Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
When first I learned about Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, I anticipated delicately written and visual riffs on swimming, a topic dear to me. I didn’t realize that Shapton, best known for her art direction and illustrations for The New York Times, was a serious competitive swimmer as a teenager growing up in the Canadian city of Mississauga. What Swimming Studies reveals is how those experiences have guided her, have in fact infiltrated her adult life on a molecular level it seems.
Like Shapton, I too was a competitive swimmer. Unlike her, I’ve never won an officiated competitive race and my times certainly never qualified me for Olympic trials, like hers did. I came to swimming as a kid who loved the water. By default of not being very good at any other sports I ended up on the swim team in middle school and then discovered water polo, drawn to the sport’s splashing full-body-contact. I joined the water polo team in high school and for a few summers played in a league. Because most water polo players were swimmers, during the winter season I too became a swimmer. Five days a week, I’d churn through thousands of yards of water, from time to time I’d do two-a-day practices; I would weight train, carbo-load, and even shave my legs before the big meets. My senior year I was one of the team’s captains, but only because some of my teammates felt bad that I hadn’t been selected to captain the water polo team. It didn’t matter — I had fun. Some of these guys counted among my closest friends, and the team’s coach changed my life (another story for another time). There were a few guys on the team who were on Olympic trajectories, or at least that’s what coaches and parents told them in order to justify their grueling year-round schedules and regimens. I was always happy to cheer them on or be a lap counter for their long-distance races, but that was as close as I got to being a champion swimmer. Swimmers like me had weekends and would go months at a time without structured practices.
My body is not big and lanky and I do not have feet that resemble flippers. No amount of training would have gotten me to the Olympic trials. Physical attributes aside, I never had the drive to be a serious swimmer because I discovered other interests, like the girls’ team and The Grateful Dead. So I simply swam for fun and in doing so built up a familiarity and comfort level with the water that I’ll never lose. I basked in the easy paychecks of lifeguarding at summer camps and country clubs, sometimes earning extra teaching little kids how to do flip turns. To this day, any swim I take, whether doing laps at the Y or floating in whatever body of water I can access, is a pleasure, and a respite from the gravity of life on land.
Doubtless, if we raced, Shapton would beat me, but we both possess, and thrive off, “a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where [our] body is and what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element.” And here we start getting at the heart of the matter and what makes this book astounding. Any dedicated swimmer knows exactly what Shapton means; we sense and control our movements, from the tips of our fingers to the flutter of our feet, breathing very specifically, detecting any shifts in conditions, from the presence of other swimmers to the tug of a current. For those intimidated by the water, such intimacy with it is horrifying, or at least serious enough that you never go out beyond where the waves break. But Shapton pares down her experiences as a swimmer and grafts the core lessons to other parts of her life, allowing them to bloom in ways that have everything and nothing to do with swimming.
Surprisingly, the most important lessons are not about her life as an artist, but as an individual and as a woman, a woman who learns to love herself and others. As a swimmer trying to make the Canadian Olympic team, she was a machine honing in on a number, an all-consuming quantifiable ideal, as recounted in a passage about a solitary early morning pre-training breakfast, consisting of her own milky instant bran muffin mix concoction:
I put the batter-filled mug in the microwave and set the time to 1:11:00, the time I want to swim the SC 100m breaststroke in 1987. Then I cover my eyes with one hand, finger on the start panel, imagining my starting block and the pool…I push Start on the microwave. Breath, dive. In the kitchen, in my track pants, there are eight or nine strokes the first length, a two-handed touch, and silence again at the turn…Halfway down the pool on my final length I hear sharp beeping and open my eyes – the microwave is flashing 00:00:00. Too slow by about five seconds.
Competition, especially at the Olympic level, makes all too clear the risks of striving for perfection. The importance I attach to swimming is very real, but swimming has never been the basis of my identity. For Shapton, at least for a time, it was — a chlorine-cured identity built of a body and mind constantly processing lap times and adjusting stroke lengths to achieve record swims. What her elegant prose allows to float slowly to the surface with the fluid definition of air bubbles is the fact that because she did not succeed at the Olympic trials she has succeeded in life by learning that life is “complicated, mostly sad, and mostly beautiful.”
Living in northern California after college, I always got a kick out of never really being able to swim in the frigid Pacific waters, even during summer, but during the winter always being able to find an open outdoor pool. It was in these years when I met the woman I would marry. Here again Shapton and I share something else in common: a bond with our spouse forged by water. In the case of my wife, I taught her to be more at ease in the water by teaching stroke mechanics and the importance of exhaling when your face is submerged. And while she still refuses to join me out in the big swells off a beach like Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, I turned her on to swimming as exercise and the joys of long relaxing paddles through the tranquil waters of lakes in central Maine.
James, Shapton’s husband, imparted to her something even more important than taking a shine to water: “Watching him in the waves, I realize he doesn’t see life as rigor and deprivation. To him it’s something to enjoy, where the focus is not on how to win, but how to flourish.” As Shapton comes to terms with her life as being more than just a swimmer, her flourishing is the ability to share herself with James, her family, friends, and herself in a way that had not been possible when she was more a swimmer chasing a record than an individual.
Exploring memories of meets and practices, while also talking to her family and friends today, and paying close attention to swimmers of all sorts, Shapton is able to identify competitive swimming’s influence on her out of the water. We learn that next to her bed she keeps a framed black-and-white photograph of a woman swimming. In Shapton’s mind, the swimmer is oblivious to the photographer: “It reminds me of the love I have for James when he doesn’t know I’m looking at him.” Reading of Shapton’s process of accepting her new relationship with pools, she unpacks several such insights and perspectives, referring not only to her relationships with people but with her approach to art.
Trading water-pruned fingers for ink-stained ones, Shapton recognizes the similarities between the two equally ambitious pursuits. “Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins,” she writes, “they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.”
The coral blue cover stamped with a dark blue swimming cap makes clear that Swimming Studies is indeed meant to be a physical object, a piece of art. The book features some of Shapton’s watercolors. Their subtleness is strikingly appropriate. The same as a flailing splashing crawl stroke does not result in swimming fast, no matter how quickly you move your arms, Shapton knows how to make both her written and visual ideas glide, concealing the hard work necessary to create the perception of effortlessness. All that matters is the end result. Though in this case, the artwork is secondary because Swimming Studies is not about Leanne Shapton the artist, it is about Leanne Shapton the person, and while swimming, visual arts, and other people are all vital components in her existence, she has learned how to define them, rather than let them define her: swimming not as a way of life but life as a way of swimming.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Empathy in fiction is a strange thing. It is possible to experience an imaginative connection with a character in a novel that would almost certainly be beyond us were that character a real human being in the world. A character’s actions, no matter how terrible, are often secondary to the way in which he or she is presented, particularly when that character is a first-person narrator. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert is an extremely obvious — and an obviously extreme — example of this. He’s a murderer, a kidnapper, a pedophile and, in a way that manages to seem somehow independent of these attributes, a fundamentally distasteful person. And yet we want to spend time with him. We want to hear what he has to say, and not just because it’s so horrible, or because of the famously fancy prose style in which he says it. There’s a part of us that connects with him, even as we recognize that we would never, or could never, do the ugly things he does. He is, as a fictional creature, more human to us than any of his countless real-world counterparts.
If we’re talking in purely utilitarian terms — if we stick to the basic moral spreadsheet of his actions — Eli Sisters, the narrator of Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt’s Booker-shortlisted The Sisters Brothers, is probably a worse guy than Humbert Humbert. As a professional hit man in the gold-rush era American West, he has, in partnership with his older brother, Charlie, killed an awful lot of people. And he doesn’t seem to have any particular inclination to conceal the unpleasantness of his actions from the reader (he is not, as far as it’s possible to tell, a remotely unreliable narrator). He lives an ugly life in an ugly world. About a third of the way into the novel, for instance, we see him perform an astonishingly unpleasant sequence of actions. Charlie has just shot a prospector who had been holding Eli at gunpoint. The bullet having relieved him of the back of his skull “like a cap in the wind,” the presumably (but not explicitly) dead prospector’s brain is now exposed. Eli then informs us that he “raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognizable as the head of a man.” His rage still unsubdued, he disappears into a forest and lowers his trousers, ostensibly to check the state of his leg after its being prodded by the barrel of the prospector’s rifle. He briefly considers returning to the body to mutilate it further, but decides against it. “My pants were still down,” he recalls, “and after collecting my emotions I took up my organ to compromise myself.” This, we are informed, is a technique suggested to him many years previously by his mother as a means of dealing with his sometimes unmanageably violent temper.
The remarkable thing about the scene is the way in which deWitt makes this horrible stuff seem as though it were happening to Eli. We see him not so much as the perpetrator, but as the victim, first of the prospector’s aggression, then of his own rage. When he stamps on the man’s already adequately traumatized cranium, we wince not so much for the sickening brutality of the act he commits as we do for Eli’s own sake — out of sympathy for someone who is not nearly as cool a customer as he needs to be in his line of work, and for someone whose propensity toward savage violence might reveal a deeply scarred psyche. The prospector himself barely enters into the emotional equation; he is merely the cause, and then the focus, of Eli’s rage. Empathy in fiction, as I’ve said, is a strange thing. And the fact is that Eli is an extremely likeable character. We want him to get along, even when getting along involves murdering people for no other reason than that he’s being employed to do so.
The plot is an extremely simple one: Eli and Charlie have been instructed by their boss, a ruthless businessman referred to as the Commodore, to travel from Oregon to San Francisco in order to assassinate a former associate with the delightful name of Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know why Warm has to die, and neither do they express any real interest in the question; they simply know they have to find him via a go-between named Henry Morris and murder him. Eli wants to stop killing. It’s not that he feels any particular guilt about it, so much as that he’s just sick of the blood and the suffering and constant danger. He has little natural aptitude for or attachment to the art of murder. Eli has vague plans to open a drapery shop once the Warm assassination is complete, but Charlie — by far the more accomplished and enthusiastic killer, and the dominant brother — dismisses and ridicules Eli’s plans to settle down and go straight. We’re in familiar territory, in other words; deWitt doesn’t have much apparent interest in subverting his chosen genre.
The novel’s structure is episodic, with each short chapter detailing a tightly delineated incident, and advancing the brothers further along their trajectory towards San Francisco and the doomed, mysterious Warm. There are countless diverting episodes along the way. The brothers spend the night in an abandoned house with an old woman who appears to be a witch; the portly Eli falls for a hotel manageress who bluntly informs him she prefers less bulky men, and so he tortures himself with a 19th-century version of a crash diet; Charlie inflicts a series of debilitating hangovers upon himself and overdoes it on the curative laudanum. They meet an impressive array of vividly drawn characters on their travels, whom they as often as not rob, murder, or in some other way mistreat. DeWitt’s exploitations of the picaresque form are striking, and he has a wonderful way of exercising his comic gifts without ever compromising the novel’s gradual accumulation of darkness, disgust, and foreboding. Much of this has to do with Eli’s narration, which is a strange and lovely linguistic artifact, curiously formal in its delivery and yet intimate and unguarded. Early on, Eli suffers a grotesque swelling of his head and visits an amateur dentist who, after inflicting a series of minor atrocities on his oral cavity, introduces him to the new concept of oral hygiene. He shows Eli “a dainty, wooden-handled brush with a rectangular head of gray-white bristles” and demonstrates “the proper use of the tool, then blew mint-smelling air on my face.” Eli’s evangelical conversion to this new “method” provides a running joke throughout the book, but it is also one of the countless wonderful ways in which deWitt humanizes a narrator who would otherwise be in danger of seeming, if not quite monstrous, then certainly a very bad person. Later, he bonds with the hotel manageress through their shared enthusiasm for the newfangled brush and paste. It’s one of the novel’s many moments of quiet, restrained absurdity:
I elected to show the woman my new toothbrush and powder, which I had in my vest pocket. She became excited by the suggestion, for she was also a recent convert to this method, and she hurried to fetch her equipment that we might brush simultaneously. So it was that we stood side by side at the wash basin, our mouths filling with foam, smiling as we worked. After we finished there was an awkward moment where neither of us knew what to say; and when I sat upon her bed she began looking at the door as if wishing to leave.
The scene appears to be playing coy; the shared vigour of the tooth-brushing seems like an obvious stand-in for a more erotic intimacy. But we already suspect, and will soon find out for certain, that the woman is nowhere near as chaste as Eli wants to portray her here (she’s already had a grubby commercio-sexual exchange with Charlie upstairs), and neither is the novel itself. The scene is a sort of reverse feint, in other words, in that it seems to be doing more than it is, as opposed to doing more than it seems. It really is about Eli’s enthusiasm for the toothbrush, and his delight in sharing his enthusiasm with a woman to whom he has taken a shine. Even when he’s involved in much grimmer activities, he is a curiously innocent man. The stiff-backed composure of his language, though, is the major source of his charm. It’s hard not to smile at words like “equipment” and “method” being applied to the accoutrements of tooth brushing, and it’s impossible not to like Eli for the childlike joy he takes in them.
Eli may be a likeable guide, but the territory he takes us through is bleak and nightmarish, teeming with malice and greed, with violent lusts and blank antipathies. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy have inevitably been made, and it’s a reasonably fair point of reference, but the connection finally has more to do with subject matter than style. It’s hard not to think of Heart of Darkness, too, what with the mounting sense of dread, the confrontation of the bestial forces beneath the veneer of civilization, and the apparently Kurtzian figure of Warm. There are moments of fierce visual potency that seem like a gift to whoever might end up directing the seemingly predestined film adaptation (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coen Brothers were already mustering their forces). There’s a particularly chilling descriptive passage, for instance, where Eli is skinning a bear he is forced to shoot when it attacks his beloved horse, Tub. His observation of the skinned animal amounts to an eerie vision of nature as an engine of death and ruthless, unceasing assimilation. “The carcass lay on its side before me,” he tells us, “no longer male or female, only a pile of ribboned meat, alive with an ecstatic and ever-growing community of fat-bottomed flies. Their number grew so that I could hardly see the bear’s flesh, and I could not hear myself thinking, so clamorous was their buzzing.” DeWitt then inserts a visual detail which is both beautiful and utterly grotesque, and which caused me to put down the book and pause for a moment in order to savor its inspired creepiness. “When the buzzing suddenly and completely ceased,” Eli recalls, “I looked up from my washing, expecting to find the flies gone and some larger predator close by, but the insects had remained atop the she-bear, all of them quiet and still save for their wings, which folded and unfolded as they pleased.” There is something unaccountably horrible about that moment of silence and, in particular, the wings folding and unfolding “as they pleased.” It’s entirely peripheral to the narrative, and to the scene in which it takes place, and yet it somehow encapsulates the stark and singular malice of the world the novel portrays.
The book becomes incrementally darker the closer the Sisters boys get to tracking down Warm, but it never comes close to being overwhelming, or even, finally, all that disturbing. For all that Eli’s narrative is beautifully composed, and for all the vividness of deWitt’s depictions of mid-19th-century California as a hellish chaos of gold-rush greed, the novel feels, in the best sense, like a high-grade entertainment. The darkness it conjures is closer to Frank Miller than Cormac McCarthy. Even its most troubling moments have a cartoonish aspect to them. The depiction of the removal of Tub’s infected eye by a spoon-wielding stable hand, for instance, is unflinchingly graphic, but there’s a sly preposterousness to the scene in the first place, a knowing gratuitousness, that makes it more gross than genuinely harrowing. Similarly, the passage in which Warm dictates the words to be inscribed on a friend’s tombstone refuses to be fully serious even as it stares down life with seemingly Nietzschean intensity. “Most people,” he intones, “are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change their lives for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood — weak blood, diluted — and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.” By the time Warm’s dictation reaches its bombastic conclusion (“There is no God”), it has long since been tipped over into absurdity by its sheer length and grandiosity, both of which attributes render it comically ill-suited to tombstone inscription. A comparable effect is achieved elsewhere, when Warm recalls his sociopathic father, a German inventor who was forced to flee to America due to his “specific area of deviancy” (presumably sexual, although never actually identified). The elder Warm’s inventions are insane, but strangely believable. One of them provides a disturbing distillation of the desires for power, wealth, and primacy that fuel the savage economy the novel portrays. “He invented,” Warm tells Eli, “a gun with five barrels that fired simultaneously and covered three hundred degrees in one blast. A hail of bullets, with a slim part, or what he called Das Dreieck des Wohlstands — The Triangle of Prosperity — inside of which stood the triggerman himself.” There are many moments of genuine humour in The Sisters Brothers, but deWitt is also very good at this kind of queasily unfunny joke. The kind of joke, in other words, which is in no more or less terrible taste than history itself.
There is a sense, toward the end of the novel, that deWitt has not done quite as much with his endearing narrator and his compelling narrative style as he could have. The a-to-b of the plot is a little too straightforward to be satisfying, and there’s not much to be had in the way of an emotional pay-off in the jarringly sweet final pages. Despite the depravity and violence he depicts (and is responsible for), Eli never gets much beyond establishing that the world is a dark and unpleasant place, and that he vainly wishes it could be otherwise; there’s not, in this sense, ultimately a whole lot of moral heft. But perhaps that doesn’t matter all that much when a book is so consistently enjoyable as this. The Sisters Brothers is as entertaining a novel as I have read in a long time, and there’s always a lot to be said for entertainment, even on the Booker shortlist.