Friday, November 30, 2012
66. Voyage to the North Star by Peter Nichols
Here is how I took my first steps down into this mouldy basement of failed narrative dreams. As you know, I am a huge follower of the late, great John Christopher and am on a quest to find all of his work, which was written in a wide range of genres (post-apocalyptic, romance, mystery, horror and even cricket!) under at least seven different pseudonym. At least one of those names was Peter Nichols. I've recently made a list of those names that I keep in a small card in my wallet along with the other specific titles I am hunting for. Whenever I am in a bookstore, I can quickly scan through the paperback shelves to see if by chance any of them will show up. So for, no luck. I think I would do better in Great Britain.
Last week, I happened to be near the Bibliotheque Nationale. It's been a while since I've been there, but had the time to pop in. Saw a fantastic exhibit about this Polish philosopher and peace activist who ended up in Montreal after the war. The exhibhit was mainly his collection of books, which was amazing. They also had some cool intelligence documents from his role working for the British Secret Service in WWII. Anyways, I did a quick check of the english fiction section and went through hunting for al the John Christopher nom de plume's. I found nothing, but as you have probably guessed by now, I discovered this book by Peter Nichols, which is one of Christopher's pseudonyms. It's not him, but it looked pretty interesting and I got sucked in by the preface, which was a horrific little short story about a rich American industrialist on safari shocking the British hunters by machine-gunning a bunch of giraffes. So I checked it out, despite my full on-deck shelf.
Voyage to the North Star takes place at the height of the Depression. The protagonist is Will Boden, an unemployed sea captain who lost his own ship in a shameful incident. He encounters Carl Schenk, the afore-mentioned industrialist, who fashions himself a Teddy Roosevelt type. He is aggressive and reckless and loves machines and killing animals. He becomes obsessed with making a trip to the arctic to collect as many big animals and birds as he can. He hires Boden to find him a ship, but ends up going with a totally inappropriate luxury steam ship. The whole thing spells disaster from the start, but the intrigue is about how it will all go down and how everyone will react.
It's an entertaining read. The plot moves forward at a good pace, with diversions into many of the characters' backstories, that are all interesting. You know from the start that Schenk is going to do something stupid to doom them all, but the results that followed were unexpected and kept me turning the pages. I think what hangs the unfortunate "literary fiction" label around Voyage to the North Star is that, while the story is strong, it has very obvious "themes", such as the folly of the civilized white colonialist in the face of the native other, the effects of class hierarchy on human relations, the honesty of the man who works with his hands in contrast to those who manipluate capital (and other men) and of course a sprinkling of incestuous sexual abuse. I believe that this book falls under the even lower sub-category of literary fiction (if you can believe it gets any lower, but there is something for every degenerate taste out there) of "post-colonial" fiction.
So don't worry, dear reader, you won't find me anytime soon skulking in downtown coffee shops with a trade paperback or joining suburban women's reading groups. This was just a brief diversion and I shall climb back up onto honest and rigorous heights of proper reading: the crime, science fiction and fantasy genres. I can safely report, though, that at least in this case, some literary fiction is actually pretty good.