Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.
By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.
The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.
Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.
All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.
Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.
Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.
Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”
But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.
Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.
An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.
I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.