Daniel Davis Wood reviews Jaimie Batchan’s Siphonophore
Spare a thought for John Keats, labouring over his sonnets before the advent of the internet. In 1816, fresh from an evening with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats famously claimed that his first taste of Homer left him feeling “like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken / Or” — to favour a longer simile —
like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The problem is that Cortés never actually set foot in Darién, the easternmost extremity of what is now Panama. Keats probably had in mind Cortés’ predecessor, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, but where was the poet supposed to turn for clarification? He wrote that sonnet in a single night and didn’t have an encyclopaedia to hand, much less access to Google. In any case, his error raises a question worth pondering: what can we say has happened to Keats’ Cortés? One might easily say “nothing”: Keats simply misimagined, and that’s that. Then again, one might say that as long as Keats’ words exist on a page or a screen, and as long as they are encountered by readers who make them meaningful, then an abstract incarnation of Cortés survives somewhere in our collective unconscious — an incarnation more bewildered than the conquistador himself, plucked from someplace he did in fact visit, plonked atop a Panamanian peak, and left to dwell there forever wondering what divine force uprooted him. Perhaps he’s there even now, if idle, destined to be reawakened and bewildered anew anytime anyone runs their eyes over Keats’ final stanza.
Jaimie Batchan’s début novel, Siphonophore, doesn’t deal with Keats’ Cortés, but it does adopt a version of the above conceit and it does make a purgatory of Darién. In the late seventeenth century, the coast of the Gulf of Darién was the site of the first and only attempt at establishing a colony belonging to the then-independent Kingdom of Scotland. The so-called “Darién scheme” was a disaster. In mid-1699, after malaria and dysentery decimated most of their fellows, the surviving emigrants from Scotland abandoned the settlement. But their change of heart came too late for the second wave of settlers who had already embarked on the voyage west, so the newcomers arrived in late 1699 to find New Edinburgh a ghost town. And although they dutifully set about re-establishing the site, their efforts were thwarted by the military incursions of Spanish soldiers who eventually laid siege to the Scots and drove them out in early 1700.
For its first thirty pages or so, Siphonophore reads like a fairly conventional work of historical fiction about the disaster at Darién. Its narrator, MacGregor, is one of the initial settlers, until he challenges its leaders, is punished with ostracism, and is finally left in isolation when all the others depart. Verisimilitude and period detail are the watchwords of his retelling: “morale was further weathered by whispers that the Council and our merchants continued to severely underperform in the arena of trade” is a typical example of his pessimism. But then, abruptly, Siphonophore begins to disintegrate. MacGregor breaks the fourth wall to address the reader, self-consciously: “I apologise if I ramble at times, and I will ramble. … Try to be understanding.” On the same page, he makes reference to Robinson Crusoe, “the entity with whom I share so much”, while admitting that Crusoe’s testimony “will not be published for another nineteen years”. He worries about the anachronisms in “the language I use” and the possible inaccuracy of “some technical maritime detail”, and he assigns the blame for such errata to his “Creator” — a presence who is not God, but simply a writer whom the reader might suspect did not “do the necessary research”. This research, MacGregor concedes, is a little slipshod, conducted in “ailing libraries dotted around the borough” and in contest with the Creator’s procrastination: too often, MacGregor complains, the Creator indulges in “time-wasting” activities, “diligently bookmar[ing] web pages for future reference” and entertaining “the dubious claims of Wikipedia”. While MacGregor himself calls to mind Cortés in Darién, his Creator is most certainly no Keats.
So, then, Siphonophore metamorphoses into something more interesting than historical fiction, if still recognisable: a metafiction of the sort in which a character tussles with an omnipotent author. The conceit, so far, is nothing new. Take it as the stuff of philosophy and you get Luigi Pirandello. Take it as material for playfulness and you get At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) and Mulligan Stew (1979). Or bear down on the stasis of the narrator’s situation — his awesome displacement combined with his stationary existence — and you get something like Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama (1956) or Gerald Murnane’s ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’ (1985). But Batchan deftly avoids walking the same path as these forebears by introducing a new element, a new source of tension. A third of the way into Siphonophore, MacGregor learns that his Creator has been diagnosed with an illness that will slowly, agonisingly, drain the life from him. The illness is known as Prionic Fatal Insomnia, a real condition that causes sufferers to stop sleeping until, over time, fatigue compounds fatigue and finally results in cognitive failure, organ breakdown, death. So, on one level, Siphonophore straddles two distinct periods in time as well as two consciousnesses — although, rather than permitting the Creator a chance at narration, his twenty-first century worldliness is sort of imported into MacGregor’s thoughts as prior knowledge which he feels to be alien to his experience. But then, ambitiously, Siphonophore introduces a ticking time bomb that brings these two characters into conflict. MacGregor doesn’t want to become Keats’ Cortés, forever marooned a world away from home. He wants his Creator to live long enough, and maintain enough control over his faculties, to give his story a proper ending and allow MacGregor to escape Panama. The Creator, for his part, doesn’t really know what he wants. As above, he has a habit of procrastinating at the best of times, and now he has mortality to make matters worse. For him, the question of whether or not to complete MacGregor’s story is literally a question of existential priorities, a question of how he might best use the little time remaining to him as it dwindles. Is the hapless MacGregor really worth the devotion of one’s final days? Or is MacGregor perhaps the only thing that really matters, the avatar of an artistic ambition that might give value to the Creator’s suffering?
The issue of priorities — priorities settled and priorities misplaced — is not an implicit one in Siphonophore. “[H]e has a gilt-edged opportunity”, MacGregor says of his Creator:
His is such a rare experience. Not only is he suffering from an illness that is desperately uncommon, a disorder that fascinates the scientific and medical communities, he also happens to be a writer — someone able to put the experience into words that might bring real emotion to this awful affliction.
And indeed, what happens when the Creator retreats to the solace of his writing desk? He leaves behind loved ones who believe that a testimony is exactly what he is writing, unaware that he is in fact occupying himself with a fiction of doubtful merit. MacGregor ascribes this behaviour to his Creator’s selfishness — the Creator is “too obsessed with the stories in his head and how faithfully he might be able to carve them onto the page” — but this is a judgment made in bad faith. Often, MacGregor is simply frustrated with his Creator’s decision to make life in Darién so difficult and drawn-out: “My Creator could clear the ground for me at the sweep of his hand, just as he could bestow upon me a castle, a companion or an unending source of food”, and the Creator’s enigmatic motives often lead MacGregor to view him unkindly. At other times, though, the Creator deigns to indulge MacGregor, rewriting earlier versions of MacGregor’s story, so that MacGregor revels in a new iteration of his life even as he remembers what his Creator has deleted:
In the first draft I was patchy and inconsistently drawn, but the best thing about an all-powerful Creator is that he can always return to the drawing board.
NEVER STOP, I call to him, and he smiles, attempting empathy for my situation.
He knows that each draft improves upon the last. But he also knows that time and tide are set against any of us ever reaching that moment of ecstatic perfection; so we set sail for the closest course we can, knowing that at some point all of the sand will have fallen from the top chamber to the bottom and there will be no further revision.
In truth, what drives the Creator onward isn’t selfishness per se. The hint is there in the above interaction, where MacGregor’s command is met with warmth, and in the switch to the first-person plural — “we” — after that semicolon. It’s also right there in the title of the novel. A siphonophore is a microscopic entity that appears to be a single organism, but is in fact made up of multiple organisms that subsist on and with one another. These organisms exist in mutually beneficial and mutually detrimental relationships — not unlike the way a parasite would, if it had evolved so as to revitalise a host instead of enervating it. Or, as MacGregor puts it when he speaks of his relationship to his Creator: “We are each the rock the other must spend every day relentlessly rolling uphill, only for it to roll back down overnight.” These words are perhaps too on-the-nose. Siphonophore lacks narrative action, conventional scene-setting, consequential events; it takes the form of an extended monologue in which, rather than making choices that have a bearing on the conflict, MacGregor registers periodical status updates on his own dilemma and his Creator’s decline, so that the pace of things can sometimes mimic that Sisyphean boulder. Still, the conflict itself is stark enough, and unpredictable enough, that what’s lacking in momentum is made up for by suspense. MacGregor’s Creator writes on, day after day, because the writing of MacGregor’s story gives him new life, even as the approach of completion will rob him of a reason to live. And although MacGregor may resist his Creator’s exhaustion and procrastination, the Creator’s moments of greatest torpor allow MacGregor to speak up and guide his Creator in writing the story to more to his liking. In each case, the duration of the act of writing amounts to a prolongation of life, though the results of the act — the pages that accumulate — move both the Creator and MacGregor ever closer to oblivion.
If oblivion makes Siphonophore sound like a bleak exercise in literary gimmickry, it’s not. On the contrary, it’s both bitterly funny and intellectually stimulating. The humour is wry rather than anarchic, as MacGregor veers from cynicism to petulance, protesting against his powerlessness like a fly in a jar. It’s there, too, albeit at a remove, as the Creator’s warped frame of mind becomes apparent: when MacGregor complains yet again about the slim pickings in Darién, it’s hard not to laugh, in a melancholy way, at the thought that this pathetic creature, this nobody, is the wretched abstraction to which the Creator has decided to devote his waning energies. But then, of course, that melancholy also serves as a gateway to the novel’s philosophical substance. For all its intertextual games and self-referentiality, Siphonophore is finally a novel about the urgency of the things we choose to value, about what really matters when our days grow dark — and it takes seriously the possibility that, for some of us, the solace of other people may well matter less than unresolved ambition.
What’s ambiguous, though, is just how Batchan might want his readers to regard this possibility. Are we to pity the Creator, thinking his priorities disastrously misplaced? Or are we to admire him for his integrity, his commitment to a creative vision? In part, it’s difficult to discern Batchan’s aims because as Siphonophore nears its end, as the Creator approaches cognitive collapse, the text decays and loses cohesion. MacGregor’s monologue is bombarded by stimuli beyond his Creator’s consciousness — notes to future editors of the manuscript, forays into the twentieth century that scramble the sequence of events in Darién — so that, in the frenzy of its final pages, Siphonophore devolves from pure monologue into something more like a fragmented collage of various forms of prose. In greater part, however, Batchan’s intentions are hard to pin down because he has surely taken pains to conceal his own presence, disappearing behind a Creator who can’t.
And while it’s true that such a concealment wouldn’t ordinarily bear remarking upon, in this case — in a novel so much about the inescapable presence of an author in his work — Batchan’s burial beneath multiple layers of narration gives Siphonophore a certain undercurrent of irony. Every time MacGregor takes a stand against the activities of his Creator, every time his stand incites his Creator’s renewed commitment to MacGregor’s story, and every time this commitment is tested by some new misfortune of the Creator’s illness, Siphonophore positions its readers to see the ambiguous value of the endeavours of both men — but Batchan never steps forward to nudge us in one direction or another. There’s an artfulness to his evasions, as he cuts a sequence short or takes MacGregor on a digression just at those moments when his novel seems poised to ask its readers to recognise him as the Creator of the Creator; but by the end of Siphonophore there’s still no telling what he would have us make of the reciprocal priorities of his two characters. And the novel itself shows consciousness of this evasiveness, since MacGregor at one point notes that Batchan’s readers are active parties implicated the author’s creative work:
[N]ow you’re involved. Joint enterprise — no backing out. I’m safe while you’re around and I must maintain this triangle. Even when [the Creator] wilts and lies cold, decomposing, I hope that you and I might be able to carry on together.
If that can be true of Keats’ Cortés, still stuck on a mountaintop he never saw, centuries after Keats breathed his last, then why shouldn’t it be true of MacGregor as well? And while you might rightly point out that there’s nothing new about metafiction implicating its readers in its own dynamics, Siphonophore impressively avoids the usual metafictional treatment of the reader as an agent of interpretation and meaning-making. Instead, it treats its readers as potential guarantors of the survival of an abstraction — as actors who, simply by reading, internalise a conceptual entity clothed as a “character” and grant it an ongoingness that might continue even beyond the loss of the novel’s final copy. But perhaps we should have known as much from the title. A siphonophore appears to be a single organism, though it is in fact multiple. In the absence of MacGregor’s Creator, who else is left to commingle with the forlorn settler but those who attend to his words?