Monday, February 25, 2008

Sir John Franklin, Unforgettable, Dead

William T. Vollmann's novel "The Rifles" is about John Franklin's northwest passage expedition. Except that John Franklin is really the time-traveling twin of Captain Subzero, who is also sort of William T. Vollmann himself, and all of them are in love with a crazy Inuk woman named Reepah, who was part of the greater tragedy of the much-maligned 1950s relocation of Inuit families to Resolute, and everybody has been impacted by the properties of lead, you see.

The book is best when it is describing Vollmann's impressions of the far north; the shambolic yet warm settlements, the sparse beauty of endless tundra, and the sheer superpower of wind, ice, and cold.

It's also good when Vollmann writes about Reepah, a hearing-impaired, gasoline-sniffing, poverty stricken, utterly damaged woman who cheerfully ping-pongs between Subzero and Franklin, past and present, chopping blubber in the kitchen and screaming drunkenly in New York City. Her affairs with her Caucasian lovers are typically Vollmann: lopsided, crazy, impossible, doomed.

But what does all this have to do with "rifles?" I missed it the first time I read the book, but this time I took note of the introduction, in which the author tries to find the source of a river on Cornwallis Island...he keeps following it, trying to find its source, only to realize -- after an exhausting journey -- that
...these lakes were from permafrost melt; the whole island was permafrost; when you were on the island you were in a world of rivers that came from everywhere.
In his "Seven Dreams" series (of which "The Rifles" is book six) he is following tenuous paths through history, following his inspirations in directions that are symbolic and meaningful. "The Rifles" is about starvation and lead, which killed the Franklin expedition (partially through lead-contaminated food), which is killing Reepah (who sniffs gasoline), and impacted the entire north when rifles and European contact turned the ecosystem from one of sheer survival to one of fur-for-profit.

But Vollmann knows that this is a messy river to follow, and he acknowledges that this is too simplistic. The book sinks into necessarily long descriptions of starvation which make the reader understand both the protracted nature of Arctic death and the sheer emptiness of the landscape. As difficult as it is to read, and as spongy as its "permafrost" can occasionally be, "The Rifles" gives a personal glimpse of the far north as experienced by Vollmann himself.

It makes you want to go there and go very far away, all at the same time.

Immediately after this, I finally roused myself to read one of Vollmann's sources: "Frozen In Time" by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, about Beattie's own trips north to exhume the bodies of Franklin's crew.

The book is dry and clunkily sentimental, and it is so repetitive that you wonder if you aren't reading the same chapters over and over again. It's written, in fact, as though it were the awkward offspring of a research paper and a journal, which is exactly what it is.

Beattie was the man who developed and (it would seem) supported the theory that Franklin's expedition was debilitated early on by lead poisoning, mainly due to hastily-manufactured tinned food. Most of the bodies and relics from the 1840s are long gone -- scattered by the elements, lost under the ice, acquired by the Inuit -- but the bodies of three crewmen have remained buried on isolated, inhospitable Beechey Island.

So Beattie and his team went there with a portable laboratory and dug up the corpses. They were amazed to find that the 140-year-old bodies of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine were almost perfectly preserved...and it's the gruesome pictures of the men that are the real stars of the book. Bulging hands, rubbery lips, gritted teeth, staring eyes, emaciated bodies, all dressed in period clothing and looking barely dead. The bodies are downright eerie...if you want nightmares, here are a few online shots.

That's it for me. No more Arctic stories for a while. I'm plunging into Sherlock Holmes because I much prefer reading about that smug bastard than spending another week perpetually icebound.

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