As a child, it was a given that we’d take our family vacation to Utah every year. Relatives to visit and my father’s business to conduct made it our default destination. One summer, however, my parents decided that we would take a journey far more circuitous; not stopping in the great salt plains, we would continue on to Idaho, Nevada, down Pacific Coast Highway 1 all the way to Mexico, returning via the southern routes to home. I was a thirteen year-old filled with wanderlust who had never traversed beyond the Central and Mountain Time zones. Of all the memories collected on that trip, of slot machines and Space Mountain and children selling Chiclets on the streets of Tijuana; of all of these, my most cherished are of the sea.
Oh, the violent life of it! It pushed me around, swallowed me under, whipped between my legs and tripped me as I raced back towards the safety of shore. Spluttering and borne aloft, I lay on it like a lover, like what my 13 year-old body I imagined a lover would be. It was chilly that day, but my memories are warm; it teased me, taunted me and even sometimes tortured me, but it never left me cold.
I wish that I could say the same for John Banville’s The Sea. Wanting to be buoyed, knowing the fierce currents that always, always roil just beneath our surface, I found it strangely lacking in its ability to pull me over and drag me under. The novel resides in that half-upright place of divergent paradigms. We are awake, we are asleep; we are falling, we are rising, all at once and nothing at all. And while this is a part of mourning, whether of a person, a place or a dream, we as readers are stuck with Max in a life unfocused and incomplete, with only the ebb of a good story half told to bear us into the horizon.
Max Morden loses his wife; she is lost to cancer, but already lost long before. They are strangers living a same life, separately joined. In the wake of her death, Max returns to his childhood home where he once stumbled into his first love and his first-second-first love and an adolescence of searching uncertainty. The Sea is a novel about loss and lessening, about the destruction of ourselves inside each other. And while grief is no one’s but our own and as individual as the labyrinth of our souls, there is a connectedness to it, a shared sympathy that lets us lean on each other when woes overwhelm us.
Banville is a master of descriptive narrative; he delights in brushing this world out for us, assigning red here and overcast there and regret running into rashness throughout. From this we see what he wants us to see; his characters are densely populated with modifiers and his landscapes are overflowing with adjectives. We see it, of course we do. We can’t escape it. But there is no meaning to it, no metaphorical shoulder to lean on, cry on, to shake or grab hold of when we feel ourselves starting to drown. The characters never really become people and the landscapes rarely move beyond backdrops. Banville devotes much toil to description, but we would have been better served had he sussed out the story’s shoulder. Without it, I could not shake out the meaning, and the The Sea could not grab hold of my heart.
Banville himself wrote the summation of this review when he wrote the ending of his novel: “…I was lifted briefly and carried a little way toward the shore and then was set down on my feet as before, as if nothing had happened. And indeed nothing had happened, a momentous nothing, just another of the great world’s shrugs of indifference.”
As I waded into The Sea I was also feeling along the bottom for my own story, after losing my own father two months ago to a decade of chronic illness, a year of wasting and an end devoid of apparent meaning. I wanted to strike out beyond the shore of platitudes and pity that had been crashing into me in the hours, days, weeks since that 5 am phone call, to peer into the depths and find my reflection in him, to measure with clarity the swell of his life into mine. In the end all I felt was a momentous nothing that kept me on my feet when I wanted to sink, and an indifferent shrug that leaves me shivering and lost in the shallows and unable to drift past my father into peace.