Final Staff

Editor-in-Chief:
Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan

Editors

  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles

Editors-at-Large

  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna

Publicity

  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

July, 2009 : Review:

What is Lost, What Remains

Review of Far North by Marcel Theroux

Far North by Marcel Theroux
2009; Faber and Faber (UK); 304pp
ISBN 978-057-123-7777; £12.99

About a third of the way into Marcel Theroux's new novel, the narrator and protagonist, Makepeace Hatfield, explains how the town of Evangeline came to be in its current desolate state. Born into a world "like a beaten horse, limping with old injuries, and set on throwing its rider" (99), the child of a new wave of pilgrim settlers who ostentatiously renounced the technological convenience of developed Western civilization in favour of a quote-simpler-unquote existence on the Siberian taiga, Makepeace's life was never going to be easy, precisely. But the Makepeace we meet—last constable of a dying city, tough, practical, and capable of setting fire to a thief's tent in the night, then leaving them to freeze to death—is the result of a youth defined by a gradual realization of just how bad things could get. Then came the refugees, whose numbers warped and ultimately drowned Evangeline, and who were at first met with kindness, at the insistence of Makepeace's father. But it could never work in the long-term and, as Makepeace recalls:

Thinking of my pa just now, I see something childish in his need for things to be perfect. He was a clumsy workman and could labour for days over something that would get tossed out if he marred it. A thing would be worthless if it wasn't just so. And that childishness fed his intolerance of people. He loved ideas more than men because they were less contradictory. [...]

I think in his love for the arctic you see the same hunger for simple truths: sky, snow, mountain, trees. What I found in a city—when I finally saw a real one—was disquieting. Nothing matched. It was a weird assemblage of things, but there was beauty in the oddness of it, and the thought that it was all man's doing (105-6).

From the pen of a certain kind of genre science fiction writer, it would be easy to take that line about loving ideas more than men as a deliberate jab; here, it's more of an accidental elbow, though I felt a palpable hit nonetheless. But the second paragraph is the important one. In an essay about writing the novel, Theroux notes that one motivation was observing how "the science of climate change [...] obscured simpler insights about our utter dependency on the planet for our wellbeing, and the truth that underlying the whole course of human evolution is a basic struggle for food and shelter." Now, you might say to this: is it not so much obscured as so blindingly obvious as to not need reiteration? But, although Makepeace's dependency on the natural world is certainly more immediate than ours and, in that sense, Far North certainly depicts a life that is, relative to most of its readers, stripped down and simplified, in fact it's a novel with a more complex relationship with simple truths than you might at first suppose.

There is a strand of the novel that questions the healthiness of the desire to simplify a complex problem or situation. In this it is quite different to most other recent mainstream-published near-future dystopias (despite the qualifications, a not-inconsiderable number of books). For example: though a link is made, as it is in The Pesthouse (2007), with the past as a simpler time, Theroux indulges in none of Jim Crace's cosy wistfulness. Nor does Theroux's future aspire to the devastating totality (in both an environmental and a narrative sense) of Cormac McCarthy's near-allegorical wasteland. There is no shirt-rending about Years of Vice and Profligacy. In other words, the simplicity that has been achieved is never implied to be either morally or narratively good (though Theroux certainly makes a virtue of it). It is a simplicity of necessity, and it just is what it is.

Partly this is because Theroux seems most immediately interested in Makepeace, who is the character already described, and is a woman. The narrative elides this fact (and the blurb is complicit in the elision) until after Makepeace has let that thief freeze to death, at which point a new chapter starts, and we're informed of her sex in this way:

Killing always sits heavy with me.

Whether that's because of my being a woman, or because my disposition is naturally soft-hearted for another reason, I don't know.

I've had to fight the womanish things in my nature for almost as long as I can remember. These are not soft-hearted, womanish times. (22)

Theroux can perhaps be forgiven his sensationalism here, on the grounds that almost no other recent post-catastrophe survivalist novel has put a woman at its centre. Equally, the essentialist spin is complicated later in the novel; Makepeace can pass for a man, and does so at least some of the time, which gets her both into trouble and out of it. She presents contradictions to a world in which men seem to have forgotten how to relate to women except as either wives or property. It must be said that not every aspect of Theroux's follow-through is satisfying, which does create the suspicion that Makepeace's sex is a choice made from a desire to complicate "simple truths," without necessarily knowing what to offer in the way of answers: which is to say that it feels like a desperate failure of imagination to reveal that a rape left Makepeace with "a splinter of loneliness" (108) within her, and set the course of her life.

Theroux is nearly as coy about the nature of the story he's telling as he is about Makepeace. The first page establishes that the town in which Makepeace lives is "emptier than heaven", and that it's been that way for some time, but it's a while before we understand the backstory of her parents' migration from America, or that it was climate change that drove the refugees North to Evangeline. It's a surprisingly long time, even, before we get confirmation that we're in Siberia. (And when we do, it is in a way that emphasizes the beauty and bounty of the landscape, not the grim waste we might expect; expectations refused, again.) All of this is in service of the point that Makepeace has disengaged from the body of humanity. She begins to re-engage when she shoots a Chinese refugee for attempting to steal books to burn for warmth. Ping becomes a friend (Theroux practices equal opportunity cultural incomprehension; Ping calls Makepeace make-a-piss), and when Makepeace subsequently encounters a slave train passing by her town, and sees a plane crash nearby, she decides the time has come to discover what has happened to the world in her absence. She sets out to retrace the steps in the journey her parents took from America, back along the chain of new pioneer settlements that make up New Judea—Evangeline to Esperanza to Homerton to New Providence to Plymouth—but doesn't get very far. Esperanza is reduced to an ultra-religious rump living in a wooden stockade, whose citizens end up imprisoning Makepeace, then selling her to the same slavers she had set out, in part, to investigate.

Makepeace is absolutely the right character to be narrating this world to us: her crisp descriptions, often metaphoric but rarely adjective-heavy, defuse the indulgence invited by such a decaying and despairing setting. While she can be faintly maudlin about how the past became the present—"This place", she explains of her city, "had promised the first settlers everything. Now what was it? A ghost town, decaying back into wilderness" (28)—she is pragmatic about the here-and-now. Of the pianola in her family home, she merely notes "the songs didn't sound much like they used to sound" (30); and after she's sold to the slavers, she skips over months and hundreds of miles of walking in two brief sentences, with no request for pity. You might say that Theroux has chosen a narrator who isn't afraid of plot—the reveal of Makepeace's sex is by no means the last switchback—and this is a good thing, even if it means the novel falls somewhat foul of coincidence towards the end. Makepeace's vigour—"I am one of those that need motion" (84), she notes at one point—is a reminder that life remains to be lived, and evidence of the drive to be remembered, to be witnessed, that seems to motivate Makepeace to write. "I fear annihilation", she tells us. "Everyone expects to be in at the end of something. What no-one expects is to be in at the end of everything" (225).

Ultimately, however, it is not the plot, with its nods to the moral contingencies necessary to exist in a broken world, which lingers in the memory. Nor is it Makepeace herself. What lingers is the terrible simplicity of the world in which Makepeace lives. There is a sense of both what has been lost, and what—not just how little—is left behind. "Human misery has few varieties," she is told; "tent camps, forced labour, hunger, violence, men taking food and sex by force" (139-40). And this, in part at least, because knowledge and understanding are draining away; books go unread, the stars are becoming mere points of light, landscapes become blank pages, and the people who are left don't understand entirely how they got here. In the labour camp to which she is taken—known with a telling lack of particularity only as The Base—Makepeace finds that:

You came across as many explanations as people you asked, and most of them told fairy tales that would shame children: a piece of the moon had fallen into the sea and made a tidal wave; tiny atom machines had eaten up all the sunlight; and so forth.

Of course, I knew what I'd seen: desperate people pitching into and overwhelming our tiny city; and I could guess the things they were running from—failed crops, cities with no light or water, gangs of lawless men—but what lay behind those troubles I couldn't say (138).

Or, later: "Between the world of my youth and the world I was in now, was a gap so big I was finding it harder and harder to cross it even in my imagination" (168). Or more plainly: "This was a place once, I thought" (183).

If Theroux's aim was to communicate how close we all are to the edge, then he has failed. The closest thing Far North offers to an authoritative explanation for what has happened, something that might help us to cross the gap between our world and the one Makepeace is living in, comes from a Muslim doctor befriended by Makepeace in the Base. He suggests that "the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise," and that "in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on" (139); but this seems deliberately whisper-corrupted climatology, intended to increase that gap, not close it. And, indeed, Makepeace's situation does seem increasingly remote. The last third of Far North revolves around the recovery of artifacts of a technological civilization recovered from a ruined, radioactive, plague-ridden city introduced to Makepeace as The Zone. More blankness, plus a situation and a label that, as Tim Martin points out in his review for The Telegraph, unavoidably echoes one of SF's most famous Zones, the alien incursion in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic (1971), though that may be accidental; Theroux's nomenclature is also a hypertrophic version of that currently applied to the area around Chernobyl. The Zone, once an R&D hothouse, is in Makepeace's eyes a proper city, "of glass and concrete, with buildings that soared into the sky", even if it is reduced to looking like "a mouthful of rotten teeth" (185); and it contains genuine marvels, one of which Makepeace, with the help of a friend, retrieves.

But in this novel it is horribly out of place, jarring, and ultimately Makepeace, and the narrative, discard it. What happens then is that Makepeace escapes, and returns home, where life will go on, regardless of the wider world. This should not be mistaken for a valorization of a "simple life." "There's plenty of things I'd like to unknow," Makepeace tells us at one point, "but you can't fake innocence." And then a crucial insight: "Not knowing is one thing, pretending not to know is deception" (99). So her decision to retreat to a self-imposed simplicity, removed from engagement with the world, should be understood with a sadness verging on despair. Makepeace isn't in at the end of everything, it's not the end of the world; but, she has decided, it is the end of a world that can afford to remember its past; it's too late to go back to a world that could cross that gap between present and past. There's only forward, and for that, the simple ways do, indeed, endure, more than the complexities of civilization. But a blank page is never a cause for celebration.


Copyright © 2009, Niall Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

About Niall Harrison

Niall Harrison is editor of Vector, the critical journal of the BSFA, and reviews editor at Strange Horizons. He has also reviewed for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation and Interzone. He blogs at Torque Control.

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