Marcel Theroux's Far North is a science fiction classic. It is one of the best books of 2009, period. It is not catalogued as science fiction, and because it is sold as literary fiction, it has an edge over the average literary SF, which isn’t fair, but thus it goes. It is a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, which brought it into the stratosphere for me, as it probably did for others. So far it is the best of the three NBA finalists I have read, the others being Jane Anne Phillips’ Lark & Termite and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. There are five finalists altogether, and the winner will be announced 11/18/09.
Theroux’s novel is set in a bleak post-apocalyptic future, but it is not the cliched world of Mad Max , The Road, or Riddley Walker. I would put this novel in the same class as The Day of the Triffids, though the plot is different. Far North is narrated by a sheriff, Makepeace, the last citizen of a ghost city settled by the previous generation - a group mainly consisting of idealistic Quakers, including Makepeace’s parents - who were fleeing the upheaval of climate change, violence, and materialism.
Makepeace is a woman. We do not find out her sex until Chapter 3, and it's a startling revelation. Big, broad, and scarred in the face from a terrible rape by men trying to pay her father back for nonviolence, she passes as a man to the marauders and rioters and carries a gun. Her father killed himself after her rape. Ironically, she did not share his nonviolent philosophy, as refugees from floods and plague invaded the city, robbed, looted, killed, and died.
"The years have taught me not to wonder too much at the dark things men do. Strange how men never act crueler than when they're fighting for the sake of an ideal....You drive yourself mad if you take it all personal."
Yet, though she must carry a gun,
"Killing always sits heavy with me.
"Whether that’s because of my being a woman, or because my disposition is naturally softhearted for another reason, I don’t know.
"I’ve had to fight the womanish things in my nature for almost as long as I can remember. These are not softhearted, womanish times.”
For a brief time she has a companion, Ping, a Chinese slave on the run, whom Makepeace wounded when she saw Ping taking books to make a fire. Makepeace believed in preserving culture, though she wasn’t a reader herself; she knew someone else would want books in the future. Ping recovers from the wound - it turns out she, with a shaved head, is a woman, too, pregnant from a rape, and in the summer she dies in childbirth. Makepeace goes half crazy. She hits the road after she sees an airplane. Someone must be out there, somewhere. She dreams of civilization.
This is a grim novel, but Makepeace’s stoicism and original observations make it worth reading. And Theroux's style is beautiful, simple but poetic. He is a new writer to me, the winner of the Somerset Maugham award for The Confessions of Mycroft Holmes: A Paper Chase.
Marcel Theroux is Paul Theroux’s son, but lives in London and was educated in England: perhaps he has dual citizenship. Colum McCann, the Irish author of Let the Great World Spin, also presumably has dual citizenship.
Theroux gets my vote for winner.