When readers think of whaling, Moby-Dick probably first comes to mind; when ice comes up, there's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Frankenstein. More recently, there have been a number of novels about the dangers of exploring frozen wastelands, like Robert Edric's The Broken Lands, Dan Simmons' The Terror, and Rebecca Hunt's Everland. But Ian McGuire's The North Water savagely deconstructs tales of masculine heroism in the face of nature red in tooth and claw: the "quest" turns out to be fruitless (not to mention rapacious), the men as vicious as the beasts or the icy landscape, the revelations about the protagonist's personal development worrisome instead of affirming. It takes us a little while to reach the protagonist, though. "Behold the man" (1), the novel begins, with spectacular inappropriateness. The initially unnamed character who walks out one morning is the psychopathic Henry Drax, who murders a man and a boy (whom he also rapes) in the space of one chapter. The narrator describes the rape/murder in such a way that the two actions become indistinguishable: "Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machinelike but not mechanical. He grasps on to the world like a dog biting into bone--nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and sullen appetites" (8-9). Drax, who is nothing but all-consuming appetite, offers the very opposite of redemption to those characters forced to share space with him; killing, for Drax, is its own mode of production, his special way of putting his imprint on the world. "Death," he thinks approvingly much later on, "is a kind of making, a kind of building up. What was one thing, he thinks, is become something else" (76). Murder, theft, rape, what-have-you--Drax operates according to no discernible moral code, only an instinctual awareness of when it is or is not time to act.
You can probably see where this is going. While the narrative features plenty of the nature red &c., the considerably greater problem derives from the human beings, of whom Drax is merely the reddest in tooth and fingernails. The novel's whaling plot turns out to be an elaborate insurance hoax, which the captain and the ship's owner have perpetrated together before: the purpose of the whaling expedition is to "lose" the ships after they've taken on enough of a catch to be profitable, thereby making a much bigger haul in insurance money than if they were actually to sell the whale oil and various other parts. Unfortunately for all concerned (except, initially, the owner), this...is not quite how everything works out. But what's significant about this plot, aside from its twists and turns, is its emphasis on waste. As Baxter, the owner, says to Captain Brownlee, "We killed them all, Arthur [...] It was tremendous while it lasted, and magnificently profitable, too" (26). The implications of this chillingly cheerful attitude bring us back to Henry Drax, whom Baxter has employed knowing his predilections full well: the whaling business cannot be separated from its wholesale destruction of a species, something only amplified by the sheer pointlessness of the entire expedition in the first place (which, after all, is to kill whales so as not to sell the results). Drax's lethal progress through the crew--among other characters--merely miniaturizes the implications of how the whaling business exploits nature. But Drax's ability to think of himself in terms of pure appetite deliberately breaks down any barrier one might choose to draw between "man" and "nature" in the first place: all we have here are brutal forces contending against each other, filled with filth, whether whale guts or, much later, a priest's horrific abscess, filled with "foul and flocculent pus" (226). Insides erupt; outsides collapse.
The hero, to the extent that the novel has one, is Sumner, a laudanum-addicted former army doctor court-martialed in India for leaving his post--to look for treasure, as it happens. The ambiguities of Sumner's position as someone both framed and undeniably derelict in his duty play out over the course of the voyage, in which he is simultaneously the closest thing the novel has to a moral voice and as capable of violence as anyone else. Sumner's project on this journey, expressed in Coleridgean fashion, is to "dissolve, to dissipate, and only afterwards, some time later, to reform" (14)--to erase his problematic past (cashiered Irish orphan) and recreate himself anew as a wealthy man of property, thanks to an imaginary inheritance supposedly held up in the courts. Coleridge's dissolving and dissipating, though, was about organic transformation of the original materials; Sumner, though, pursues obliteration. His interest in figuratively killing off his earlier self, however, also aligns him with Drax and Drax's belief in death's creative potential, and Sumner eventually emerges as Drax's double and nemesis. On the one hand, as a healer (albeit not a very good one) Sumner stands opposed to Drax's habit of committing rape and murder whenever it suits him; on the other, he also shows himself capable of a similar ruthlessness, especially once everyone has been stranded. This comes out in what I couldn't help thinking of as the novel's Moby-Bear section, in which Sumner tracks a polar bear across the ice in order to butcher it for food. Like so much else in the novel, the quest is pointless: Sumner wounds the bear with the first shot, then follows it well beyond the point where he can bring any of it back for food. "The chase has found a rhythm already, a pattern he can’t easily disrupt," we're told. "When he is thirsty, he reaches down and eats the snow; when he is hungry, he lets the feeling rise, peak, then pass away" (198). This absorptive "rhythm," which overrides his will (he follows and yet somehow stands outside his action), is uncomfortably reminiscent of Drax's relationship to his own needs and urges. Unlike Drax, this slow self-unwinding leads Sumner to one of the novel's few epiphanies: "He has walked much too far, he knows it now: he has strayed from his true purposes, he is lost and bewildered, and his failure is complete" (200). As literal and figurative journeys collapse into each other, though, the reader begins to wonder what those "true purposes" might be, beyond the impulse for survival. Bildung? At what harmonious self-development might Sumner arrive? Killing the bear provides no solution: while he calls on "Homer" for models of how he might celebrate or commemorate his action, all that emerges "from his brutalized mouth are the inchoate grunts and gaspings of a savage" (203). Under the circumstances, the racism is rather dourly ironic (not least because the indigenous people he does encounter are somewhat nicer than everyone else we've met so far). The heroic quest crumbles into literal incoherence. Called upon to explain his ongoing existence, all he can say is “There is no why" (224).
(I'll put the novel's denouement below the fold.)