Facing the elements, and one's self
By Robin Dougherty | February 20, 2005
Where would you end up if you were a young Civil War deserter who signed
up for work aboard a ship expedition, supposedly traveling north? You
are directionless, as desperate as the other crew on board, which includes
a seldom-seen man in the boiler room with three hands. With any luck,
you would not find yourself aboard the Narthex, a hybrid steamship and
sailing vessel, which serves as the setting for "The Rope Eater"
(Anchor, paperback, $13.95).
Ben Jones's late 2003 novel borrows and then re-interprets scenes and
characters from every classic exploration tale from Dante's "Inferno"
to H. G. Wells's "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (and possibly every
B movie ever made). The ship is steered by a reclusive captain (he creepily
plays the pianola at night in his quarters). The expedition is led by
one Dr. Architeuthis, the proverbial mad scientist who believes that a
temperate Eden exists amid the glaciers of the Arctic and that his mission
is to find it.
"The Rope Eater," which was named one of the top 10 novels of
2004 by ALA/Booklist, came out in paperback this month. Jones, a native
of Vermont, lives in Andover.
Q: What drove you to write this book?
A: When I started out, the advice I was given was "Write a book that
you want to read." I started to look around for models. I chose "Moby-Dick,"
and the Arctic because it's such an amazing place. I don't have much desire
to go there. It was the landscape of the imagination I was interested
in, the way the experience makes us confront the sense of ourselves as
physical beings. . . . Also, [the convention of exploration books in which]
the beauty in the language is designed to be a leveler to the brutality
of the subject matter.
Q: You grew up in rural Vermont and then went on to work as an editor
for Adventure Library, which reissued classic adventure tales. Perfect
preparation for writing "The Rope Eater"?
A: My parents were both Outward Bound instructors. We had a lot of adventure
books. . . . I spent a lot of time out in the woods by myself. I was gripped
by all those adventures. My great-grandfather had built a hunting lodge
up in Ontario, and there were great things to explore in Putney.
Q: Can you explain the current fascination with real-life adventure tales,
the accounts of Shackleton and the Endurance, and "Into Thin Air,"
to name just a few?
A: One of the things that is frustrating to us is that the physical challenges
of our life are gone and we are looking for a confrontation with nature.
It's all technology now. We miss that opportunity for physical confrontation,
the bone and sinew and blood. Or it's accidental. "I got caught in
a terrible storm."
Q: The notion of "The Rope Eater" itself is based on one crew
member's childhood experience of growing up in a town in which parents
turn their children into freaks so that they become renowned circus performers.
What brought you to this juncture of the imagination?
A: I was trying to make it visceral. . . . One of the reasons I got into
the physically grotesque was that it's easier to see [some] things if
a character experiences it physically. When I was teaching in Atlanta,
I had a class of high school freshmen and they are tender eggs, just starting
to become people. I had a girl who kept falling asleep in class and I
noticed she had bruises. I asked her about this and she said, "I'm
a figure skater." I said, "It's amazing, you're 14 and have
this incredible passion that drives you." "I hate it,"
she said. "My parents . . . see it as my chance to go to college."
. . . I asked the class, if you had a choice to make a child grow up to
be Michael Jordan, but they'd be a deformed child with no life, [would
you do it?]. About half of them said they would consider it.
Q: One theme of the book seems to be that the search for enlightenment
or Eden is sometimes not that different from the search for a false utopia.
A: The way that I thought about that -- what I wanted to explore was the
growth of [the protagonist Kane's] consciousness and the possibility of
redemption. For Thomas Merton, redemption is inevitable but you don't
necessarily sink into a warm bath. Kane invests himself in [redemption]
but only by having things burn away . . . . Having nothing you believe
in and having no choice but to continue on. One of the things about Arctic
exploration is that it's the feverish pursuit of a mathematical spot.
Q: What did this book take out of you?
A: It took me about six years from start to finish. In that six years,
I moved 10 times, I had two children. I wasn't just sitting at a desk.
. . . I thought there were understandings that I needed to come to in
that time: the wisdom of the struggle that [Kane] goes through in terms
of how you move through the world.
Q: What is the meaning of Dr. Architeuthis's name?
A: It means giant squid. They are masters of the hidden realm.
Robin Dougherty, a writer and critic, lives in Washington, D.C. Her column
appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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