The Fundamental Indifference of Nature, and Most People

I really don’t want to make every blog entry I write to be my screed of the week about the current regime, but it’s hard. It’s an effort to not sink into obsessive rage/despair cycles.

So for escape, I turn to books. The North Water by Ian McGuire, is set on a whaling ship in the late 1800s, headed for the Arctic Circle. I figured a book like this would be wonderfully far removed from the panic of the daily news.

Alas, not so much. Why? Because this book is about a sociopath who does whatever he wants and the people who enable or exploit him. It’s about another man, a sad junkie who thinks he can just escape life through drugs or long whaling trips. Alas, he learns that life and the sociopaths in it must be addressed.

And of course it’s about nature, and how it gives no fucks for us. You’d think, confronted with the majestic indifference of our planet, we humans would find a way to work together. Wrong ’em boyo. That kindness and sharing thing is the exception, not the rule.

McGuire writes with a straightforward clarity that’s full of tone and atmosphere. His descriptions are so robust it’s like smell-a-vision and all of the smells are disgusting. This is a super gross book, and almost comically violent. (Maybe this is the opposite of chick lit?) When we meet Henry Drax, he smells his fingers. What is it about smelling fingers that is immediately dirty and revolting to me?

Later, one of the whalers slices open a shark and the shark immediately starts eating its own guts. So. So. Gross. I loved it.

People pushed to their absolute physical and mental limits — grappling with their basest nature, the violence of men on the brink, struggling to stay alive in the frigid uncaring Arctic. This is the kind of book I love to read while in my jammies, curled up with my dog, under lots of warm blankets in my safe little suburb.

The story tracks this disgusting band of smelly violent men as nothing good happens to them on a trip to the Arctic. The ship cracks on the ice, and then the real problems start. Amazingly, some survive, but only to confront the true savagery: their fellow Englishmen.

This story shows how devoid of compassion a man could be — how wantonly violent, how cruelly self-serving. These guys make our current administration look like Jains.

It’s a funny mix of almost airport thriller plotting — in the first 50 pages, you meet the bad guys, you hear their nefarious schemes, you get a glimpse of the hero’s Achilles’ heel. McGuire pulls you through this story with thrills and intrigue, then delves deeper into the more literary themes — what do we owe each other? Why be kind for kindness’ sake, ever? Why not let our instincts drive us, like the animals we hunt?

This book has no clear heroes. I initially struggled with the cynicism, but upon reflection, I realized that the protagonist’s victory was in the way he transformed from indifference. He became a little cruel too, but not wantonly so. He stopped numbing himself, he gave up on escaping, and he got in the game. He resisted the tide. It made him a little nasty too, but it’s better than being beat.

That’s my takeaway from this book.

Most of us don’t need to run down a wounded bear, kill him, then crawl inside his bloody carcass to stay alive, but some days are almost that metaphorically challenging, right? Henry Drax would eat Hannibel Lecter for dinner — he’s a bad bad man — few people are this difficult. But all of us are resisting obstacles to progress in one way or another. We all have some Drax in our lives. What are you going to do about it?