The Ecology of Despair
“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”
—Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
I don’t know what it says about me, but I’ve always been drawn to stories about closed human ecosystems, the drama of the trapped or the isolated, the brutal hierarchies of forced society, the way otherwise civilized people transform outside of their element. The Tempest and No Exit are two of my favorite plays, Papillon and ClosetLand two of my favorite films, The Prisoner one of my favorite TV shows, and I find Kafka a pleasant read.
I’m a lot of fun at parties.
Apparently so is Mark Spitzer, associate editor at Andrei Codrescu’s exquisite magazine Exquisite Corpse, who has written one of the finest novels I’ve ever read about what becomes of human beings in a savage land. Chum is dark, violent, funny, visceral, and incredibly profane an icepick in the gut and a sledgehammer to the skull. It is, simply put, one righteous motherfucker of a book.
Based on Spitzer’s own translation of Secrets of the Island, an unproduced film treatment by Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Chum is a black fable of mad love and jealousy set among the people of a nameless rock of an island in the middle of the Bering Strait. The descendents of a boatload of Irish convicts originally bound for Australia, over two centuries of stultifying isolation and almost unbroken inbreeding have made them a race unto themselves. Violent and decidedly less than bright, the islanders exist in a meager and unchanging ecosystem: most of the men go out and dredge the ocean floor for bottom feeders to bring home to the women, who work in the cannery grinding the fish into dog food for the Russian and Japanese markets. When they’re not working the men get drunk and rape their wives and daughters. The islanders are born and die breathing the cold, fetid air of despair. Nothing changes except the weather.
Chum begins with a storm, a black wall of weather that smacks the island with Old-Testament fury and washes two boats ashore. One is a fishing boat belonging to the father of nineteen-year-old Nadine Murphy, a girl with little in the way of brains but with enough dull beauty to aspire to better things than an islander’s fate. These hopes increase exponentially with the death of her father and the survival of his good-looking crewman Yann, whom she decides on the spot she will have for her man.
Those hopes are tempered, however, when the owner of the other boat is discovered. She is young, blonde, wealthy, and beautiful in a way that makes her a goddess in the eyes of the island men and arouses the instant hatred of a group of diseased old seahags led by Mother Kralik, feared by all for her venomous invective and rumored powers of witchcraft. The girl, a B-movie actress named April Berger, is oblivious to the misery that fuels the island and, reveling in her anonymity among people who have never seen a movie or watched television in their lives, decides to stay there indefinitely. Suddenly what few charms Nadine possesses are rendered nonexistent next to April’s, especially in the eyes of Yann, and so April becomes the object of all the vitriol Nadine can muster. The only problem is that Nadine also finds herself attracted to April…
What emerges is a bizarre triangle fueled by April’s obliviousness, Yann’s thick indecision, and Nadine’s growing borderline-psychotic obsession with both of them, as all the while Mother Kralik attempts to engineer April’s destruction with a manipulative skill that would shame Madame DeFarge. As it is anytime a new animal is introduced into a closed ecosystem, there is no question that something horrible is going to happen, and this book is driven by sheer schadenfreude. Spitzer’s prose holds us in place to watch the spectacle like that contraption they strapped Li’l Alex into in A Clockwork Orange:
The murmurs increase and the tumult builds. Beer swills, whiskey gurgles. To anybody from anywhere else, it would appear a carnival of drunken misfits, roaring boors, flying spittle, gnashing maws, and gutteral cries spewing forth like public defecations.
Which is exactly what April witnesses as she opens the door and looks into the bar. For a second she thinks it’s her imagination, as logic informs her that such a bestiary could only exist in the imagination of some sicko—because what she sees is a mass of frothing jackals and hyenas howling at her, pointing at her, and launching their indecipherable onslaught on her, all of them competing to be heard—their turgid taunts and squalid squeals exploding from a hell of horrid gorges.
Spitzer pulls the plow from start to finish here, from his breathtaking description of the storm in the opening chapter to heart-in-your-throat horror at the end. Even devices I normally despise, like excessive onomatopoeia, are used to great effect here: there is an entire page of nothing but the word “WHACK!”, occasionally broken by a four- or five-word sentence, as the cannery women chop fish with their cleavers and work each other up into a frenzy of lunatic hate.
Even with these postmodern prose conceits, Chum lies solidly within that most terrifying of literary traditions, American Naturalism. Like Stephen Crane at his best and Herman Melville at his windiest, Spitzer pulls back from the human drama to show us that, as vicious and horrible as we human beings can be to each other, we are nothing before the implacable justice of nature:
Father O’Flugence, however, believes in God no more than he believes in the Devil—he knows it’s just an excuse for a job. What he believes in is fraternity—but he knows he’s in the wrong place for this. The island is an atrocity, its people are an abomination, and its future is just the same as its past: disaster. He closes his shutters, lets the storm hammer at his house, and pretends to pray. . .
Father O’Flugence believes in Nature. He believes it has a mind of its own, but no destination. He believes that humans evolved from primates, and that some are still apes. He believes we are all part of a big mistake, that the species is corrupt, and that the storm is pure. He believes that Nature is correcting itself. He believes that accidents are glorious, and that the will of Nature is the only will.
Spitzer’s shifts from the perverse microcosm of the island to the larger universe are daunting and ominous, tiny deliberate horrors reduced to their rightful scale in the face of the blind, chaotic Big Kahuna. This is not recommended reading for those looking for silver linings. But for those who believe that the real measure of savagery, in man and in nature, goes a long way beyond the artifice of Survivor, Mark Spitzer offers up a deluxe package tour of the abyss.