Author's Note

on the development of The Rope Eater


As the son of Outward Bound instructors, I grew up belaying my father up rock walls, and riding in old aluminum canoes through frigid rapids, or drifting up and down riversides, breathing in the metallic smell of whitewater while my father raced by in his kayak. Our house in Vermont was filled with the great books of exploration and adventure: Endurance and Mawson’s Will, K2: The Savage Mountain, The White Spider and Annapurna. I wandered through the woods imagining I was battling against nature and fate to discover new lands, surviving by my wits and guts, enduring privation for glory.

The Latin root of the word “explore” means “to weep”, and the Greek and Roman heroes went out in order to be able to return—they fought banishment and exile to make their homes strong and peaceful. It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who transformed the wanderer into the discoverer and the yearning for home into the striving for the endlessly new. Tennyson’s Ulysses is battling against rest and fixity; he chafes and rails at his home, and triumphs by departing. He personifies the noble impulse of exploration.

I was drawn to the literature of exploration and discovery by that impulse and its often grotesque consequences; by Peary, missing most of his toes, dragging himself over the floes in a third and a fourth attempt to reach the North Pole, a blank spot on the polar ice pack resting over 13,000 feet of water; by Scott, dragging a sledge of geological samples over a thousand miles to his death, only eleven miles from fresh supplies. There seemed to be no clear channel for that impulse in our modern world—our physical struggles have been subsumed by technological ones; our world is mostly known and “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil/And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell”. I wanted to know what happened to our ability to imagine our own capabilities without new worlds to find.

The central struggle of the book—Brendan Kane’s battle with his heart—came to me as I was planning to move to Paris. I had no job, spoke no French, knew no one in Paris. I had never been there before. I had no money. I had no place to stay. I was looking, in some ways, for my own new world. As my departure approached, I was unable to sleep for several days on end. In the stifling June darkness, I was reading Crime and Punishment; outside, a cat in heat yowled and scratched, and Raskolnikov’s frenzied descent seemed to mirror my own. I lay back, trying to relax, trying not to listen to the cat, trying not to worry about France. I looked over to my nightstand and saw the ripples of my own heart beating in the water of the glass on my nightstand. In Kane’s heart I found the engine of his relentless and inevitable growth, the catalyst that pushes him out into the world even as he tries to run from it.

I began my research with a collection that had originally been the American Library in Paris—books contributed to American GIs during World War I. In those books, I felt a strong connection to the time I was writing about; World War I had brought an end to the “Heroic Age” of exploration. Shackleton mounted a final, half-hearted trip to Antarctica in 1922, and died before he came within a thousand miles of it. I decided to set my story in the late 19th century, when Arctic ambitions were at their height. In the American Library collection, I found an early edition of Elisha Kent Kane’s Arctic Explorations, signed by the explorer himself. Kane led one of the groups to find the lost Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin in the 1850’s and Kane’s chronicle was a huge success—it was said that the wagon trains west carried two books: the Bible and Kane’s Explorations. He was a different sort of explorer than Scott or Peary—more optimistic and flexible, less glory-haunted, more inspired by the human capacity to innovate than to endure privation. In his cribbed handwriting, faded brown on the inside cover, I saw the choices that drew men into these expeditions with a new vividness and immediacy. I named Brendan Kane for Elisha Kent Kane, and for St. Brendan, the 6th century Irish monk who sailed west to seek his Isles of the Blessed, and for the biblical Cain.

I moved into a tiny, high-ceilinged apartment in Belleville, on streets that were jammed with Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese immigrants. Because I didn’t have room for a desk, I covered the walls with sheets of rough brown linen and bought—through an elaborate pantomime—little brass safety pins from an old Vietnamese tailor who spoke no French and no English; I copied out my notes onto index cards and pinned them in billowing clusters onto the linen.

The village of the Rope Eaters, a tribe that disfigures children for profit, emerged essentially whole. It was the most brutal representation I could conceive of relentless commerce and opportunity drawing us by reasonable steps into acts of cunning savagery, and of life persisting, awfully and miraculously, within it. It was only after I finished writing it that pieces echoed back to me—rumors of Indian villages that groomed beggars by amputation; an article in the New York Times about the profitable injuries cultivated by junkies on the subway. In Robert Pinsky’s translation of Dante, I found the poetry of the grotesque—the capacity of the body to grow despite the forces that deform and confine it.

The idea of a temperate archipelago in the heart of the Arctic grew out of many sources—suggested first by the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, which are oases of rock in deserts of ice, kept clear by the abrading force of ancient winds, and harboring lakes of brine hundreds of miles from the ocean. Then by the fact that the weight of the Greenland ice cap does drive the surface of the land far below sea level—I read about farms in Sweden that add new acres with each generation as the land springs back from the weight of glaciation. And off Cape Bathurst in the Northwest Territories, there are shale fires burning underground that have been burning for hundreds of years; amidst the ice and darkness, the hills are smoldering.

The environment of the Arctic reduced the elements of existence to the most basic: night and day, light and dark, cold and heat. But even these elements seemed to resist simple order; ice crystals in the air bend the light so that the sun appears from far below the horizon, and men thought it is a miracle; they saw a coast from an impossible distance because of the same phenomenon. They sailed all day and drew no closer to it, and then believe they have been cursed—that a giant lodestone under the water was holding them in place. The light blinds and the cold burns. The land is both timeless and transient: nothing rots—skin tent circles can last hundreds of years—but the pack transforms the polar world with each season. I found the Arctic at once fantastical and realistic—a geography that was filled with authentic wonders.

The Arctic brought men quickly up against the limits of their own imaginations and capacities. Deliverance from one problem often presented another; The Australian explorer Douglas Mawson was left without food when one of his companions, Edward Ninnis fell down a crevasse. He and his remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, began eating their dogs, but found the meat tough and difficult to digest. So they began eating only the livers, which were softer, and did not atrophy as the huskies starved. In doing so, they unknowingly ingested toxic doses of vitamin A. They became dizzy and their skin peeled off in sheets. Peter Freuchen recounts being trapped in a small snow shelter during an extended blizzard in Greenland; as they waited out the storm, their respiration began to coat the inside of their shelter, slowly suffocating them as the storm raged on.

The Rope Eater is about a man who is first a wanderer, then an explorer and in the end a pilgrim. He finds his new world, his “isles of the blessed” not in the vast Arctic emptiness, but rushing past him in the torrent of his days. The blind energy of his heart drives him forward into a salvation he does not seek; the grace of the world is that it teaches him to see through the act of forcing him to bear witness.