Marie Darrieussecq is a novelist more concerned with ideas than characters. Her first slim volume, Pig Tales (1996), was a "feminist fable" told by a woman who was sometimes a pig, and sometimes not. Then came My Phantom Husband (1998), in which a man disappears and leaves his wife floating in existential viscosity, pondering the nature of "absence". Breathing Underwater (1999) concerns a woman who leaves home with her daughter to live on an unnamed coastline, where she drifts, suspended in a lyrical interior monologue - a sort of hymn to displacement.
Darrieussecq developed the same idea further in A Brief Stay With the Living (2001), in which disembodied voices reflect on their interconnection through memories, dreams and flashbacks. In her past three books she has used the sea as a sort of objective correlative to her subjects' fluid sense of self. Her protagonists seem not to react to each other so much as float in the ripples that the existence of others - both dead and alive - creates.
In White, Darrieussecq takes her explorations of subjectivity into an uncharted, frozen landscape. The novel is set in Antarctica in 2015, when men are exploring Mars but the South Pole is still "the most static place on the planet". "An incredible non-place", it is an ideal setting to explore how your characters relate to each other outside society.
The book's main character is Edmee Blanco, a thirtysomething telecommunications engineer who travels a stormy sea to get to "Project White", the objectives of which are vague. Her nauseous journey (which takes up the first third of the novel) is intercut with that of Peter Tomson, a heating engineer, who arrives by plane and intrigues her. She is French, but lives in Texas. He was brought up in Iceland. These two do not speak to each other until almost the end of
the book. None of the eight people on "the base" communicates,
except via satellite, to those they have left behind.
White is not so much a story as an ongoing situation, the main components of which are whiteness, silence, space and memory. The confluent rhythms of what is (or is not) happening are charted by eerie narrators, who in Ian Monk's translation are described as "ghosts" ("vapours" might be a better word for them). These slippery taletellers enjoy themselves with Edmee and Peter, both of whom have "ghosts" of their own - Edmee was indirectly responsible for a neighbour killing her children; Peter's sister died in a terrorist attack in a city from which he was evacuated as a child.
There are hints that Edmee and Peter are not really alive, but drifting in some spirit-filled Sartrian limbo where hell is other people, who in turn are mere projections of ourselves. The novel is thick with the ghosts of explorers: Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton, Captain Nemo and Lachenal are "floating" around. There are ghosts, too, on the bookshelves of the boat in which Edmee arrives: Moby Dick, Hunger, The Sun Also Rises, something unnamed by Ibsen. Perhaps Darrieussecq's "communications engineer" is her own creative counterpart - the only female in a group of men, who ends up conceiving a child after a rapturous coupling with Peter just before the generator fails and evacuation from the base begins.
White is an inscrutable novel, and reading it in this translation often feels like puzzling over a crossword with the wrong set of clues. A typical conundrum is: "72 days and she had only had her periods once"; "jokes zigzagging across their lips" is another. That the novel remains absorbing, and somehow charged, despite a lack of the poetry for which Darrieussecq is well known, is evidence of her consummate skill and her very particular art, which is haunted, haunting, rich and strange.
Sheena Joughin's novel Swimming Underwater is out next month from Doubleday