One of the first things I did when I realized that I was never going to make it home – when I was the only crewmember left, all the others stuffed into their sleeping chambers like rigid, vacuum-packed action figures – was to write up a list of everybody I would never see again…
What is it to explore with no hope of remembrance? How does one understand oneself when stripped of the gaze of others? James Smythe’s third novel The Explorer is a compelling, claustrophobic, and raw examination of exploration, grief, time, and identity. The crew of the Ishiguro die one by one – ‘falling off like there was a checklist’ – on a supposedly triumphant mission to travel further than any human has gone before. The only remaining crewman is the journalist Cormac Easton. He immediately and selfishly mythologises his situation as one of endurance in the trial of solitude. He wonders how those on Earth will understand the events on the Ishiguro, about the film they must surely make of the mission, and, eventually, whether anyone will ever know their fate at all. Cormac is an outsider, an observer whose sole task is to record the momentous journey: ‘My crew: I was never really a part of them, even after all the training, because they knew more than me, technical things.’ And yet, as becomes clear, he is an observer who saw almost nothing, who was wrapped up in the glamour of space travel and the rhetoric of exploration, and thus saw little beyond that list of names.
we send probes and cameras…but we never send out eyes; this way, we’ll be looking back at ourselves from further away than anybody has had the chance to before, and we’ll – hopefully – be able to understand ourselves a bit better because of it.
This idea of looking back as the key to understanding foreshadows the bizarre reflexivity Cormac will achieve in The Explorer, the basis of which I’m not going to reveal. Which makes this difficult. The process of travelling away from the earth is one of abstraction: from the world, from its mores, all the better to gain some kind of perspective. The further the crew travel, the more important their journey becomes, because humanity gains a greater, a more objective, understanding of itself. Or so Cormac and (some) others initially believe. Yet Cormac is also the observer of the crew, as they are of him and of each other. Their gaze, their understanding, cannot be so abstracted, trapped as they are in close quarters; and death is not conducive to reflection. This partiality of single points of view is a theme The Explorer shares with Smythe’s second novel The Testimony. Unlike that novel, we hear only Cormac’s voice as he is slowly isolated, slowly abstracted, from the gaze of others, until all he has left are those romantic notions of film scripts, memorials, the glamour of exploration and the mawkish reports he writes for those he left behind.
I couldn’t stand to relive this trip through my own eyes, I don’t think.
What if one were able turn one’s gaze back on oneself? That is a duality of abstraction and intimacy difficult to conceive. That would be the kind of exploration few of us would relish; and yet it would be bolder than the physical exploration of a spaceship powering into the void. But would the overcoming of partiality that a singular gaze entails really be better than Cormac’s starting point? Meaning, for Cormac, is imparted by representation and, more than that, by purpose memorialised, by others, by Earth, by history; at least, until events gather him up and force him to take up a new and anguished perspective. At that point, we begin to realise just how partial was his understanding of those around him, of events, and of himself. As Cormac begins to see beyond the list of names and the nature of their representation – both in his and their own minds – he must decide what to do with that knowledge even as he threatens to disintegrate.
An ending is a completion: it’s a satisfaction all in itself.
An ending is a consummation. Part of Cormac’s struggle is to understand how his experience has to end. Only thus will the meaning of his ordeal become clear. To that extent The Explorer’sstructure is teleological: it is by reference to the end that the whole is to be understood. That would be a simple act of abstraction: to step back and understand the whole. But it is not quite so simple, as the temporal structure of The Explorer undermines the linearity implicit in the teleological conception of meaning, even as its three sections hold the narrative together and break Cormac apart in the darkness of space.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
Eliot looms large in The Explorer. In fact, read Four Quartets as a companion piece if you possibly can. I could quote it all day. Time and memory and image play off one another in complex patterns to send echoes back and forth in poem and novel. Yet, what I like most about Smythe’s writing is its intimacy and deceptive ease. Complex narrative and emotional ideas are conveyed in a manner apparently free of all artifice as layers of repression are peeled back. This is harder than it looks. Smythe achieves a seemingly unmediated flow of thought and sensation as tender and raw as anything I have read this year. Neither diffident nor ostentatious, the writing is controlled to within an inch of its life and Cormac’s voice, which begins as a journalist’s selfish mythologisation of endurance, becomes as tender as a bruise as its pretention is stripped away by shock after psychological shock. As in The Testimony I found Smythe’s writing to have a rare power to move. The Explorer is a profound and deeply impressive novel which I urge you to read. I haven’t told you the half of it.
just me and the metal and the stars
The Explorer is out from Harper Voyager in ebook 20/12/12 and in hardback 17/01/13.
My thanks to HarperVoyager for this review copy.