No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 02, 2008

#14: Outerbridge Reach -- Robert Stone

It was difficult to isolate and address hallucinations, which were part and parcel of sailing alone. It was hard sometimes to distinguish them from the genuine insights which only the sea provided. Sometimes you had to take the bitter with the sweet.

Based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst, this novel explores the thoughts, dreams and rage of a middle-aged man who sets out to sail alone around the world and chooses not to complete his voyage.

Owen Browne is happily married, with a job he enjoys -- salesman at Altan Marine, purveyors of yachts to the wealthy. A market crash is the first sign that Browne's halcyon existence may not be as secure as he imagines. When Matty Hylan, owner of Altan Marine's parent company, goes missing, Browne volunteers to take his place in a solo circumnavigation race -- even though he's only sailed alone once in his life, a five-day passage in which he experienced hallucinations and loneliness.

His wife Anne is outwardly serene, though it's clear that she's facing her own midlife crisis with rather more aplomb than her husband. Their daughter Maggie has the other kind of life crisis, teenage rebellion: she'll hardly speak to her father before he sails.

And then he's alone at sea on the Nona, leading the race, while back in Long Island his wife collaborates with documentary filmmaker Strickland on a film that will immortalise Owen Browne. Strickland, it transpires, is something of a cynic: the movers and the shakers are all fakes. He films what he sees but doesn't believe in it. Perhaps that's the real contrast to Browne, who sees what is not real and gradually begins to trust his own perceptions.

Outerbridge Reach is a subtle novel: even the title, which refers to a hulk-strewn stretch of foreshore in New York Harbour that is Anne's dowry, took a long time to click with me. (It's not, or not just, that it's 'a place of loneliness, violence and terrible labour', as Browne thinks to himself when he sails past before the race. It's Anne's dowry and the death of hope.) Stone never really explains Browne's mental state, but he shows it in a hundred careful word-choices: Browne 'declines' rather than 'refuses', throughout; the language used to describe him is frequently couched in negatives, 'he was not one of the Ten Thousand', 'the individual he had spent his whole life earnestly not becoming'.

Stone writes of sailing, of the machinery and the technology available to any modern yachtsman, without blinding the reader with detail. The storm-scenes are frighteningly vivid, and Browne's isolation, chatting in Morse code across thousands of miles on the Southern Ocean, is shown unsentimentally but with aching precision. Stone's style is clear and measured, and he takes us slowly and calmly off the edge of the map.

This was the third of the novels I read on holiday that unexpectedly quoted lyrics from 'The House of the Rising Sun'.

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