Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Two novels that bridge distances (but one needs a "Bridge Out" sign)

"With enough time," writes Rebecca Hunt, "the emotional impact of any tragedy becomes fossilized. The wrongness or sadness can still be appreciated, but it can no longer be felt." Hunt sets out to counter this trend in Everland, a brief but gripping novel following the fates of two fictional Antarctic expeditions, one in 1913 and one in 2013. The 1913 expedition ends in disaster, but the members of the 2013 group believe they can avoid a similar fate; they are, after all, better trained and equipped with modern technology, and they have studied the history of the first failed expedition so thoroughly that they believe they're aware of all potential pitfalls. 

What they don't know--and can't know--is that the history they've studied is deeply flawed. While Everland is first a suspense-filled novel of survival against the elements, it also serves as a meditation on the difficulty of understanding the past, a difficulty that endangers the 2013 group. Believing the earlier explorers' tragedy to be attributable to the intentional evil acts of one person, they fail to consider their own potential to make simple mistakes that become life-threatening in the harsh Antarctic climate. Placing their faith in technology, they withhold trust from one another, unintentionally repeating the errors of the earlier expedition.

As different as the two expeditions may be, the parallels between them are striking. For instance, just as Jess attempts to hide an injury from her colleagues on the 2013 expedition, Millet-Bass conceals a wound that could threaten his ability to contribute to the survival of the 1913 expedition: "On Everland, his health was their health, his wound a problem for everyone....Millet-Bass didn't get to decide how well or ill he was. It was decided collectively." But collective decision-making suffers when trust is lost, a lesson both expeditions learn all too painfully.

It's true that some of the parallels between the two expeditions seem forced and some characters remain underdeveloped, but Hunt's novel novel provides a page-turning journey into the depths of human hubris, the disasters wrought by a belief that technology inoculates against the consequences of human error.

Another recent novel similarly juxtaposes past and present to drill home a message about human hubris, but alas, far less successfully. Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights starts with an awkward title (two years of nights or just 28 nights?) and pursues a peculiar premise: the eternal battle between faith and reason, with denizens of Fairyland stepping up to champion each side.

Part of the problem here is that Rushdie is just trying to do too much, covering too much time and distance and too many characters in a relatively short work. He's capable of writing sprawling epics covering vast distances of time and space, most masterfully in Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses and the charming but neglected The Enchantress of Florence. Here, though, he's trying to cover a span of 2000 years and a space that moves beyond our accustomed earth to stretch to Peristan, home of the jinn, erstwhile mythical beings that take occasional interest in human culture. In this case, some battle on the side of faith while others support the side of reason. It's as if  Stephen Hawking and Pope Francis decided to debate faith and reason using as their spokesmen Tinkerbell and Chthulhu: it would make for an entertaining spectacle if anyone could come out from quivering under their couches long enough to watch.

Rushdie loads the deck in favor of the forces of reason and aims frequent pointed digs at fundamentalists, such as when the jinn Zabardast proclaims, "We are in the process of instituting a reign of terror on earth, and there's only one word that justifies that as far as these savages are concerned: the word of this or that god. In name of a divine entity we can do whatever the hell we like and most of those fools down there will swallow it like a bitter pill."

Meanwhile, the long-dead Ibn Rushd, the rationalist from whom Rushdie's family took its name, finds hope in the belief that the enemies of reason are stupid. "There is no originality in tyrants," he says, "and they learn nothing from the demise of their precursors. They will be brutal and stifling and engender hatred and destroy what men love and that will defeat them. All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love, and we must hold to the idea that love is stronger than hate."

While these battles can be suspenseful, they are conducted in such cartoonish terms that it's hard to feel that they could have any bearing outside the cartoon realm. In fact, few characters in the novel rise beyond the two-dimensional comic-book world Rushdie creates; of those, the most compelling is Mr. Geronimo the gardener, "the man who came unstuck from the world," an Everyman who becomes a hero by curing people's dysfunctional relationships with earth.  I kept hoping that I'd get to see more of Mr. Geronimo, but he gets crowded to the corners by the thousand and one other characters Rushdie briefly introduces and then dismisses into oblivion.

Both Hunt's and Rushdie's novels suffer from similar flaws--underdeveloped characters and infelicitous sentences and a tendency to draw large universal conclusions based on limited data points--but Everland very quickly convinced me that the life-or-death situations Hunt describes could make a difference in the real world of human error while Rushdie's novel never lifted me beyond the bounds of Fairyland.  

No comments: