IT’S A LONG way from the Arctic that Cormac James was reared. Born and raised in Ballincollig in Cork — when he was still Cormac McCarthy — Cormac James has lived in Montpellier in France for the past 12 years.
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His first novel, Track and Field (2000), was a historical tale set during the Irish Civil War. His second, The Surfacing, is another historical novel, although this one is set in the frigid wilderness of the far North.
The story begins in 1850, when we find ourselves aboard the stout ship The Impetus, under the command of Captain Myers and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Morgan, as they go in search of the Franklin expedition, which went missing some years previously during a bid to discover the fabled Northwest Passage.
“I suppose it was always on the radar,” Cormac says when I ask where the obsession with the Arctic came from, “just Boy’s Adventure stuff. Obviously a big Irish contingent went up there, or at least to both Poles — Shackleton, Tom Crean, and so forth.”
“The setting appealed to me as a novelist in terms of the psychological space, or even as an emotional space, that a character might live in,” he continues.
“Somebody like Morgan, who is the main character, withholds an awful lot from the world. So I needed to represent his inner world somehow, and putting him in that space up there, where there’s a constant sense of not only menace and vulnerability, but also the possibility of something radical happening, some kind of breaking through, that that was an ever-present. The situation of having a ship that’s trapped very far from any possibility of refuge, you get to create a domestic situation in an absolutely hostile landscape. And that in itself is an interesting set-up.”
The ‘domestic situation’ Cormac refers to is created when the male world of The Impetus — now trapped in the shifting ice — is disrupted by a stowaway, Kitty, who is pregnant with Morgan’s child.
“You have what Morgan sees as a stable situation where he’s going to be in control,” says Cormac. “You have the ship, its hierarchy, the codified interactions, all of that. And then you have his own version, that he’s almost writing in advance, of the story he’s going to partake in, the role he’s going to play, one of traditional and typical male heroism, epic feats of endurance and this kind of thing. So you have that world, and you drop a pregnant woman into it. And of course, the key thing is that they’re so far away from anywhere, they’re so isolated, that there’s no possibility of communicating with anybody else, and it means that he can’t do what he’s been doing all his life, which is walking away from responsibilities, problems and even possibilities. He can’t walk out the door and slam it.”
Ultimately, for all the thrilling ‘Boy’s Adventure’ aspects of the story, it’s a novel about becoming a father.
“That’s absolutely what it’s about, with maybe the caveat that fatherhood is also indicative of something else,” says Cormac, who is himself the father of a four-year-old son. “It’s the first crack in the dam, as it were — an opening up to somebody that you are not. It’s a slight step away from centre stage, in terms of being dominated by your own egotism. Certainly the fatherhood aspect interests me more than the search for the Franklin expedition or the exploration, which for me was really at the service of portraying a character — or more accurately, portraying a psychological process.”
It’s a fabulously detailed tale, both historically and its depiction of the savagely harsh landscape, so much so it comes as a surprise to learn Cormac James has never been to the Arctic.
“I haven’t, no,” he laughs. “But the fact that everybody asks me that, I’m taking as a compliment.”
Contrary to the common perception of the Arctic as a uniformly white vast blanket of snow, The Surfacing beautifully winkles out the subtle changes to the landscape as the seasons change and The Impetus remains trapped in its icy vice. Given the cliché that the Inuit people have 40 different words to describe snow, I ask if he ever felt the inclination to invent a few of his own.
“It’s a challenge, like describing Morgan,” he says. “You’re trying to find the nuance, to somehow indicate the repetitiveness, the tedium, but that’s significant. Apparently the thing about the Inuit people’s 40 words for snow isn’t true. Their language is cumulative, a bit like German, so they’d have, say, ‘the-wet-snow-that-falls-on-the-wind-from-the-west-in-January’,” he laughs.
I tell him that while I was reading the book, news broke the Canadians had finally found one of the ships from the Franklin expedition, which gave the story a somewhat poignant twist.
“It puts it into perspective,” he agrees, “the fact that they’re only finding it now, 160 years later. It throws a certain kind of backward shadow on the guys that were up there searching at the time. It maybe stresses it even more, that it has taken so long, and taken such advanced technology, to get a first trace of the ships. It shows just how futile it was for them going up there, and in such harsh conditions.”
Indeed, it’s an epic tale of a quite magnificent futility, so much so that when Morgan and company embark on their final throw of the dice to Melville Island across ‘one white tract ... blind ream, to every point,’ you half-expect a great white whale to hove into sight on the horizon.
Cormac laughs at the comparison, and the idea that the story is itself a metaphor for the tortuous business of writing a novel. “Actually, I would have preferred if the island had another name, because you’re inevitably going to get those associations,” he says. “But I’m afraid that’s just an accident of the geography.”
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