This appeared in Review 31 on 7 March 2018:
The Deep Fuck We Found Ourselves In
Neil Armstrong hoped that someone, some day, would erase the footprints he had left on the moon. It is in this spirit that American author Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition, covering the explorers’ tracks before loosing his characters into lostness. The Way of Florida, his outlandish debut, begins in medias res like an epic poem: ‘And waiting another day to enter port, a south wind took us and drove us away from land’. The colonial enterprise — blown off course after grinding to a halt — has already failed, and will keep on failing better as if The Odyssey had been redrafted by Beckett. Trapped in a ‘maze of unhaving’, increasingly ‘abundant in [their] lack’, the Spaniards soon want nothing more than ‘to not want’. For most of them, the voyage — ‘long for the things [they] do not come upon’ — will be a one-way ticket to ‘[h]igh nowhere of the utmost’. ‘I know there is no return,’ the narrator laments, ‘and I know there is no thing toward of which all of us sail’. Cut adrift from any destination, the journey loses its telos, becoming an end in itself. ‘I must be a man who walks,’ he acknowledges, likening life to an excursion we go on awhile until ‘the world moves on without us’.
With no backstory to speak of, or veritable narrative arc, The Way of Florida is a historical novel from which history has been all but excised. Were it not for the publisher’s blurb, I would have ignored that this quixotic attempt to establish Spanish settlements along the Gulf Coast was first chronicled by Cabeza de Vaca, one of only four survivors, or that his 1542 account had provided Persson with a general direction of travel. The erasure of most period markers (the first occurrence of the explorer’s name that I spotted was on page 175) allows a deep immersion in the here and now of lives conducted in extremis. A whole year elapses in the course of a four-line paragraph, while a single, unpunctuated sentence — reflecting the flow of real time — winds its way through an entire ten-page chapter. Significantly, the narrator comes to see his existence as a solitary long take, ‘the string of days entire from one until the end’: ‘Inside this now I live with my body underneath the sky’.
The beleaguered colonisers seek refuge in their corporeal abodes, envisioned with doors leading to closets where ‘olden acts’ are ‘ungone forever’. A counter-movement sees the self projected on to the hallucinatory landscape. The protagonist evokes ‘the lands inside [him] yet to fold out’ as though conjuring up the very ground on which he treads. This projection, imperialist as it may sound, inaugurates a fugue state; a desperate drive to leave oneself behind. Striding forth, he explains, is ‘our only path our only way toward some otherwhere some place we were not’. The narrative feeds off itself, like those stranded Christians who survive by partaking of the deceased — until there is only one cannibal left and nobody else ‘to enfooden him’.
It is through writing, however, that Cabeza de Vaca achieves an ecstatic, out-of-body experience. The true ‘otherwhere’ is the book in which he records his misadventures, ‘to bring me to the outside of this [situation] where I can look down to me and witness my own sentence’. Whether he is the author of his own sentence — his work, as well as his plight — remains a moot point. The narrator believes that he and his compatriots are doing penance for their sins, and that what appears like aimless drifting is all part of a grand design. He also claims to have been chosen as the recipient of divine messages, thereby establishing a direct link between ‘Our Lord our mapmaker’ and the figure of the writer.
The Way of Florida is thus a journey into fiction. The survivors — four unwitting horsemen of the Apocalypse — enter Indian lore as ‘holy men from the sky’. In the final part, there is a sudden switch from first to third-person narration, perhaps signalling that Cabeza de Vaca has absented himself through his work, reemerging as a godlike, omniscient voice. A subtle parallel is drawn between colonialism and the realist novel’s linguistic imperialism, exemplified by the narrator’s frustration at not being able to describe certain gestures or the sound the sun makes on the sand. The jarring notes provided by the regular intrusion of expletives — ‘the deep fuck we found ourselves in’ — advertises the underlying tension between contingency and necessity. The neat little blocks of text stranded in an ocean of blank space recall the breath clouds of the storytelling explorers (‘it is air in the shape of our sound in the shape of tales’) and the soothing blowing therapy of the faith healers. These typographical havens stand in stark contrast to the wildly poetic, often challenging, run-on sentences that compose them, stamping their hypnotic rhythm upon the reader. This is English, but not as we know it. The novelist seems to have taken it back to the dawn of language, producing a newly-minted idiom that feels both antiquated and timeless. It is this Adamic English that makes The Way of Florida sui generis, despite being based on a pre-existing text. As Maurice Blanchot put it, ‘What is important is not to tell, but to tell once again and, in this retelling, to tell again each time a first time’.