Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves/James Nestor: Reflections

Friday, July 11, 2014

I carried James Nestor's DEEP to Alaska so that I might learn more about the seas. The oceans that gave birth to us, the darkness where strange life hovers, the gigantic brain of the elusive sperm whale, the unbelievable feats of divers who compete against themselves and their own bodies to dive thirty stories or more on a single lungful of air. (They dive; they must return; they cannot breathe until they do; they bleed; they lose consciousness; they dive again.)

I had been drawn to the book by the New York Times review. I found myself wavering as I read. Intrigued by the content and by our mighty oceans. Feeling boxed in or boxed out by the format. Nestor is a journalist. His book is a first-person exploration organized around sea-level depths. What is discovered 60 feet down, 300 feet, 650 feet, 800 feet down, say. The researchers who are trying to understand. The divers addicted to compression.

There's much to be gained, imagined, felt from a book like this. And Nestor certainly has done his research, is sincere in his desire to meld with his subject matter, is enthusiastically participative. But by organizing this discussion of the ocean around Nestor's own experiences, by writing, mostly, in a clipped present tense, Nestor at times delivers fragments where they might be wholes, more about himself than we might, in this case, need, details that seem out of place.

The book, for example, begins like this:
I'm a guest here, a journalist covering a sporting event that few people have heard of: the world freediving championship. I'm sitting at a cramped desk in a seaside hotel room that overlooks a boardwalk in the resort town of Kalamata, Greece. The hotel is old and shows it in the cobweb cracks along the walls, threadbare carpet, and dirt shadows of framed pictures that once hung in dim hallways.
Later, this:
It takes fifteen hours, three meals, four small bottles of wine, seven films, and five trips to the bathroom to fly from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. Next, there is a four-hour layover in Sydney International Airport (one bagel, a twenty-minute nap on the floor, one bag of cashews, forty-five minutes at the newsstand reading Rolling Stone) before the connecting flight to Saint-Denis, the capital of Reunion.....
There is more of this sort of thing—a lot of it, in fact—woven in between the interesting histories of oceanic research and the images of the wily creatures of the deepest depths. As a reader interested in oceans, I learned. As a teacher of memoir who celebrates the first-person voice, I wondered, often, whether a book like this was a proper use of the first-person present. Would a different tense have allowed the ocean to take center stage? Would a close-over-the-shoulder third person have given Nestor more room to make this an even greater, more sweeping study of the seas?

So much, always, to ponder.


Serena said...

I wonder about the first passage. I find those passages extraneous when reading a memoir -- and much like essays I've started, I find them trite...I don't care that you're sitting there at a cramped desk.

While all that might be fact and serve to illustrate how cramped we are compared to the vastness of the ocean, I'm not sure that those passages are necessary for us to become engaged and enveloped by the ocean and its glory and harshness.

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are certain subjects that do not require their authors to be in them.

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