Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

People ask, what kind of writer do you want to be. I say, I want to be like Brancusi. I want my writing to have that rigour, that beauty, and that ability to see the world in a new way.
—J.M. Ledgard
Coffee House Press is one of the very few publishers whose books I will buy simply because Coffee House published them (another, in case you're curious, is Small Beer Press. Apparently, I am partial to publishers with beverages in their names). At this year's AWP conference, I happened to pass the Coffee House booth, and I was curious to see what was new. On a table at the front of the booth, J.M. Ledgard's Submergence grabbed by eye: a novel partially about events in East Africa, with a cover blurb by Teju Cole, published by Coffee House ... how could I resist? I could not. Life caught up with me, though, and I didn't have time to read the book until this week.

I begin by writing about where and why I bought the book because I'm trying to stay specific and concrete when what I most want to do is enthuse and exclaim, and I fear hyperbole, and I fear overselling the book, setting up expectations that can't be met by anything written by a mortal. I want to say: This is the best contemporary novel I have read in a long time, and I've read some excellent contemporary novels this year. I want to say: If you can only read one book in the next week/month/year, read this book. I want to say: We need more books like this book, and yet how can other books be like this book? I want to say: This book could change your life.

I won't really say any of that, though, because it all sounds jejune, and anyway, different readers respond differently. For instance, at The Guardian, Todd McEwen had a generally negative response to Submergence. Reading his review made me think terrible things about Todd McEwen, I will admit, but it also reminded me that some people are blind stupid illiterate unimaginative willfully ignorant willfully narrow in their aesthetics stupid stupid stupid opinions vary. Rather than foaming at the mouth like a madman, I shall try instead to describe a few of the many qualities I find so admirable in this extraordinary book.

(If you would rather judge for yourself, Bomb published a good excerpt.)

via National Geographic
In an interview with Philip Gourevitch, Ledgard said, "Submergence is an attempt at what I would call planetary writing, which is not the same as nature writing, it’s more political, more discarnate." Submergence is, indeed, planetary and political, but complexly and in some ways misleadingly so. It would, for instance, be possible to read the book as advocating for one or another of its characters' worldviews, but the view of the text as a whole is somewhat different from that of any single character. That's as it should be in a novel of this scope.

Scope and scale are central to the book's concerns — concerns that move from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. In 200 pages, Ledgard gives us a view of people, nature, history, and science that feels more specific and yet more vast than that of all but the best science fiction novels. (Indeed, I thought a few times while reading: Kim Stanley Robinson could learn a thing or two from this book...) The world as we find it — and keep finding it through exploration — is a world of surprise, a world that exceeds imagination. Submergence touches some of that sublimity.

The sublime can get abstract awfully quickly, and one of the great pleasures of Submergence is how concrete it is in its details and language. The book's foundation is two characters: James More, a British spy captured by al-Qaeda jihadis in Somalia, and Danny (Danielle) Flinders, a biomathematician and oceanographer preparing to plunge deep into the Atlantic in the submersible Nautile. James and Danny had a brief, passionate romance on the French Atlantic coast before heading their separate ways, and they remained in touch, which seems to have surprised (and pleased) them both, as neither is the sort of person to let romance much affect them. Their ancestries are especially meaningful, too: James is a direct descendent of Sir Thomas More, writer of Utopia; Danny is the daughter of a father from Australia and a mother from Martinique. She grew up in various places, and in "her complexion and variety of dress and habits and manners there was something of her mother's Creole background." James has a very clear sense of his ethnicity and nationality, one built from culture and history, one he has served in the military and now the secret intelligence service — he is, for all of his worldliness and cosmopolitanism, a warrior for a particular culture, a particular concept of civilization that must, inevitably, clash with other concepts of civilization. Danny, on the other hand, is well read and well educated (not a scientist who only knows her science), but the scale of her concerns is different, her sense of identity less narrow than James's.

These characters and situations allow Ledgard to roam across the world and into its depths without losing focus. Submergence is a philosophical novel grounded in its characters' perceptions. Again and again, the text moves from scenes with Danny and James to essayistic exposition drawn from those scenes, commenting on them, contrasting with them. It's a loose enough structure to accommodate a wealth of ideas and information, but it always returns us to the characters and their perceptions. The effect is to suggest some of the vastness of history and nature while also showing how human minds accommodate that vastness. The narrative point of view drifts, dives, rises, and though James and Danny are our primary point of view characters, we also get glimpses into the points of view of the people around them, particularly James's captors. It would have been entirely appropriate for Ledgard to steal a move from the last paragraphs of Chekhov's "Gusev" (a predecessor in many ways to Submergence) and write from the point of view of the fish, the clouds, the ocean. In his own way, I suppose, he does just that.

Ledgard presents it all in prose that is evocative and lyrical while also straightforward. (It reminded me of a mix of Jean Rhys, Paul Bowles, and Jim Crace.) The sentence structures are seldom complex, the diction never ornate (technical, sometimes, but not ornate), and yet the words sing. The paragraphs feel boiled down without being hardboiled, muscular but not muscle-bound. It's among the most difficult kinds of prose to pull off, because it can so easily become monotonous, frigid, or mannered, and yet here it never does. Consider these paragraphs:
She could see the jagged rocks further out to sea on which many ships had foundered. The sailors, fearing being drowned so close to shore, must have called out for an acre of barren ground; broom, furze, anything, in their fear.

The waves were messy, porridgy, falling off before the lighthouse. There were no surfers. She knew how deep it was out there at the horizon. She had these other languages of numbers and sonar. She saw the deepness that was at the edge of France and it made the beach under her feel like a ledge on a cliff.
There's nothing ostentatiously lyrical there, few words of more than just two syllables, and yet the specificity and variety are evocative, unforced, letting the music of the consonants and vowels resonate (sailor[s]/shore, drowned/ground, oo to ur to ear, all those e sounds and l sounds in the last sentence, etc.). Add line breaks and we might mistake this for a poem by, say, W.S. Merwin.

The efficiency of such writing can achieve a lot quickly. Consider how much characterization Ledgard fits into a few sentences here (about Danny):
She knew nothing of development work or consultancies. It was said she was worldy. Well, she was worldly in wealth, and had been worldly enough in the toilet stalls of nightclubs, but she was not properly worldly. She had not come into contact with the poor. She was spoiled, like her mother. Her instinct was for refinement — of literature, fashion, cuisine — refinement of everything, really, and what could not be refined was not worth having. Could poverty be refined? She did not think so. On her visits to Australia she headed to the galleries in Sydney. These days, Manly was seamy enough for her. She had been taken to Flinders Island, which had been named for her paternal forebear. Despite her father's insistence, she had never visited an Aboriginal community in Australia or shown any interest in indiginous culture, except in so far as to use its images and textiles to garland her life. She was a woman with slave ancestry, yet she was prejudiced against Africa as a continent without research universities. Aside from a trip to Cape Town she had only been to Africa once, on an oceanographic research vessel that had anchored off the coast of Senegal. They had motored ashore in great excitement, but the village they arrived at had left her embarrassed. The village women gathered around her and asked her to speak on their behalf. They recognized her. She felt found out. It was not about skin color; that was of no importance. It was a sudden sense of community, a rusticity that complicated her metropolitan identity.
It's an extraordinary passage, one I am tempted to analyze word by word, but I will refrain, and instead just stand back and bow to it in awe. Look not only at what that passage says (a lot!), but what it does — the full movement of its narrative, the little discursive signals that herald points of view, the tidal movement between generality and specificity. The richness of characterization here could easily be missed if the passage were read quickly. It's dangerous for a writer to put so much of importance into such a relatively small space of words, and yet the reward for careful readers is immense: worlds unfurl from the words.

The care and complexity with which Ledgard draws his main characters extends to the various human cultures that also pass through these pages. Again, specificity achieves wonders: each geography and culture is different, and then each individual within those geographies and cultures are different ... and yet still human, still part of something the size of a species. Scale, scope, perspective. Macro and micro dance together. The jihadis are not presented as all the Muslims in the world, but they're also not just all jihadis, or revolutionaries, or terrorists. Somalia is presented not simply as a place of indistinguishable hordes of black people (hello, Black Hawk Down!), but rather a place of varied people, histories, influences. In this novel, East Africa is at least as complex as Europe, and is complexly tied to Europe and also to everywhere. Global forces exist alongside local ones. The anti-American guerrillas love Disney movies, and interpret Bambi into their ideology. Just look at all the history, ideology, and power compressed into this one image from an al Qaeda camp: "They sandbagged the main hut with food aid sacks filled with wet sand. On each of the sacks was a Stars and Stripes and the words Gift of the People of the United States."

photo by J.M. Ledgard

Myth and science converge throughout the novel, with myth providing the necessary metaphors to make the immensities and mysteries of the world comprehensible to human minds. James finally justifies his own choices in religion and culture as ones to render himself coherent. In a remarkable passage late in the novel, after James has considered all sorts of similarities and paradoxes between cultures and beliefs, one of his captors says he expects they'll both die soon and that that is why he wants James to convert to Islam. James refuses.
There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him; a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewelry, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with its knights' tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle... He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.
James's stubborn desire for coherence from canon and culture is produced by his recognition of the immensity of the universe, but it is also an utterly inadequate response to that immensity, a narrowing response, a warrior's response. Note how determinedly masculine it is, how archaic, even anachronistic — throughout, James thinks about man and the history of mankind, but the most revelatory and wondrous insights in the book come from Danny, who is less fettered by the old world's identities, more aware of humanity and the systems that affect it and are affected by it (though her thoughts, too, are unfortunately presented within the sexist terms of mankind. It's hard to escape the diction of our authors). James is a mirror of his captors; Danny lives a less destructive life, a life more aware of wonder than horror. Horror is, with the right perspective, a wonder: "Even eating our way through cows, apples, everything, in our billions, you know we're nothing compared to the life down there. That life can't be destroyed, it feeds on death — or less than death — it reconfigures and goes further in, into hotter water."

Ultimately, Submergence is a call for humility. Its thrilling movement through time and space serves to remind us of how tiny we are in our mortality, how transient. For all our technologies, histories, and myths, we are fragile creatures, young, whatever posterity we may acquire a flash against geologic time. We are little more than liquid, and will always flow back to the sea.
You will be drowned in oblivion, the River Lethe, swallowing water to erase all memory. It will not be the nourishing womb you began your life in. It will be a submergence. You will take your place in the boiling-hot fissures, among the teeming hordes of nameless microorganisms that mimic no forms, because they are the foundation of all forms. In your reanimation you will be aware only that you are a fragment of what once was, and are no longer dead. Sometimes this will be an electrifying feeling, sometimes a sensation of the acid you eat, or the furnace under you. You will burgle and rape other cells in the dark for a seeming eternity, but nothing will come of it. Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.

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