, but doesn’t always put himself into the picture. (The true-blue Unreliable Narrator, there you are.)

Even as a boy, Max knew he wanted a life as a dilettante, to escape from the scrabbling existence of his working-class mother. His marriage allowed him to secure an easy life, but the unexpected death of his wife affronts his idea of himself: someone who has been lucky enough to slip below the radar. He would have been happy to remain an art critic, examining suffering after it is composed in form and medium, not in its raw and not-at-all-ironic state, as it is in nature, when death is only death. And he looks always to nature for clues, often couching his descriptions in medical or art jargon; the eponymous ocean is on page one “that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead-blue and malignantly agleam.”

Water and death have a pretty solid literary relationship, the former often posed as a means of or vehicle to the latter, and you’ll rarely read a book set on or near the ocean that doesn’t turn out some phrase like “the shore beyond,” “the cold depths,” “something lurking beneath,” and characters or abstract concepts being “swept away,” “pulled under,” “buffeted about,”etc. And The Sea uses this trope, too, but also uses less-evoked natural elements to create expressive metaphors. Chloe’s hair is “almost white but darkening when it was wet to the color of polished wheat,” cars in a parking garage are “ranked neatly there, sleek as porpoises and not making a sound.”

At one point Max chases a memory down a country lane, only to find an old house he knew inhabited now by a stranger, an ugly woman he inadvertently spills his grief to, but as he turns to go he notices the light. “The autumn sun fell slantwise into the yard, making the cobbles bluely shine, and in the porch a pot of geraniums flourished aloft their last burning blossoms of the season. Honestly, this world.” This is one of my favorite passages, as it shows how nature both seems to give expression to Max's deepest and most convoluted sorrows and fears, and to utterly mock them because they are just some geraniums, and have nothing to do with him and his dead wife. In passages like these the book is outstanding, showing that the big events of life (where and when was that first kiss? at what moment did she actually die?) tend to slip away from a meaningful description, yet our memories are punctuated with the small sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that pin these feelings into our lives, even as they escape our comprehension.

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