Sunday, March 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #81: The Rime of the Modern Mariner by Nick Hayes

With Coleridge, a man had a chance -- his long-winded mariner only "stoppeth one of three." In Nick Hayes's modern retelling, his mariner latches upon a man alone in a park, having a quick lunch after signing the papers to make his divorce final, and for him there is no escape. (Though, weirdly, he pays the mariner in the end for wasting his time with a long story the divorcee hates and disdains. Perhaps this is some obscure British custom I'm not familiar with.)

The Rime of the Modern Mariner follows its original in broad outlines, substituting a more obvious and pointed ecological message for Coleridge's vaguer demand to care for the creatures of the world, and turning Coleridge's terrible and beautiful spectre of Life-in-Death to a similarly more obvious and hectoring representation of Gaia. However, Hayes doesn't just deliver verse here; his Modern Mariner is a full graphic novel, with hundreds of intricate and beautiful pages to hammer home Hayes's message that man is bad and nature awesome.

Hayes's mariner is "modern" -- meaning that he's of his own time, exactly as Coleridge's was. (Coleridge's mariner was not "ancient" in the sense of being Roman or australopithecine; he was an old man, and moreover, the implication was that he was made old by his ordeal.) He's also not really a mariner; he took ship in Japan purely because he wanted to make a set of dominoes from the bones of a whale, and a whale-hunting ship gave him a place aboard. Inasmuch as the pre-ordeal Mariner has any character, he's a liberal's caricature of a hunter: randomly destructive and callous, unthinking and unfeeling and focused entirely on his own urges.

Of course, that changes quickly, with the inevitable albatross-killing leading quickly to the whale-hunting ship becoming becalmed in the North Pacific Gyre, and in particular the mass of plastic trash contained there. (The whaleship, like its 18th century counterpart, clearly has no way to contact shore from the middle of the sea, because communications through the aether are impossible.) As in Coleridge, the Mariner must be taught a hugely disproportional lesson for the killing of one sea-bird, and so the rest of the crew quietly dies (just as in Coleridge) and the Mariner undergoes a series of ordeals and visions, which are all hauntingly drawn and deeply felt, before he's thrown up on a foreign shore to go forth and spread his Not-So-Good News.

Modern Mariner is very high quality agitprop: Hayes clearly believes deeply in his message and has marshaled all of his considerable powers for words and pictures in service of that message. But the message itself is no more specific than Coleridge's, and Hayes ends with an unearned nihilistic vision that leaves a sour taste in the reader's mouth. Hayes explicitly positions his ecological message here as useless: he is saying that he knows what is right for the world, and that the world will inevitably reject that plan and be doomed. That will be energizing for the very young and the very committed, but the rest of us are likely to scoff and move on; I don't expect Rime of the Modern Mariner to make many converts.

Still: it is gorgeous, and gripping, and utterly engrossing. Read it as art rather than propaganda, and you may find it a deeply moving experience.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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