Research Notes · 01/13/2012

Swell

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Corwin Ericson reveals the “truth” behind his postmodern maritime epic Swell, available from Dark Coast Press.

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Cetology in Swell

Research? Pshaw. I made it all up. Here, the publisher swears to it on Swell’s title page: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.” This is a disclaimer, of course, meant to inoculate the publisher against my possible malfeasance. It’s a badge of honor, too. I did, I made it all up all by myself, and industry professionals agree. One has to earn this disclaimer — years of college and then graduate school teach a potential author that research is holy; in fact making it all up is grounds for expulsion. After school’s done, though, one can forget all about it and begin to fabricate willy nilly.

I like the title page disclaimer on Brock Clarke’s An Arsonists Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England: “Although this novel is written as if it were a memoir, none of the events depicted in it are remotely true. The home of poet Emily Dickinson still stands elegantly in place on a lovely street in Amherst, Massachusetts.” I also like this bit from the author’s note in John Burdett’s Bangkok 8: “I hope that any Thai cop who comes across these frivolous pages will see humor rather than slight.” They both tell readers to calm down and not throw the author in jail. Once that’s out of the way, the novel begins. You never really know about authors, though. Maybe one of those guys who write about international assassins really did do lots of research. Maybe readers are better off being kind and remunerative to all novelists, just in case they’re lying about having made it all up.

Swell is set on a Maine island and has several fishing scenes. As I sat at home writing it, far inland on a little mountain (not too distant from the little mountain Melville sat on to write Moby-Dick), I realized Swell would seem much more authentic if I could rely on seasons of experience as a professional fisherman. Which are entirely lacking from my CV. So I thought perhaps I should spend some time fishing in Maine. I could make a little money and research my novel. I scotched that canard fast. Fishing seemed extremely difficult, so I watched it on TV, instead. I also felt that my novel would be enriched if I had some direct experience vacationing on a Maine island. But despite some heavy hinting, nobody sympathized with my Important Professional need to vacation.

In the acknowledgments section of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon writes: “…the Zugzwang of Mendel Shpilman was devised by Reb Vladimir Nabokov and is presented in his Speak, Memory.” A zugzwang, if you must know, is something you can go look up for yourself. Speak, Memory is an autobiography. Or possibly a novel about an autobiography, I don’t know; Nabokov makes me dizzy. I don’t have a zugzwang in my novel, much to my present regret. I do, however, have some other arcane words. So in the interest, as they say on the news, of full disclosure, I’ll state here that the “umwelt” of Waldena the Estonindian was first described by the Estonian biologist Jakob Von Uexkull and discovered by myself in Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams. I should also say that I first encountered “sampo,” one of Snorri the Finlindian’s favorite words, in Elias Lonnnrot’s Kalevala — the Finnish national epic he assembled from earlier folk stories. I built a chapter around the word “butterless,” which I found in Moby-Dick: “Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” I felt bad for Flask and tried to imagine a meal at a Melvillean cabin-table from his perspective.

Melville was an unacknowledged master of ‘Pataphysical research. That’s the philosophical discipline that Alfred Jarry invented, after having pretended to learn it from Aristotle. In ‘Pataphysics, proper research is conducted metaphorically. Sometimes the actual subject of the research isn’t even mentioned. The findings are conjectural and therefore pure — untainted by the need for corroboration or evaluation. It’s imaginable that Melville heard stories of giant fish on his boating expeditions and elaborated upon them when he got to his little mountain in Massachusetts. His publisher notably did not include a disclaimer about fictitiousness in Moby-Dick, possibly due to the utterly far-fetched monsters therein — they probably thought it was self-evident that the whole thing was made up. You can see the author laying his groundwork — weaving his skein of lies — in the book’s preface, which he credits to a “sub-sub-librarian.” It’s very likely Herman Melville himself “researched” the dozens of items about whales that he implies (but never directly states) are factual, even going so far as to credit “Genesis” as the source of his bold assertion that “God created great whales.”

What might not be a well-known fact is that Melville was not a plagiarist. He was a novelist. Of course he made it all up. Thanks to his novel, we take whales for granted, like dragons. If there are colossal fire-breathing, flying lizards, why shouldn’t there be a corresponding animal in the oceans? Melville took something that the reading public was ready to believe in — whales — and encouraged this incipient belief by pretending others had written about whales, that they were not his invention. In this way he writes his own disclaimer: page after page of seeming factuality from false corroborators that help convince readers that whales are real. Readers of his time fell for it, and readers ever since have unquestioningly accepted that “spermacetis” lurk below our boats.