Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review of Far North by Marcel Theroux

Is it possible to finish a book, be full of criticism, and yet still open to recommending it? Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2009) has precisely this effect. There are many technical and stylistic aspects that could have been improved, but at its core, the story is readily relatable, a sliver of humanism tucked in amongst the warts.

Makepeace is sheriff of an abandoned town. An unnamed catastrophe having wiped out the majority of people on Earth, she lives in Siberia, patrolling empty streets on a horse, snow swirling around her. Drifters move in and out of the abandoned homes, traders sometimes visit, and the occasional outlaw requires quieting. An airplane crashing on a hill near her town one day, Makepeace is inspired to act: find the source of civilization able to fly airplanes. Prisoner, slave, and lab rat—her resulting journey into the wilds of Siberia is anything but what she hoped. Fate, however, does have the last word.

In terms of plot, Far North runs a rather customary, or at least unsurprising gamut of post-apocalyptic scenes: strange religious cults, banditry, incursions into radiation zones, good people dragged under by the times, etc. Theroux trying to effect a Western style, one can occasionally feel John Wayne or Clint Eastwood riding out into empty lands, or getting captured by Native Americans—the mode familiar even as the setting is post-ap Siberia. The ending, as maudlin as it may be at its core, is deserving as well as informative of theme.

As such, Far North takes the main ingredients of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic and mixes them together. But it is unable to bake a better cake. McCarthy’s prose creates better setting and mood, and his thematic focus is more honed. Atwood’s religious patriarchy is more complex and engaging. And the Strugatsky’s “zone” is more mysterious, as well as more revealing of the psyche that enters it. This is not to say Theroux’s effort is bad, only that is comes off as standard in comparison to these other works.

Though not a result of combining motifs, Far North is a novel existing in fits and starts; Theroux never settles into a groove. There are moments of smooth, even affecting wordsmanship, as well as sections of story that catch a breeze and sail effortlessly with it. But this cannot prevent the overall novel from being a bit disjointed. Line by line one can sometimes feel Theroux chomping at the bit to release a wave of dynamic prose, but ultimately holding himself back, trying to write in the style of the proper, reserved, Louis L’Amour Western. Straight-forward, the overall storyline is easy to follow. Theroux takes a break here and there to fill in backstory, all the while tracking Makepeace’s present circumstances. Nevertheless, there remain moments of “Wait a minute, where are we?” And after reading further and discovering where, the questions “How the hell did we get here? Wasn’t Makepeace just a moment ago in…” While perhaps nicely emulating a rambling frontiersman’s journal, it comes up lacking in terms of organic “Western” narrative.

And the issues continue. On the whole, Theorux only partially convinces that Makepeace wanders a post-apocalyptic Siberia. The details of setting perfunctory, they could have been better developed to provide an evocative sense of place (something which Siberia just begs to have done), not to mention give the title fuller meaning. Theroux need not have been grimmer than grim, merely selected believable details of survival in a barren land. Where some authors can describe the exigencies of wilderness life in gritty, or at least realistic tones, Theroux lacks the imagination (but not the confidence) to bring Makepeace’s travails to life on the page. That some of the plot occurrences are also a bit too coincidental (see, for example, her treatment at the hands of captors late in the novel) only detracts further from the sense of realism—and this is a novel, if any, that would benefit from such a sense. Never outright bad, Far North just never outright convinces, either.

In the end, Far North is a novel with good intention: to portray the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of personal, environmental, and social catastrophe, but is executed in bumpy, inconsistent fashion. Lacking some of the detail of being in a believable post-ap setting, organic plotting, as well as the full mood and atmosphere the style of book would seem to call for, Theroux succeeds in delivering his message but at the expense of some key elements of quality fiction. It’s not synergistic material. Compare Far North to The Road and the differences become apparent. (To be fair, I daresay Theroux’s thematic aims are more universal than McCarthy, only McCarthy delivers a comprehensive work.)

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