BY PAUL KIRSCH
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
When choosing what literature to pick for a desert island adventure (into madness), a lot of factors require due consideration. To shirk this duty would be at best detrimental to one’s creative amusement. At worse, it could be lethal.
Consider the protagonist. Is there a single point of view character you feel you can stomach for the next cave-scratching number of years and not get sick to death of hearing from them? If the answer is an evident “yes,” then you can go off and enjoy your Catcher in the Rye while the rest of us worry the ends of our beards.
Then there’s the world of the book. Trapped on a desert island, would you really want an Agatha Christie “locked room” mystery, where characters revolve around investigating the same general locale ad infinitum? You are about to enjoy a single stretch of sand and water—punctuated by a happy palm tree—for an unknown amount of time. If you want to limit your scope, and feel that out-of-the-island thinking will only drive you mad, go ahead and pick up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with my blessing while the rest of us continue to ponder.
Multiple characters in an outward setting. We’re getting somewhere.
Throwing a curveball, I’m going to proclaim that this book needs to be useful. You’re on a desert island. Once the batteries run out on your iPod (the first evening), you’ll realize it’s time to think about survival. If your book happens to incorporate a few useful tips about enduring extreme circumstances, who’s going to complain?
For all of these reasons, I submit for your approval Dan Simmons’ historical horror novel, The Terror.
The Terror tells the tale of Sir John Franklin’s fateful expedition seeking the Northwest Passage in 1845. Its chosen point of view characters are the captains and crew of the two ships moored on the ice, frozen, starving, and being hunted by a monster. Think of your favorite “Twilight Zone” episode and give it a few hundred more pages to play out.
This book has it all. Multiple sympathetic characters mean tons of engagement with different angles of the same story. Extraordinary endurance in the face of impossible circumstances means readers won’t feel tempted to take their Wilson soccer ball and leap from the highest peak. Survival is possible! Tips about facing the cold—what not to pack for winter, how to hunt seal, how to not be eaten by a monster—are useful even on land.
Simmons manages to fit a lot of humor into this book, and believe me, these characters need it. Immediately coming to mind is Captain Crozier’s private realization that he could literally swim in the crew’s stores of rum, but he doesn’t like rum, he likes whiskey, and when his whiskey is gone, so will he be. Just as the crew can take their minds off of the trial by ice, so can you on the island.
Emphasizing the point on survival, Simmons writes a speech delivered by the aptly-named Dr. Goodsir about how to properly prepare human remains for consumption. If that doesn’t seem like useful information, then get in the cooking pot or get off my island.
Playing my own devil’s advocate for a second, why would I want to bring a book that reflects many of the same troubles I’ll be facing on the island anyway? Why not bring Grimm’s Fairy Tales to put my brain anywhere but the island?
To the devil, I say that anyone who’s read Moby Dick will tell you that book is about a lot more than just one whale. Such is The Terror. Simmons packed a lifetime’s worth of research with a brilliantly told story and kept me engaged for every line of it.
So enjoy your Holden Caulfield or Hercule Poirot, though I doubt they’ll keep you warm at night or offer a haunch of their succulent meat the way Dan Simmons will.