In the first flush of hot summer weather, I have a perverse tradition of inaugurating the season by reading a book with an extreme cold-weather setting. Last year it was Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which opens in a Wisconsin blizzard. This year, seeing that I had the hot Hawaiian beach to look forward to, I knew just what to pack: Steve Zipp's Yellowknife, which takes place in the Canadian far north.
Actually, it's a bit of an understatement to say that it "takes place" there. Yellowknife is one of those books in which the setting is a character in its own right, perhaps the most vibrant and dynamic character of the lot. The book declares its uniquely Northern viewpoint early in on, when one character informs another that "a lotta people make a big mistake when they come here. They figure the North is just like any other place, only colder. They don't realize things are seriously different...borders exist for a reason." And Yellowknife's essential northernness continues to undergird the plot and structure of the book to an extent I didn't at first realize. In fact, I'm glad I've had a few weeks to think about this novel before writing my review; elements that at first seemed sloppy or confounding have percolated in my brain during the intervening time, and I think I understand better now what Zipp is doing.
Yellowknife begins with a fairly traditional structure: the narrative alternates, chapter by chapter, between field biologist Nora Lobachevski, who works for the Department of Wildlife and specializes in small mammals, and Danny Diamond, an itinerant seeker accustomed to living on the margins:
[W]hen he was canned from an assembly-line job for joyriding on a conveyor belt, and evicted from a boarding house for causing a flood when he fell asleep in the shower, he did not curse his luck. Adversity, he sensed, was a sort of hazard or frontier, the kind that could not be actively sought or courted. It had to arrive of its own accord, like love or a bolt of lightening.
Throughout Part 1, we alternate in an orderly fashion between Nora and Danny, and are introduced to their various conflicts: Nora's power struggles with the ever-evolving government bureaucracy that runs her job, and her mixed feelings about her recent engagement; Danny's process of arriving in and finding his way around Yellowknife, his acclimatization to living at the dump and subsisting on stolen dog food. The reader expects (I, at least, expected) that we would probably continue to follow Nora and Danny throughout the book; their paths would undoubtedly intersect at some point, and they would become somehow instrumental in each others' stories. Instead, there is a sudden break at Part 2, and we are introduced to a whole separate set of characters, only catching sight of Danny or Nora occasionally. As the book progresses more and more characters are introduced, the narrative focus shifting at an ever-increasing pace, until the characters begin to blur before the reader's eyes. As the denoument of this structural progression, the final chapter is not narrated by a human at all, but by a dog.
My first impression of these increasingly rapid-fire character introductions was that Zipp was being sloppy with his narrative; that he hadn't planned well and as a result his second half was overloaded with rushed action. As I've thought it over, though, it seems more a deliberate tactic emphasizing one of the central ecological points in the novel: as much as each of these humans sees him- or herself as the center of a vastly important nexus of events, the drama of one individual person is actually not of much account. Humans, Zipp seems to argue, are a basically clueless, bumbling animal, crashing around self-importantly and messing things up for the rest of our ecosystem. In the North particularly (this novel seems to say), the true center of life does not dwell with humans, but with the plants and animals and land adapted to life in its extremes. Humans believe we are the center of all action, but in reality we only become so when we manage to wreak irreversible damage on our surroundings; otherwise, we're most successful when we accept our role as just one more animal among the throng. By starting with a narrow human focus and widening gradually outward until he has left all individual humans behind, Zipp manages to underscore this point quite cleverly, demonstrating how "the story" needn't depend on humanity at all, much to our chagrin.
Not that Yellowknife comes off as a preachy novel. It's sometimes quite funny (usually situationally funny rather than jokey-funny), and often appealingly atmospheric. One of the things I loved about it is the way in which Zipp conjures a bizarre, surreal atmosphere, without (usually) straying across the line into magical realism. Nothing against magical realism per se, but I think it's often over-used these days; Zipp demonstrates that one can create an unnerving, surreal setting without explicitly magical elements. The town of Yellowknife, for example, is built on top of a honeycomb of now-derelect gold mining tunnels; different characters break through to this network, either on purpose or by accident, and discover that people are living in the tunnels full-time, leftovers from the mining industry who now cater to the large community of semi-homeless, marginal livers in Yellowknife. The intersection of this marginal community and the tourist crowd provides another source of surreality, as Dumptown dwellers seek out acquaintances employed by tourist-trap bars to dress up and act like famous Arctic explorers. The shifting sands of Canadian bureaucracy are yet another source of disorienting surreal moments, as Nora's new boss shunts her ever deeper into the bowels of their office building, upset that she refuses to spearhead a mole study and disregarding her insistence that such a study is impossible, as there are no moles in the North.
There was one pet peeve of mine that Yellowknife did fall prey to...sort of. As we are getting to know Nora, in Part 1 of the book, she is struggling with her feelings about marriage. She's in a relationship with a man whom she loves and who wants to marry her, but she has always been personally and politically opposed to the idea of marrying. After she agrees to marry her partner, who is also a biologist, they get into a semi-silly argument about name-changing; she gets upset that, while he doesn't care if she changes her name or not, he would never consider changing his own. Now, speaking as a woman with my own set of opinions about the oppressive history of marriage-as-institution, I was very impressed to see this kind of discourse dropped into a novel as a casual plot-point. Because in case you haven't noticed, it's pretty unusual for characters to criticize the traditions surrounding marriage in anything short of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. But then I got nervous, because in a good percentage of books and movies where women DO criticize marriage traditions, they end up seeing the light and being converted by the end, forgetting all their silly female objections as soon as the right man comes along (if, indeed, their objections weren't just a sour-grapes smokescreen to begin with).
This is more or less exactly what happens in Yellowknife. And yet, the book's non-traditional treatment of human drama makes me somehow less annoyed than I usually would be. By the time Nora decides to marry her second suitor (a Mounty with whom she seems seldom to converse), quit her job and raise babies in Toronto, the core of the story has shifted far away from her individual concerns. The romance angle is submerged in the detective angle, which is submerged in the adventure angle, which is all blurred together into something not easily classifiable. So many clichés, so many genres, are suggested and then cast aside, like overly-human flotsam. I was left with the idea, less that women are silly and feminists bitter spinsters, and more that all people are a bit ridiculous and contradictory, and that natural processes work in unpredictable ways—a much more compelling notion.
A big thanks to Steve Zipp for sending me a copy of his book! While not available in American bookstores, it's readily order-able from the publisher.