“This is the finest yacht I’ve ever seen…”
A few days ago, I was leafing through What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry—I’m putting together some artwork for my daughter’s birthday—when I found myself entranced by a cutaway diagram of an ocean liner run by a crew of mice. I was originally planning to hang it on the wall for Beatrix’s party, but now I’m tempted to keep it for myself. It reminds me, inevitably, of the similar cutaway set that Wes Anderson employs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which he says was the image around which the entire movie was built, and it also made me reflect on the appeal of a ship as a backdrop for stories. It’s impossible to look at this kind of image without imagining a whole world of plots to go along with it, even more so than for one of Scarry’s lovingly rendered city scenes. I haven’t spent much time on the water, but I’m drawn instinctively to that setting: my novelette “The Boneless One,” which I briefly considered calling “The Knife Aquatic,” was mostly inspired by my fascination with this sort of research yacht, and a good chunk of Eternal Empire takes place on the megayacht of a Russian oligarch. And although I’ve written elsewhere about why I’m drawn to such ships for their thematic resonances, I don’t think I’ve ever drilled down to the deeper reasons why authors from Melville to Katherine Anne Porter have seen a ship as perfect stage for a human drama that assumes a larger significance.
Most obviously, a shipboard setting imposes certain constraints that can only be fruitful. Much as a bottle episode in a television show encourages the writers to think more intently about the meaning or usefulness of every prop and corner of the soundstage, a story or sequence set primarily in a single closed location forces a novelist to be smarter about utilizing the materials at hand. It’s the closest that a written work can come to the intensity of a stage play, in which the resources you have are starkly limited, and you have to squeeze every drop of dramatic potential from a few available items. This is true of any focused setting, of course, but it seems all the more true with a ship. There’s a sense of isolation inherent to the vessel itself: with most bottle stories, you have to invent reasons why the characters can’t just leave, while an oceangoing ship is necessarily a world of its own for much of its journey. A more subtle factor is the way in which the ship itself is designed to be self-contained. Even on a megayacht, there’s little room for what isn’t functional, and all of the pieces are designed to work together. A ship, even more than a house, is a network of architectural connections, and the ways in which those linkages play out—as expressed most fully in a cutaway diagram—naturally suggests lines of action. The result, as I write in one of my favorite lines in Eternal Empire, is “a masterpiece of foresight and design surrounded on all sides by night.”
A ship is also an irresistible location because it allows the writer to have it both ways: it’s both an isolated setting and one that allows for the possibility of movement from one point to the next. And there are all kinds of metaphorical overtones here that are probably best left unstated. In her author’s note to Ship of Fools, which I read while researching my own novel, Porter writes:
The title of this book is a translation from the German of Das Narrenschiff, a moral allegory by Sebastian Brant…When I began thinking about my novel, I took for my own this simple almost universal image of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity. It is by no means new—it was very old and durable and dearly familiar when Brant used it; and it suits my purpose exactly.
Reading this, it’s hard not to think that Porter is being a bit too explicit, especially when she adds: “I am a passenger on that ship.” These allegorical qualities are obvious enough without forcing them on the reader’s attention, and I can forgive it mostly if I think of that note as a kind of cutaway diagram in itself, laying open the novel’s innards as it proceeds on its way. And Porter, at least, is in good company. As Melville himself wrote in White-Jacket: “For a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.”
Chapter 37 of Eternal Empire was my attempt to put this kind of cutaway diagram into prose form. It starts, deliberately, on the sun deck, the highest point of the ship, allowing for a view of the entire yacht, and then proceeds down through the salon and the cabins, with Maddy’s thoughts filling in the rest. There’s a narrative rationale for the attention that the yacht receives here—Maddy has good reasons to learn everything she can about the layout, the security system, and the routine of the crew—and it also gives the reader a map for navigating some complicated action in the book’s second half. Really, though, my impulse here is the same as the one that causes Steve Zissou to say to the audience directly: “Let me tell you about my boat.” And when Rahim, Maddy’s friend, brags about the “watertight bulkheads, thicker plate, and stronger scantlings” that allow the yacht to be ready for anything, I hope that most readers will think of the Titanic. (I revisited James Cameron’s movie more than once while writing these scenes, particularly the lovely moment when Thomas Andrews, played by Victor Garber, uses a cutaway diagram of his own to explain why they’re all screwed.) In the end, if writers are drawn to ships, it’s for the reason that Émile Chartier expresses so beautifully: “Every boat is copied from another boat…It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied…One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.” And that’s true of novels, too…