Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon, with his latest novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, has delivered a high concept work of genre fiction. That's par for the course for Chabon. More broadly speaking, Union's detective novel form will be familiar, but Chabon has made it his own by superimposing the story on a rewritten history, one in which the world's Jewish population was offered a temporary homeland in Alaska following World War II. The conceit is taken from a plan that was actually floated in the late 1930s but never actually went anywhere.But though Chabon has crafted an entire alternate universe to explore, one that seemed to me would be rich with narrative possibilities when I first heard about the book, he uses it instead as little more than backdrop for a detective story of fairly straightforward construction. Not unlike bustling Bangkok provides the colorful backdrop for John Burdett's mystery novels, not unlike Michael Connelly's L.A. or George Pelecanos' D.C. As with many detective novels, both well-crafted and pulp, it is the setting that sets Union apart.Though more ambitious conceptually than his previous work, Union isn't exactly new territory for Chabon. His Pulitzer winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay invents The Escapist, a superhero that captures the public consciousness during the 20th century alongside Superman and Batman. While that's not as impressive an imaginative feat as moving a whole people to the snowy hinterland, it frees Chabon to take his readers from Prague to New York City with a memorable interlude in Antarctica. Kavalier & Clay spans decades and incorporates the century's wars and social movements. In Union we are stuck in the crumbling neighborhoods of Sitka, where a dull grayness follows the action. Through fog, snow, and grime our hero Detective Meyer Landsman plods in his pursuit of a murderer.In many ways Landsman is cut from a familiar "hard-boiled" mold. He is divorced, borderline alcoholic, and living in a fleabag hotel. Though ostensibly washed up, Landsman is preternaturally good at what he does, and Landsman's nearly superhuman powers of observation allow Chabon to unleash a flurry of descriptors and minutia upon every character we meet. "His herringbone trousers are stained with egg yolk, acid, tar, epoxy fixative, sealing wax, green paint, mastodon blood." "His skin is as pale as a page of commentary. His hat perches on his lap, a black cake on a black dish." Elsewhere, the prose is peppered with Yiddish, the preferred tongue of Jewish Alaska.Landsman isn't all hard bitten though. He seems to swing between bravado and self-pity. After Landsman is made aware of a murder that his occurred in his hotel, the murder that is the crux of the book's plot, he must investigate a tunnel leading from the basement, and Chabon takes the opportunity to lay out Landsman's internal contradictions:Landsman is a tough guy in his way, given to the taking of chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, been shot at, beaten, frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or he has functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightless or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.Landsman is, indeed, afraid of the dark, but the darkness is just another demon that haunts him, like the break up of his marriage to Inspector Bina Gelbfish (who has recently become Landsman's boss), and the death of his sister Naomi.But whatever clinical diagnosis fits the brooding Landsman, this book is not a character study, it is a mystery novel. Initially, the dead man appears to be an anonymous junkie, but, as if to justify Chabon's alternate universe, the conspiracy that surrounds the death only grows until we see its global implications.This all dovetails with the overarching predicament of the Alaskan Jews. Their settlement up north was never meant to be permanent, and now, in the present day, political machinations have led to the impending "Reversion" that will set them wandering once again.It was this conceit that had me salivating for this book, but instead Union amounts to a 432-page detective story, colorful and filled with dazzling prose, but weighed down by a clunky plot that schleps along and attempts to live up to Chabon's grand premise.
In “Where We Must Be,” the first story of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a young woman, Jean, is driving north to Washington. After a wasted summer in Los Angeles, during which she failed to find acting work, she passes through one of the redwood forests in Northern California. A sign beside the road advertises, “Actors wanted,” so she leaves the highway and follows a dirt road. Stationed in the cul de sac is a mobile home that functions as an office for a man who arranges “encounters.” Tourists from around the country, Jean discovers, are willing to pay for the opportunity to get chased through the woods by Bigfoot. In a moment of desperation and humiliation, she auditions, stomping around the trailer in costume, “bellowing and shaking [her] arms.” The man hires her immediately. “Where We Must Be,” like most of the stories in this collection, concerns a folkloric animal. The protagonists, or their loved ones, are obsessed with these monsters—the Amazon’s mapinguari, Lake Michigan’s mishegenabeg, the Congo’s mokele-mbebe—but no beasts manifest physically. We see Bigfoot, but only as a costume worn by an actor. Unlike Karen Russell’s St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where humans interact with bizarre creatures in an otherwise literary setting, van den Berg’s freshman effort is far from a fantastical work, indexing fabulism without ever adopting its tropes completely. And this peripheral treatment of the absurd may signal a change in contemporary letters. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline arguably borrowed an aesthetic engendered by Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo (or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for that matter), but George Saunders’ 1997 collection repopularized the critical viability of comic fabulism in the 21st Century, setting off a string of imitators. And though there are some young, stalwart realists—Jhumpa Lahiri, and more recently, Josh Weil—for ten years the lion’s share of new books getting buzz in the literary circles have contained something outlandish. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude has flying children; Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned features vikings. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the fabulist trend. But in practice, a lot of the work that falls into the post-modern, ironic sub-genre lacks real weight. Simply being clever is no doubt easier than balancing ingenuity with pathos. Shakespeare’s jokes released tension, but he didn’t found his plays on them. At her best, Laura van den Berg manages to establish an equilibrium between concept and poignancy. It doesn’t appear she trained to be a realist—there aren’t a lot of camps instructing such writers these days—but she may end up a champion of the movement. There are certainly times when What the World seems structurally transparent. Van den Berg is a well-disciplined storyteller, but in some of the stories the sum of the parts isn’t much more than the sum of the parts. She always introduces her conflict early, then provides a subplot, an accessible over-arching metaphor, and finally a turn. But in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” for instance, about a young woman working in a Manhattan mask store and sleeping with her married boss, the various planks get hammered into place but the surface doesn’t feel sanded. There’s something inorganic about the unfolding of the narrative, as if van den Berg were a politician delivering her catch phrases from the stump; she’s on message, but the tenor of the delivery lacks passion. On the other hand, “The Rain Season,” about a woman who retreats to Africa after her house burns down in Chicago, borders on masterful. “The Rain Season” is one of six stories featuring monsters—in this case mokele-mbebe, the amphibious African jungle reptile descended, as legend has it, from the sauropod family. In the village where the narrator teaches, the monsoon season is impending, and so is civil war. The townspeople spread the rumor that mokele-mbebe has left the forest and killed a farmer, and in deference to tradition, draw the monster’s image in the soil to ward off additional invasions. Van den Berg does nothing specifically to exoticize the setting, but even in a book by a native African, like Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, the sections of the continent ravaged by disease and violence are the ideal breeding grounds for magic. When the hills are full of rebel soldiers who loot, rape, and kill indiscriminately, why shouldn’t the jungle contain a creature with the head of a hippopotamus that devours children? Yet in “The Rain Season,” mokele-mbebe is not a distraction from the human story. Rather the legend is a cultural articulation of fear, and the way van den Berg handles the relationship between fable and fact is pitch perfect. In a collection that can feel at times numbed by grief and loss, “The Rain Season” rises above distress, even approaching sentimentality. Normally I’d be opposed to a story at whose core are piteous children (“The Rain Season” contains a near saccharine scene: a semi-orphaned student gives his teacher a beautiful, handmade object), but as a counterpoint to the tragedy encapsulating the rest of the tale, a little maudlin gauze feels not just permissible, but necessary. Before the book’s release, Barnes & Noble chose What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us for its “Discover Great New Writers” series. Undoubtedly, this is a boon for Ms. van den Berg. But more importantly, if her collection continues to gain traction, realism and sincerity, like some rough beast borne on slow thighs, may have finally reemerged from the forest. Van den Berg is writing a novel, now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that book she discards the surreal elements altogether. She doesn’t need them.
1. Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle: My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me. “What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me. I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.” They’re speaking lines from "The Stranger," a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society. The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy's being carried along in his father's strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development. In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen. Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home. The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft. This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen. 2. Who will you become? It's an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in "Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery: At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in. A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn't been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked. Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding. By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson's remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.
César Aira’s novels are the narrative equivalent of the Exquisite Corpse, that Surrealist parlor game in which players add to drawings or stories without knowledge of previous or subsequent additions. Wildly heterogeneous elements are thrown together, and the final result never fails to surprise and amuse. Aira is wacky enough to play the game by himself, but the reader isn’t left out either. Instead, Aira conditions his readers, writing so that devotees — what Aira calls his “deluxe” readers — can recognize the ingenious repetitions that connect his vast and bizarre body of work. The author of more than 80 books, most of them short novels, Aira tells interviewers that he writes a page and a half each day in neighborhood cafés of Buenos Aires. He also famously denies revising anything he writes. Instead, as he explained to María Moreno in BOMB magazine, he allows real-life distractions and interruptions around him to appear in his narratives and push them along: “If a little bird enters into the café where I’m writing — it did happen once — it also enters into what I’m writing. Even if a priori it doesn’t relate to anything, a posteriori I make it relate.” This a posteriori technique of “making it relate” is a modified Surrealist technique that Aira sometimes calls his “flight forward.” It’s a creative process favored not only by Aira himself, but also by some of his characters: the title character of The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira and the Mad Scientist protagonist of The Literary Conference both mention “flight forward” as an element of their respective modes of invention. “Deluxe” readers with more extended immersion in Aira’s zany brain take delight in the metaphysical fugues that result from this madcap method: it is not uncommon for Aira’s unhinged narratives to devolve into delirious flights of reason capable of overthrowing the entire plot, just when the reader least expects it. As Dr. Aira believes: “Reason is one mode of action, nothing more, and it has no special privileges...In order to be effective, one had to depart from the purely reasonable, which would always be an abstract way of thinking devoid of any truly practical use.” Here we have César Aira’s philosophy of fiction, thinly disguised as the professional opinion of “Dr. Aira.” On a narrative level, “a posteriori” narration seems to work in at least two different ways. Sometimes Aira begins a novel by placing ambitious distance between its starting point and putative end: this is the case in How I Became a Nun, which begins with a male child narrator called César describing his first visit to an ice cream parlor with his father. Other novels begin with a highly improbable combination which Aira then relates, a posteriori, as he goes along. This is the case with The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, which tells the story of a blundering middle-aged miracle worker beleaguered by his nemesis Dr. Actyn, a conventional MD bent on ruining Dr. Aira’s reputation by using hidden cameras to expose him as a fraud. Employing hordes of extras and elaborately staged verité snares, Actyn has made Dr. Aira’s life a living hell by subjecting him to the constant suspicion that he’s being duped. Miracle work and hidden-camera reality TV shows are far from peanut butter and jelly, but Aira’s flair for a posteriori plotting is seventy-something novels in the making. He pulls it off. There isn’t much else to the plot. Even if I revealed whether or not Dr. Actyn succeeds, I wouldn’t haven’t spoiled anything. Like most of Aira’s novels, the plot of The Miracle Cures is scaffolding. The book is mostly an erratic hodgepodge of digressive interior monologue, and the tale of the persecuted miracle worker playfully flirts at being nothing more than a metaphor for Aira’s flighty methods of literary creation. For instance, when Dr. Aira gets talked into granting another Miracle Cure after swearing them off, the narrator observes: Dr. Aira could have gotten out of it by telling them that there had been a mistake, a misunderstanding; he was a theoretician, one could almost say a “writer,” and the only thing that linked him to the Miracle Cures was a kind of metaphor... Such blunt meta-referentiality may appear tedious, but it’s actually hilarious. The joke will be half-lost on novice, non-deluxe readers, so those new to Aira ought to begin by reading a few of the other novels available in translation. This kind of readerly “training” will reveal that enjoyment of Aira’s novels has much less to do with what happens than with the digressive commentary on and acrobatic connections between what few plot elements there are. As he told María Moreno, In spite of all my admiration for Surrealism and Dadaism I never liked the mere accumulation of incongruous things. For me, everything has to be sewn together in a very conventional fashion...That sinuous thread in my novels is more interesting to me, more writeable, than a linear plot. To extend the sewing metaphor: Aira is like Penelope at the loom, but a sort of Penelope on speed. Instead of unraveling his creations in order to avoid completing them, Aira hurtles forward, churning out finished texts that seem to unravel themselves as they’re read. Over the last twenty years, Aira has made a trademark of writing at a rate that seems intended to prevent readers from ever catching up with him, a superproductivity that has also earned him criticism as a dilettante obsessed with lowbrow genre-fiction. Even for native Spanish readers in Latin America, access to Aira’s total catalog is difficult. He does this on purpose, requiring readers to search him out by favoring what he calls “those independent, almost clandestine publishers” that produce artisanal editions of his novels. This includes the cartonera presses in Latin America, which publish handmade books on recycled cardboard and paper collected by underemployed urbanites. Some of his novels, snatched up by collectors and foreign libraries, are hard to find. This means that Aira’s own method for reading — “when I start on an author I read him completely” — is unavailable to his own readers. Catching up with Aira in English translation will take even longer. Although he has been publishing steadily since the early 1980s — several novels annually in nearly every year since 1991 — English translations have lagged. The Miracle Cures is only the seventh of Aira’s books to be translated to English. This might have less to do with Aira than with vagaries of the North American publishing industry. New Directions is of course responsible for Anglophone readers’ access to Aira’s work, having published six of the seven available translations. For this we must be grateful. But they also appear to have delayed a more ambitious translation schedule for Aira until they have squeezed every last story and novel out of the desk stuffed with manuscripts that Roberto Bolaño seems to have left behind when he died in 2003. In any case, readers smitten with Aira’s whimsical philosophizing and swerving narratives need not fear further delay: Aira’s star is now on the rise among the Anglophone literati. Varamo, the most recent Aira translation, received praise from The Nation, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the ever-hip Patti Smith. Bolaño nevertheless remains a looming presence — he is often mentioned when likenesses to Aira are sought. The comparison is perplexing, though, as the two writers have little in common from a stylistic standpoint. Descriptions of Aira as a 21st-century Borges are also inevitable; comparisons of the two Argentines are instructive, but remain inadequate. A closer resemblance might be Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin, whose work remains untranslated but for his novel Beauty Salon and the three others collected in Chinese Checkers. Like Aira, he publishes at a frenetic rate (more than 15 books since 2001), having abandoned the modernist prerogative of the masterpiece novel in favor of larger, complex novel-systems composed of dozens of short novels that intersect and recycle characters and plot elements. Both writers also indulge in a habit of styling their protagonists after themselves, with many a “César” and “Mario” — and the occasional “Dr. Aira” — between them. These personalized novelistic universes have exploded with a Big Bang in Latin America, where writers struggled for decades to emerge from the long shadow of “Boom” generation writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez. Now that the reverberations are finally getting across the language barrier — and getting hyped by Patti Smith — we can anticipate an accelerated explosion of César Aira’s universe in English.
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Leave it to a molecular biologist to so lyrically detail the scent of hyper-condensed sperm whale poop. Christopher Kemp, in his first nonfiction book, Floating Gold: A Natural (& Unnatural) History of Ambergris, writes It has taken decades to become the substance I am holding in my hand. In its complex odor is reflected every squall and every cold gray wave. I am smelling months of tidal movement and equatorial heat—the unseen molecular degradation of folded compounds slowly evolving and changing shape beneath its resinous surface. A year of rain. A decade spent swirling around a distant and sinuous gyre. A dozen Antarctic circuits. Ambergris. People have used ambergris (‘gray amber,’ French) for a long time -- Moctezuma added it to his tobacco, Casanova to his chocolate mousse, England’s King Charles II to his eggs; 17th-century French physicians used it to cure rabies, Florida’s American Indians as an antidote for fish poison, and today, companies like Chanel and Guerlain as fixative in their most expensive perfumes. But exactly what it is or how it’s produced has a long history of misunderstandings. Before Nantucket whalemen hacked it out of sperm whales’ intestines in the early 18th century, Europeans were mystified by the fragrant nubbins randomly washing ashore. To name a few mistaken sources, among a long list compiled by Kemp, it was at one time or another thought to be the fruit of underwater trees, extra-terrestrial rocks, or fossilized tree sap; the Chinese called it “dragon’s spittle.” Still, we can’t seem to get it exactly right. Just last month Canadian researchers found that a compound from balsam fir trees can effectively replace ambergris in perfumes. Following the discovery were a number misinformed headlines: “Breakthroughs in Science: ‘Whale Barf’ Is No Longer Needed to Make High-End Perfume” (The Atlantic, 6 April 2012); “Your Perfume may soon be free of Whale Vomit" (New York Daily News, 9 April 2012). But as the Tasmanian fisherman Louis Smith could have told you -- who, Kemp uncovered, in 1891 wormed his way down the bowels of a beached sperm whale to find a 162-pound hunk of ambergris -- it definitely is not vomit; it definitely comes out the other end. Kemp, an American working at New Zealand’s Otago University, became interested in ambergris when a small boulder of tallow washed ashore and, mistaken for ambergris, was sliced up into assumingly small fortunes by the local Kiwis. At $20 per gram, that meant the authentic 32-pounder Lorelee Wright found on an Australian beach in 2006 was worth about $300,000. After finding disparagingly little literature on ambergris -- aside from a handful of passages in old books -- Kemp set out to write something like the first Concise History of Ambergris, chapter-to-chapter playing cetologist, maritime historian, and, after he sets out to find his own piece, lottery junkie. In his treasure hunt, we follow him from distant, windswept coastlines (my favorite, the “biscuit-colored apron of sand” notched in the little wet Stewart Island off the southern coast of South Island, New Zealand) to dusty storage rooms in the bowels of museums. Along the way Kemp parses centuries of one of the more fanciful natural histories, illuminating a not-so-distant past of scientists flailing around to understand the natural world. Right around the time the first American paper on ambergris was published (1720s, by Zabdiel Boylston, Cotton Mather’s physician), appeared papers on “The Height of a Human Body, between Morning and Night,” and “Some Observations Made in an Ostrich, Dissected by Order of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart.” It’s hard not to fall in love with ambergris, or the concept of ambergris as the unknowable embodiment of the sea, along with Kemp. Here is a solid lump of whale feces, weathered down—oxidized by salt water, degraded by sunlight, and eroded by waves -- from the tarry mass to something that smells, depending on the piece and whom you’re talking to, like musk, violets, fresh-hewn wood, tobacco, dirt, Brazil nut, fern-copse, damp woods, new-mown hay, seaweed in the sun, the wood of old churches, or pretty much any other sweet-but-earthy scent. Borne in whale guts to be crushed and dabbed on the wrists and necks of the elite. In following Kemp to where spume and salt and storms dash the seaboard -- and all the Moby Dick references—I can’t help but think of Ishmael, ruminations on sea and land blowing through the pages. Kemp’s treks along the fringes of distant islands, his ponderous observations of thunderheads -- “enormous black columns that tower thousands of feet into the sky” -- washing over remote beaches, strike the same chords as Melville’s Ishmael in the crow’s nest, lulled by “the blending cadence of waves with thought, that at last [a young sailor] loses his identity”. There’s that same ebbing away of self as Kemp tries to find a nubbin that looks and smells both singular and like everything, clear up a history that gets increasingly obscure, pry answers from an almost-legal network of tight-lipped ambergris hunters roaming the beaches with their ambergris-sniffing dogs, and pin down scent-descriptions from lyrical French perfumers until he finally loses track of what he was looking for in the first place, only to find something else. At some point, he begins to trust ambergris’s mystery. No matter how many pieces he smells and touches, it is as unknowable and varying as the sea. It is, as he noted in his description of its smell, a history of sea itself.
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