Thursday, April 02, 2015

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

Adventure stories don't have to be simple. They don't have to be obvious. They don't have to be clear, or linear, or told in flat prose like red bricks. Those of us who read genre fiction should know that most of all, though maybe we forget it, sometimes, when we wander back towards "regular" fiction.

Far Tortuga is an adventure story, the tale -- and I think that word is justified, for once -- of nine men on a boat in the Caribbean, squabbling and fishing and complaining and making mistakes they can't take back. Conrad is in the background, somewhere, and the long tradition of stories about men at sea. But it's also a deeply literary novel, with pages intermittently laid out like concrete poetry and a complete lack of dialogue tags and a cast of often hard-to-differentiate men, all speaking in the same thick dialect. And so it also has Joyce in its literary DNA: it's a straightforward story told in a deliberately opaque way, for effect.

Does it work? Well, Peter Matthiessen is one of the major figures of modern literature, and I'm a guy with a blog who might want to get a publishing job working with someone who knew him. So perhaps it would behoove me to be a little more enthusiastic here than I might otherwise be. (I could always stand to be a little more enthusiastic, actually: sometimes I feel like the economists who predicted twelve of the last five recessions.)

But Far Tortuga is not an easy book to get into: it has its own rhythms and ways of operating, and any reader will have to get used to not being entirely sure who is speaking much of the time. It's a book that stands in its own way, most of the time, demanding that readers do most of the work themselves to be worthy of the experience.

That experience is the final voyage of the Lillias Eden, a small turtle-fishing boat out of Grand Cayman, captained by a man not nearly as smart as he thinks and crewed by a miscellaneous rabble who are almost as bad as that captain thinks they are. It leaves port too late in the year, when the turtles are hard to find and hurricanes are starting to stir. And it's a bad boat, poorly maintained and only half-converted from sail to diesel, so it runs roughly both ways. And the choices her captain makes -- along with the things he doesn't get to choose -- are ill-made, as well.

The Eden's story could be written as a tragedy, but Matthiessen doesn't want a tragedy. What he does want -- what he did write -- is more difficult to describe, something like a sour comedy of errors. It's not that everything goes wrong for the Eden and her men, since some of the major things the reader expects for the entire book never actually happen. But enough things do go wrong, and there's little enough room for error on that rotten hull, to get Matthiessen to the ending he wants.

Some of Matthiessen's characters are vivid and crisp, particularly the grumpy Captain Raib Avers. But the crew are often hard to differentiate when Matthiessen isn't harping on their specific important traits -- this one is superstitious, that one is black and from Honduras, the other has a muddy past and two names -- particularly when they're complaining to each other about the ship or filling in more world-building details. There are stretches of two or three pages at a time where it's clear Matthiessen knows who's talking, but the reader will be much less sure.

The prose, though, is magnificent when describing the sea and the voyage: Matthiessen doesn't just lay it out like poetry, he writes in a near-Homeric mode and elevates his entire story through the force of his gaze.  But then there's another scene of two unspecified characters nattering on about the Captain's nemesis and half-brother, who occupies far more space as an influence in the book than he deserves, and all of the poetry is smashed until the next time Matthiessen elevates his tone.

I don't know who would want to read a book like Far Tortuga; I only read it myself because I'm working through the Vintage Contemporaries series. Most fans of adventure fiction will find it clotted and pointless, and readers of serious literature will need to be persuaded that an all-male turtle-hunting expedition in 1968 is something they should care about. It definitely has its strong points, but it also manages to combine the most audience-alienating aspects of both the adventure story (a complete lack of women and domestic life) and the literary story (deliberately difficult-to-understand dialogue and unpleasant characters). If you're the kind of person who seeks out the most recondite and complex literary books, though, you'll want to find a copy of Far Tortuga at your earliest convenience.

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