“Henry Drax is either dead or in Canada, which if you ask me is near enough the same thing.”
This is another book I’ve had kicking around for a while, and like most (though not all) of my long-unread books, it’s fiction by a man, though this time contemporary and alive rather than dead dead dead.
Ian McGuire’s The North Water (Scribner, 2016) is cracking stuff: proper, solid, old school MAN’S fiction. The North Water is the kinda novel men who commute would read with a brandy between a wank and sleeptime… The North Water is the kinda novel that’s fun and exciting but really fucking violent, it’s the kinda novel that feels like the kinda film that was huge in the nineties, and even a few years ago was the kinda thing I (tbh) aspired to write. With its violence (including extreme sexual violence against children), its lack of any female characters and its swashbuckling, whaling themes, it isn’t a novel that screams for a place in the literary canon of this decade, but that doesn’t mean The North Water isn’t a novel that does exactly what it sets out to do with near-perfection. It’s proper edge-of-your-seat violent picaresque fun, if you’re able to take it on its own terms.
Think of Blood Meridian and American Psycho, fiction that is indisputably “literary”, but fiction that enjoys its blood in a way that is disconcerting as soon as you think about it in a focused, critical, way. Why do so many male writers want to write about blood? Because we’re angry and we think the readerly public are angry and violent and want to tear animals and people apart, too, right?
This is the basis of huge amounts of TV and cinema and genre fiction, this vicarious “blood-letting”. But… times change. Do later seasons of Game of Thrones have less sexual violence in than the earlier ones? Yes. Are the most acclaimed crime thrillers still about sexed-up murders of young women? No. The zeitgeist changes, and though that means that films and novels may get negatively judged because of a tonal dissociation in their dramatisation of human suffering, I think a movement towards more sensitive creativity is NOT a bad thing.
Is The North Water a good novel? Yes, it is. In a previous decade, would The North Water have been lauded as a GREAT novel? Yeah, I think it would have been, because it really fucking works as a piece. Perhaps I’m overlabouring this point due to the discomfort I feel at how much I enjoyed The North Water, and how much it reminded me of the fiction I loved a decade ago and desperately wanted to write.
If I’d read this novel when it was new, in 2016, I probably would have struggled to enjoy it. Not because I was more sensitive to the literary depictions of violence, but because I’d only recently given up on trying to sell my (still unpublished) violent, hypersexual, scatological literary novel, The Body and the Baptist. That novelisation of the life of John the Baptist was read by a few agents, but no one wanted to take it on because it was – and remains – a hard sell, even though I’d intentionally written it as, in my then-opinion, the most commercial novel I felt I could write. What did literary novels need to do, I questioned? They needed to be about adult men and the women they hurt and they need to contain explicit sex and violence, I answered Oh, isn’t life easier when we are ignorant?
What linked that failed novel I wrote and the fiction I most enjoyed when an undergraduate and in my early 20s? It was the butch, manly, violent, vibe… they share a tone of comfortable detachment, implying a writer and a readership that has never experienced vulnerability. Tbf, though, many of these narratives do see characters learn, discover and understand their (usually his) vulnerability. The North Water is this kinda text: the good-but-troubled come to terms with and learn from their goodness, the evil-but-charming are undone.
These “men’s novels” may imply an amorality, but they usually have a pretty fixed notion of good and evil (see The Body and the Baptist). You don’t have to be whiter than white to be a hero, and you don’t have to be strong and powerful to be a villain, either. In The North Water we have a disgraced hero who has a hopeful arc: a surgeon who turns to opium after he’s kicked out of the army for looting when he should have been saving lives. Struggling to find work due to his reputation, he signs up as ship’s doctor for a whaling vessel headed to the Arctic. Little does he know, but the whaling trade is dying and the shipowner and the captain have cooked something up that the crew of misfits and disposable rejects are in no way prepared for…
There’s intrigue and fighting and corruption and murder. There are fights with bears and there are storms and there is terrifying weather and there is double-crossing and there are inuits and there are sledges and there is whaling and there is freezing to death and there is blood blood blood blood blood.
But… The North Water opens with a chapter written from the close third person perspective of a man who murders and rapes a child in a racially motivated sex attack. This is shocking, obviously: it is a big start to pull in a reader. But is it a justifiable literary device?
I’d say no, and I say that as someone who regularly tried to do this when a younger writer-man. The use of violence and racism as scandalising markers in fiction is easy, innit, as you can see in my earliest fiction piece currently available online, the filthy ‘Cuban Prostitutes’, which was published in my University’s student magazine when I was a floppy-haired sexual naif. Wanting to shock is macho behaviour, innit, it’s also a right wing one, as the easiest way to be shocking is to victimise the already weak: opening a novel with the sexualised murder of a poor black child in mid 19th century Hull is an easy way to show that Henry Drax is a reprehensible baddie. It’s unsubtle, and it’s also not victimless, because the more times we read sexualised violence as a throwaway plot detail in a literary novel the less credos we give its existence in real life. Yes, these are more of my “lefty cuck buzzwords”.
The North Water, I dunno… It’s difficult to fault its characterisation or its descriptions of distant landscapes and historical cities, but in terms of its narrative it isn’t well-poised for the contemporary moment. If it sounds like you’d like it and if my nervousness sounds annoying, then it’s for you. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t enjoy thinking about it or questioning how I enjoyed it.
Mixed feelings. Very competent writing, though… Buy it for your uncle.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first (and so far only) book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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