On Ashley Shelby’s ‘South Pole Station’
Ashley Shelby’s perfectly rounded debut novel combines humor and humanity with the loftier reaches of space and exploration.
Going into a book like South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby’s fiction debut, is likely not entirely dissimilar from going to the South Pole; you can read the back of the book, have it summarized to you, but really you have to be there. Describing South Pole Station as a “comedy of errors” is about as apt as saying Antarctica is cold. Iced tea is cold. Antarctica will kill you. Thus, the simple facts don’t quite create a picture: Cooper Gosling, painter and twin to a deceased brother, applies for a grant from the NSF to work in Amundsen Station, located at the South Pole itself, and nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. The wind is horrendous, and the cold, for half the year, so extreme that jet fuel turns to sludge — making the outpost all but unreachable. The occupants of the station, naturally, are an unusual sort: brusque, asocial, misanthropic, cloak-wearing, body-recovering, MacArthur genius-grant-earning. The dynamic that Cooper settles into is disrupted when a climate change “skeptic” is given funding, and his arrival and research on the station precipitates a web of political backstabbing and conflict that gives South Pole Station so much timely pertinence. But you still don’t quite have the story — just the facts.
Cooper, it’s revealed, is recovering from her brother’s suicide; the onset of schizophrenia left him distanced, hard to handle, and, eventually, suicidal. Her family is rounded out by equally distant people: her father, obsessed with extreme exploration, impressed this obsession upon both twins. Cooper’s mother is a crunchy, esoteric, pagan publisher, and Cooper’s sister toils under her for lack of anywhere else to be. The Gosling family, despite being the prime mover in the book, comes off a little light — the dynamics are mostly invoked via talisman: a compass, a vial of ashes, a repeated line here and there. This lack may leave some readers feeling a little rudderless, wondering why Cooper is doing everything that she does — because every act at Pole is existential, imbued with the significance of the extreme situation.
This distance, detrimental in one way, is turned into a unique and powerful asset. Shelby has an incredible knack for conveying emotional vulnerability. Even in common narration, the reader can sense the barrier that Cooper has erected around herself.
It was around that time that David had gotten worse — though by that point, using the word worse was like gilding one of Monet’s water lilies.
Dissecting this single line, one can feel the push against the world — the aloofness, the sarcasm, the defeat wrapping the weak cliché and reference. Shelby carries this off repeatedly, rounding out a number of the characters in the book — Polies, collectively — and giving each a voice and depth that, at the beginning, had simply been “unique.”
Shelby refuses to paint a one-dimensional character in the book. Everyone is granted a moment of beatific kindness, and everyone disappoints. This creates a group of people who are profoundly human — extremely human, it would seem. Even the villains of the book have their moments — and contrariwise, the romantic interest gets to display strutting, dismissive arrogance. One politician, looking for a way to serve corporate interests by poking climate science in the eye, visits Pole in order to look into the alleged wrongdoing of those at the station. Easily left by another writer to simply be a stodgy, anti-science senator, the man is given a rich moment with Cooper, in which he confesses his failures, his doubts. In any other book, that everyone gets a moment to save and to be saved may feel trite, but in South Pole Station, the environment allows for this excess of character. It makes sense that a person would be driven to the bottom of themselves, at the bottom of the world.
Though it’s reductive to call South Pole Station a comedy, given its wealth of depth and tragic background, Shelby’s humor is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Laugh-out-loud funny a number of times, Station is also consistently smirk-funny. An administrator precedes the senators to the pole to deal with the fallout of the Polies and the skeptic — a tragic blunder with an ice-corer leaves Cooper wounded, and starts a media and political scramble — and everyone gathers to hear who’s coming. Before the admin can say anything, one Polie shouts “Tom Waits!” — a cry echoed later, after the man delivers his burden of truly disheartening news, with a decidedly subdued, “Tom Waits.”
A comedy of errors, a workplace satire, a political novel: none of these quite touches what Shelby has done with South Pole Station, because ultimately none of these descriptions — and not all of them, even — reach the depth with which Shelby describes humanity. Banding together against the gears of the American bureaucracy, the Polies manage to eke out their life, and are saved, in a way, by the de-politicized (and, of course, still-politicized) nature of Antarctica and its sacred experiments. Combining ground-level humor and humanity with the loftier reaches of space and exploration, South Pole Station is a perfectly rounded novel, not without a fault or two, but with more than enough good graces to create a place in which the reader can be subsumed with the potential of goodness, despite the brutal chill of the world.