Sunday, February 24, 2013

Of moral compasses and light-meters - on becoming sensitive (Books - The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont)

Amber Dermont's much-talked-about novel The Starboard Sea (St. Martin's Griffin, 2012) begins when a wealthy, intelligent teenager, Jason, experiences the death of his friend and sailing partner, Cal, to suicide and everything that once worked in his life goes to hell.  His father arranges his transfer to Bellingham, the last chance in prep schools, the school to which boys and girls are transferred when they have screwed up one to many times.  There, a boy who by most standards has it all - decent looks, smarts, he plays the piano, he's a star on the sailing team, he's rich, and he even fits in - there Jason proceeds to pull to the side-lines, notice the hardships of other people, and become an outsider who cares. 

According to my father, I was "damaged goods." Selling me to another school wasn't going to be easy.  This was the summer of 1987, the year of damaged goods: Oliver North and paper shredders, Gary Hart and Monkey Business, record-high AIDS, and record-high stock market.  That spring, Mathias Rust, just one year older than me, eager for a thrill, had evaded Soviet air defenses and landed his Cessna 172B in Red Square.  That fall, the entire country would be riveted for two and a half days, as rescue workers in Midland, Texas, plotted to pull a baby from an abandoned well.  And in the meantime, I had gotten myself banished from Kensington Prep and was about to start my senior year at Bellinham Academy.
The prep school setting creates a world-within-a-world feel that is enveloping and compelling.  Outside the world, and yet a world all its own, and probably more compelling for not being my world. What is surprising, even impressive, for a novel by a young writer, is that this book has a moral center. It seems to check a number of boxes about identity politics - treatment of women, blacks, Arabs, gays, but it does so with complexity and good sense and it does so because a) these are the concerns of our time and place, and b) Jason is not just coming of age via average prep school rites of passage, but by learning to think about how others experience the world because of who they are.  Through this he develops his ethic.

I would be interested to know why Dermont voiced her narrative through a man and in the first person.  It's not as though all men are alike, but there were ways in which that sometimes called attention to the limits of her mimetic skills. This was apparent the first time she offered a quote within the narrative from Jason's mother's point-of-view.  Frankly it had more flow.  It rolled off the pen, or the laptop, with ease, unlike the stream of thought coming from Jason's brain. But after the obligatory masturbation scene, Dermont gradually either convinced me, offered fewer comparisons, or Jason's sex became irrelevant to the narrative's purpose.

Dermont wrote of sailing with an idiomatic flair that doesn't shut out the novice and that functions as a strong metaphor.  Jason's search for moral compass, if you will, is really an act of learning to pilot his ship by the stars.  She also creates two memorable characters in this novel, both the objects of Jason's affections.  One is Cal, who we never meet except as an idealized memory of Jason, but whom I came away feeling that I too had met, loved, and lost.  The second is Aidan, a fellow student of Jason's at Bellingham.  We first meet her arriving to history class late and through the window.  She has the dancing shoes of Fred Astaire in her dorm room and a baby picture of herself in the arms of Hollywood star Robert Mitchum.  She is a bold, troubled, and memorable creation and her friendship with Jason is formative in a fashion reminiscent perhaps of The Sterile Cuckoo - a great book, if you don't know it.   In one scene between them, Jason teaches Aiden how sailors read the wind.
"That's really something," she said.  "A person can actually read the wind."

"Don't be too impressed."

"Who said I was impressed?"  Aidan flashed a small smile.  "I bet you've taught me everything you know."

"Almost everything," I said.

"I bet you'd like to be the wind, " she said. "Bet in your next life you'll return as a typhoon."

"Not a tycoon?"

"No.  You'll be a windstorm."

"And what are you going to come back as?"

Aidan thought about it for a moment.  "I'd like to be a light meter."

"A what?"

"A light meter.  Like a photographer uses.  Tinks had one this morning."  Aidan snapped an imaginary photo of me.  "I'd like to be able to measure and know for certain whether people were giving off light or taking light away."

"You're strange, " I said.  "But I think I like that about you."
Their meeting, is the meeting of two pained souls, one who lives to be different and another who is downright terrified of it.  In many ways, which I won't describe so as not to give everything away, Jason learns about the kind of person he wishes to become through his encounter with Aidan, and Aidan was a throwback.  She's like a glamorous specter out of 1940s Hollywood.  She's pictured with movie stars, she has appropriated her own private beach at Bellinham, and has her own study room in the library.  She dreams of being reincarnated as a light meter - an antiquated device as cameras are just part of our phones these days and tend to have light meters built-in.  I first wondered if for Dermont there is something inherently old fashioned about being moral?  Or something inherently modern about being amoral?  But her writing wasn't that glib.  To aspire to being a light meter is  to wish that that device were not built-in so that it wasn't taken for granted, so that it wasn't hidden.  A light meter is not invisible.  It's a separate mechanical apparatus.  It's is simple.  It has one purpose.  Aiden, as someone who has lost trust in people, values more than anything else to know whether she is meeting a good witch or a bad witch.  After meeting her, Jason aspires to be a good one.    


Laurie C said...

This is a great review, very thoughtful. I thought The Starboard Sea was well done and thought-provoking as well.

Ted said...

I'm glad you shared my enjoyement of this book, Laurie, and hope you'll come around again.