The Seas (Tin House Books, 2018) is a waterlogged water log, rippled with salt. It’s a fiction howled over the wrecked memory of a great tempest’s somersaults. I’m not even sure I could spoil it, because it’s possible none of it actually happened. Not in the sense that it was all a daydream, but look. This book is a stranger whose eyes, abysses, recount a tale that eats its own ending, that flits like it’s frantically watching for land. Afterward, you could just say you imagined it. But maybe it’s easier to say that than to admit: she might just be the only real thing.
I read The Seas aloud. I recorded myself. I listened back as the sentences dragged out from my throat like drain-hair monsters, like time-worn directions to get out of town. Gasping sentences like drowning. Like gulping down water as if it were air.
Like my lone, droning voice, the narrator is The Seas’ only teller. It’s hers. It’s her. She’s both the content and the one making everything of everything. Anything else is incidental and nothing is coincidence. As I mouthed it, she waded and she waited. Both, when I spoke her aloud.
The narrator lives in a book-buried home with her word-compiling grandfather and her mother, whose parents were both deaf and loud, so she has a lucidity about language’s verve, a feeling, even, that language is watching. As is the ocean, as is her father. Her father, the ocean. She makes malleable everything, her puns like putty. She sometimes imbues them with the usual camp, but often, somehow, just wields lexical overlaps without making the pattern a punchline. She traces where words lead us, maybe shape us, her eyes wide-open underwater, her hair floating like a turbulent thought. The waves above her lap, overlap.
For all her words, never her name. But that’s because she is nineteen: She’s in the process of naming herself.
Our nameless one’s ability to see through layers of language, light as her eyes, reminds me of babies’ habituation to the all-consuming stimulus that is their new world. How we never really sense everything again, because we had to ignore things to parse them to ever be able to glean information from anything. What the narrator’s transfiguration recalls is everything our eyes skip over, and it suggests that maybe some of it can still glimmer through. That maybe that’s where the brink of sanity lies: the frenzy of linking afresh.
Like Homer’s sunrises’ rosy fingers, like a dream grasping for cohesion, like a memory rendered porous by trauma, by war, The Seas repeats itself. It paces tight circles. Half-stories reappear like the shiver of shark fins. The ophthalmologist and the secretary pose an identical question; the ocean is “full of everything except for mercy,” a virtue also used as garbled French gratitude. Some flashes invade; most are there, pulsing, if only you look. It’s all awake. Right down to the word.
The Seas is a motel in a small town up north desolated by generations of stagnation. The numbness of nowhere-going. The stillness in bones. The windows sit crooked and facing the ocean: on the edge of a continent, society, probably some sense. Water has weathered the inhabitants’ minds; maybe like language, now no thought they spout can ever exclude it. It’s there in the way they build balconies, there in the sunken sailor who refuses to bathe. The motel owner who names her rooms after hurricanes. The girl, our narrator, who is certain she and her father are mermaids, doomed to the sea.
Reality and madness’ manes tangle, indistinguishable. But isn’t that what shock and grief do: render everything both unreal and perfectly crystalline? Introduce the thought that this reality is impossible, so the impossible has to be real? Soon the story you tell yourself gladly becomes your center. Can become snarled and wicked too, if you wring it too tight.
(And then the page warps to face you. Your diagnosis of this girl declares your lurking bias like the blurred darkness of a fish under ice. What notion of reality do you cling to? Who do you believe has authority over truth?)
The Seas is everything you believe it is. Its chapters are short. Choppy like waves. Quick and cautious, navigating imminence. Her Atlantic and her language are its great opposing forces, “like 75% of the world is covered in ocean,” like 75% of this narrator’s reality is her own, is the words that she spins like tops to see how they land. But even they are both governed by patterns. Their puns and their tides. Which pull us back like the moon, like desire, and again the debris washes up, somehow cohesive in its miscellany. Again we are left to pick up the pieces.