This is one damn weird love story. This is one strange quest. This is one bizarre boat. These are a couple of strange characters we’ve got here. This book feels like a dare, as in I dare you not to believe this. What a boat! Mrs. Unguentine takes pretty much the whole book to describe it. They grow a garden on the thing. They grow a field, they grow a forest so high Unguentine can’t navigate from the pilot house, and they paddle around lost for years and years. The barge feels like your wildest dreams—think Seuss, Oz, Alice—and but this boat surpasses them in sadness and romance. A lost ark with five-hundred sails.
Yes, it seems that God has gone and drown the earth again, forgot his promise not to (He’s always been a disappointment that way), but more than the story of Noah, the book evokes Adam and Eve, man and woman in love and in conflict, locked together alone for forty years. At heart the book is about the loneliness of love, how even in the deepest love you can’t really know your mate. Yet it may be that very not-knowing that binds us to the beloved, keeps us longing to be closer, always on the verge of understanding, always on the verge of confusion.
And it’s no surprise that Gordon Lish loved the book. It contains all the Lishian prescriptions with regard to sound and swerve, like take the sentence, “And no wonder, for what was then called land, that shambles, was a sorry surface unfit for the conduct of anything but a harrowing traffic.” [p. 15] Notice the repetition of consonants and vowels:
And notice the swerves, the way “that shambles” upsets the preceding word “land,” for example.
The weirdest part of it all for me is that I have actually met Mrs. Unguentine. I came across her in one of my more desperate, unfortunate equatorial wanderings. I thought I’d lost humanity altogether and then there she was. The barge had finally lodged into the sludge-swamp and stuck, stranding her there, half on land and half in sea. She came out to greet me. For a second, when I first saw her, I thought “Mrs. Howell!” and then when she called out to me, I thought “Nazi!” but then I knew who she was. So this was the sodden end of her sea journey. She had made the deck into a living room—stuffed chairs, doilies, all of it moldy and ruined in the tropical damp. Trunks full of faded gowns. But where was Unguentine? I wondered. I heard a clanging, from above or below. “My husband,” she said, and shrugged. Of course he was there, because that man, he could beat her, he could destroy what they both loved, he could keep silent for years, he could disappear from sight, jump into the sea, but one thing he could not do is desert her.