Far North

The National Book Award nominees are out. In the fiction category, the nominees are:

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I mention this because I read Far North earlier this year, and thought it pretty good and interesting. Lydia Millet — one of the judges for this category, along with Alan Cheuse, Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, and Charles Johnson — raved about it for the Washington Post, although actually I find myself not so convinced by her review. Her opening is perhaps an over-ambitious claim — “Far North may well be the first great cautionary fable of climate change” — and while her conclusion that the book works because of “the imperfection of Makepeace’s understanding of her world, of the complex physical and social revolutions that brought her people to this post-apocalyptic pass” is right, I think, I’m not wild about her attempt to link it to contemporary American life.

Beyond Millet, it has not always been glowingly reviewed. M John Harrison, in The Guardian, found its approach unsatisfying:

There’s a lot of material packed into Far North. A revelatory narrative processes in fits and starts, withholding until last the things the reader most wants to know: how did the world get this way? How does it relate to the world we know? What are we being told about our own bad decisions? But by the time the revelations are made, it’s hard to care. The post-disaster world doesn’t really have a history, only a patchwork of bits and pieces whose existence is authorised by the story rather than the other way round. Despite its centrality in Theroux’s argument, the landscape lacks presence. And apart from Makepeace herself, the characters are not much more than ideograms, each with a simple, formal purpose in the text – the pregnant woman, the gangmaster, the religious lunatic and so on. When one of them develops a backstory and complex motivations, all you feel is surprise: the gaunt narrative suddenly blossoms into a Hollywood plot.

He also argues that “It forgives us our trespasses too soon and too completely.” In The New York Times, Jeff VanderMeer seems to have had similar qualms about the ending, but would have preferred less explanation:

But echoes have their own integrity and resonance. The true flaws in Far North are the coincidences that artificially tie Makepeace’s past to the novel’s present. Without the author’s prodding, would Makepeace really return to the same settlement where she’d already escaped from religious fanatics? Is it believable that the person responsible for Makepeace’s disfigurement runs the work camp? The reader doesn’t need banal explanations, and Makepeace doesn’t need the closure.

In The Telegraph, Tim Martin usefully points out the book’s (real, I think) nod to Stalker/Roadside Picnic, even if he thinks it’s tied up with pacing problems in the second half:

The magic begins to fade in the second half of the book, in which Makepeace, through a series of reversals, finds herself first a prisoner, then a guard in a work camp near the Zone. The conclusion to the narrative – which produces a figure from the distant past to speed things along, a shameless McGuffin in the form of a canister of healing blue light and a final revelation that’s pure Hollywood – feels rushed and out of step with the reflective tone of the rest of the book. Until about 40 pages from the end, Far North feels as though it’ll be the slightly bumpy first book of a promising trilogy: then Theroux begins channelling Stalker, and the book embarks on a headlong sprint to an unsatisfying finish.

Other than Millet’s, the most positive review I’m aware of is Dan Hartland’s, at Strange Horizons, which picks out the book’s Western heritage:

What all this amounts to is a novel which doesn’t practice ambivalence without aiming for safety; a book with a number of cross-currents, which refuses to settle one way or the other, and one which derives its richness from these internal struggles: a weak dystopia, but an informed contribution; a gender puzzle but one uninterested in pushing the study further than the bounds of the character allows. If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively. Much of what is here builds up slowly, by cross-reference, by evocation and allusion, and Makepeace is by novel’s end, if not precisely a revolutionary study in cross-gender role-playing, then nevertheless a solid character with her own particular voice. (So particular, in fact, that early on the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is a voice with discrepancies—the faux-cowboy clunker “I didn’t know him from the oriential Adam”, for instance, or her fortitudinous, “the sight of that made me come over a bit queer”—whereas in reality Theroux is simply brave enough to let it jar as it should.)

In Clint Eastwood’s 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, a character begs, “I don’t deserve . . . to die like this.” His killer, the film’s hero, responds plainly, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” The new Western’s stoic acceptance that the white hats do not always win is more honest, and more in tune with science fiction’s tendency towards the apocalypse or singularity, than its traditional authorising and normalising aesthetic. It also informs every page of Far North, a novel which is carefully written and advisedly magpie-like, and which despite its weaknesses, tensions and evasions, depicts a character and a people who do not deserve to live in the time they do but are intent on survival now they must. It makes for an ambivalent book on all levels; but at times such a novel can leave a reader with more for later than a book more perfectly formed and finally stated.

For my own part, I thought the book more successful than most recent examples of its ilk, and very well controlled; I actually thought the first few chapters more awkward than the closing ones, in part because I read the change in pace that Martin diagnosed as deliberately wrong. My review is here, and there’s at least one paragraph in there that, looking at it now, desperately needs another draft, but I’m still quite happy with the conclusion:

But in this novel it is horribly out of place, jarring, and ultimately Makepeace, and the narrative, discard it. What happens then is that Makepeace escapes, and returns home, where life will go on, regardless of the wider world. This should not be mistaken for a valorization of a “simple life.” “There’s plenty of things I’d like to unknow,” Makepeace tells us at one point, “but you can’t fake innocence.” And then a crucial insight: “Not knowing is one thing, pretending not to know is deception” (99). So her decision to retreat to a self-imposed simplicity, removed from engagement with the world, should be understood with a sadness verging on despair. Makepeace isn’t in at the end of everything, it’s not the end of the world; but, she has decided, it is the end of a world that can afford to remember its past; it’s too late to go back to a world that could cross that gap between present and past. There’s only forward, and for that, the simple ways do, indeed, endure, more than the complexities of civilization. But a blank page is never a cause for celebration.

In sum: worth a look, I’d say, and I’m not sorry to see it getting more attention.

2 thoughts on “Far North

  1. I can’t get Far North out of my head, even with its flaws. I’m glad to see it on the list.

  2. I will only say that I have read a few of Mueenuddin’s stories in the New Yorker and I thought them pretty good.

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