Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Batchelor's Antarctica

This is a review of a novel with a long title by an author with a long name. The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica, published in 1983, was John Calvin Batchelor's second novel.  Batchelor wrote a half dozen other books, then went on to become a radio talk show host.  I've read two other of his novels, and have never heard his show.

I've also read this book more times than I've read any other novel.  I just finished what is either my 6th or 7th time through it.  In many ways, it's a touchstone for me, and I keep coming back because there is still so much I don't fathom about it.  Someday, I'll understand it's depths.

Antarctica, as I'll call the novel from now on, is a strange bird.  It takes place in an imagined future, but it's not sci-fi.  Remembering that it was published in 1983, most of the action spans the 1990s and the early 2000s.  One of the final chapters is titled "Christmas, 2037 AD."  It deals with mass migrations and the collapse of civilizations, but it's wholly about people and not technology.  (I don't think the word "computer" can be found in the novel at all!)

Antarctica is also the story of Grim Fiddle, a young man raised by quirky American expatriates in Stockholm.  Grim grew up playing Viking warrior at the summer camp run by his family, doing odd jobs to make ends meet, and learning a lot about life without ever going to school.  But tensions were brewing in this alternate Sweden... When Grim celebrated his 17th birthday with his family (who were all working in the kitchens at the Nobel Prize Ball), he didn't know that he was on a collision course with not only a cadre of xenophobic demagogues who wanted to cleanse their holy land of foreigners, but also with his father's haunted past and cursed future.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Grim and his family soon became intimate with phrases such as "the Age of Exile" and "the Fleet of the Damned."

Many online reviewers balked at the sense of loss and tragedy (often written through the lens of pagan Norse fatalism) in Antarctica.  When a sibyl tells Grim that his destiny is with the cold and the cruel, and that the blackened and hurt half-men await his coming, she's not wrong.  The lows are low, it's true.

Elsewhere online, I've gone on record despising the "tragedy porn" of much of what passes for contemporary literature.  (Is it fair to cite McCourt's Angela's Ashes as a poster child?  Irving's Garp?)  It seems sometimes that a novel can't be considered "serious" without some gash of nihilistic atrocity running through it.  But this, I feel, is fundamentally different from what happens in Antarctica.  Like Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, the bad stuff here is the result of flawed, fatal decisions.  Going through it with the characters is part catharsis, part reminder (this has happened before), and part warning (don't let it happen again).  Through it all, there is earned happiness at the end.

This review is getting long, but I shouldn't neglect to mention the beauty of Batchelor's words.  Maybe that's the siren song that keeps me coming back.  Here's a taste:
I believe that every man and woman, no matter what their station or luck, is granted a right to high dreams. If one exercises such a right, it costs. One pays with heart. That is not a bottomless account. It can be replenished after depletion -- the sun, some good food, a human kindness -- but it can also be exhausted, and after that sort of despair, death has no meaning I can think of. And I insist these high dreams speak every language, come to the very old, the very criminal, the very young.
That last sentence is an example Batchelor's trick of eliminating the penultimate "and" from lists of three, which for some reason still strums me like King David's secret chord.

There are aspects that won't be to everyone's taste.  Batchelor has a habit of naming characters based on punny stereotypes.  Grim's dad, ever the wanderer, is named Peregrine.  As another example, here are two names: Cleopatra Furore and Charity Bentham.  One is a silver-haired, matronly economist.  One is a dark, passionate, and manipulative beauty.  It's not hard to figure out which is which!  :-)

Antarctica is also a discursive novel full of meaty philosophical asides that don't move the plot along. (I like that in a novel... Why spend weeks to months in a universe without that universe being fully fleshed out?)  These asides are often political in nature, but Batchelor has the gift of saying a lot of meaningful things, and speaking a lot of truth, without hitting on the sore spots that would get people on either the left or right to throw the book away in anger.

The novel itself is supposed to be Grim Fiddle's own autobiography, and he writes what he feels like writing.  It ends up feeling kind of like "Moby Dick by Charles Dickens," if you get my drift... From Dickens you get the sometimes cartoonish characters and melodramatic themes of love and revenge; rich versus poor.  From Melville you get those long digressions, the ocean and exile, and some hard-edged religion.

Finally, there's the matter of the ending.  I won't give away too much, but it can seem rushed.  The last 60 pages of this 400 page book do have a more rapid tempo than what came before.  There are also big swaths of major plot squeezed into those pages.  There is an in-story explanation for why this is so, and I'll leave it to readers to decide whether that's convincing or not.  I used to be majorly perplexed by this accelerando of an ending, but I think that's because I often rushed through it myself, in a marathon reading session.  I broke it down into smaller pieces this time, and it made much better sense to me.

I love this novel, and I recommend it highly.  However, it's not a light, summer beach read.  Maybe it's more of a winter solstice read.  :-)


  1. You've completely sold me on this book.

    1. Wow! By all means look through online reviews, too (amazon and goodreads, for example)... they're a very mixed bag. I didn't want to sweep its flaws under the rug! :-)

      Lots of people seem to have fonder memories of one of Batchelor's other books, but I found that one very derivative of his earlier characters and plots from Antarctica.

    2. I love that you wrote all that in favor of the book, and then wrote this to temper it.

  2. Cyg, I have so much racing through my mind in response. First, by the time I got to the words, 'this review is getting long,' it was like I was ripped out of a mesmerized state. I'd been lost in your words.

    Secondly, I can't help this jest, forgive me: Charity is the dark-haired manipulative beauty ... ?

    No, in all seriousness, the thoughtful and repeated attention this book has elicited alone speaks volumes of its merit. I like, in particular, what you discovered about the pacing of the end by reading it in a bit more piecemeal fashion this time.

    I feel like I've learned a lot by reading this review -- and that I will be absorbing more and more as a bit of time lapses and I continue to turn it over.

    Had been looking forward to this post. Thanks.

    1. My words? Only a pale reflection of Batchelor's words.

      I didn't mention that Cleopatra is Charity's (adopted) daughter. They've definitely got a yin/yang thing going on, but they're alike in they get done what needs doing.

      So many characters I didn't mention. I'm shocked I never mentioned Grim's grandfather, Mord Fiddle... Mord the Hard-Fisherman... Lutheran big-wig and head of the xenophobes. When I first read the book in the mid 1980s, I pictured Mord as John Lithgow's preacher from Footloose. Now I see him as a white-bearded, apocalyptic Donald Sutherland (recent vintage, not Animal House era!) :-)

    2. It's funny, though not surprising, how our mind's eye 'casting' shifts over the years. (Especially, egads, nearly thirty.)

  3. 2012? Have we really been having these conversations for two years, already? :)