Jun 28, 2009

Monkey droppings - Far North by Marcel Theroux

On today's menu: the apocalypse, with a side of artistic license.

Far North
by Marcel Theroux

HarperCollins Canada, 296 pages, $29.99

Science fiction, as a genre, has always suffered from a decided lack of scholarly respect. Yet while ‘literary’ authors may be wary to dive into the space battles of tomorrow, the same cannot be said of one of science-fiction’s subsets, the post-apocalyptic novel, which regularly attracts the heavyweights with its promise of heady themes and bleak world outlook.

Writers as lauded as Margaret Atwood, P.D. James, and J.G. Ballard have routinely explored the world that lies just a plague, oil shortage, or nuclear blast away from ours. Cormac McCarthy recently won the Pulitzer Prize (and, more profitably, an Oprah endorsement) for The Road, a gruesomely bleak foray into the hell-blasted landscape of our future.

Marcel Theroux would appear to have the chops to successfully take on the subject. A British author and broadcaster, and son of celebrated American author Paul Theroux, he has carved a career for himself with well-received novels such as The Paperchase, earning himself the 2002 Somerset Maugham Award in the process.

Far North
is Theroux’s attempt to present the Earth after society has all but given up the ghost for reasons left tantalizingly unclear, although there is talk of blighted areas and poisonous animals. His narrator is Makepeace, possibly the last person living in a settlement in northern Russia.

Humanity has reverted to a nomadic lifestyle where suspicion of one’s fellow man is the wisest choice of action. Makepeace understands that while there is nothing so friendly as a well-fed man, “take away his food, make his future uncertain, let him know that no one’s watching him, and he won’t just kill you, he’ll come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it.”
After Makepeace witnesses the sheer impossibility of a plane flying overhead, the notion that there may be a world still evolving takes hold. Makepeace sets out to discover the plane’s origins, and quickly discovers a world “fading to nothing, like the words of a vital message some fool had laundered with his pants and brought out all garbled.”

Theroux guides Makepeace’s journey with a steady hand, slowly revealing both the state of humankind and Makepeace’s surprising nature with a deliberate, unforced caution. While lacking the stark, hypnotic beauty of McCarthy’s prose, Theroux is an able craftsman, and Far North engages in its depiction of mankind’s survivors kept cowed and under thumb through “the patterns of older gods…terror and mercy, like twin shadows of an old totem that gets fed with blood.”

However, a marked lack of urgency drastically hampers Theroux’s imaginings. Makepeace’s world may be winding down, but this ramping inertia unfortunately transfers to the story, resulting in scenes that feel stale where they should excite.

There are some late-act developments that beggar belief, including a McGuffin of a mysterious elixir and the reemergence of a person important to Makepeace’s past. The last fifty pages pile on the coincidences, as if Theroux did not trust his world to be fascinating on its own.

There is enough good (and some excellent) in Far North for it to warrant a look, especially for aficionados of ‘end-of-the-planet’ scenarios. Yet for a novel encompassing the climax of mankind, Far North is quietly anti-climactic.

Originally published (expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, June 28, 2009.

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