Terra Incognita – Sara Wheeler

In Washington D.C. now, of all places, trying not to freeze to death (much like Sara Wheeler but, at the same time, not).

I had been planning on reading Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile for my Wheeler selection (which was a finalist for the Thomas Cook Best Travel Book of the Year award) but found Terra Incognita: Travels in Antartica in my local used bookstore and, thus, my original decision was declared null.

From what I can math, Sara Wheeler was in her early thirties (this could be completely and totally wrong, folks) when she received a sort of residency/artist grant/patronage that enabled her to go to Antartica and write.

Now, me, I’m a wuss. If it drops below 50F outside (that’s 10C if anyone from that side of the world ever reads this), I start shuffling around in woolly bathrobes while muttering about my imminent demise.

But she was all for it, which I have to admire, and, no matter how cold it got (and it got very cold), she never really complained. It was just what it was: something she was incapable of changing and thus not worth whining about. (I do not have this sort of moral fortitude. At all.)

As an overview, Terra Incognita is the story of her (technically) three trips to Antartica, her adventures, the sociology and psychology of the various residents, the politics of the countries who sent residents, the random joke, rare inserts of personal life, and a shit ton of science.

With that in mind, the book itself was jammed with information, often uncomfortably so. It would more than occasionally read like a disorganized textbook or an assemblage of notes that did not necessarily relate to one another, but somehow ended up in the same paragraph anyway. What was unfortunate about this is that the retention of said information was tenuous–at least for me.

I find that I retain information by relating it to other things. For instance, if someone tells me that, during the Battle of Gettysburg, there was a fire in a small Nebraska town that caused a corn drought and that all the residents lived on boiled rutabaga that winter, I’d be able to remember that for many, many years.

That might be a terrible example.

I need an anchor point to something I already know to have long-term retention of new information.

The problem I had with Terra Incognita was that Wheeler was constantly presenting new information without introduction, without link, without a solid reference back to information she had presented four chapters earlier that had since been swallowed up my by internal River Lethe.

This happened with the people in her stories as well. Someone would be introduced for a paragraph, maybe two (women often had their hair color related to some sort of food product, often in the breakfast arena, while men were identified by their beards in relation to famous beards) and not mentioned until eight chapters later.

It’d read something like, “John Paddington showed up later that day and we went fishing.” And I’d be like… “No. I am not flipping through every page looking for the two mentions of this guy so I have any idea who you are talking about.”

It would’ve been great to get a “John Paddington, who had taken me on a helicopter ride from McMurdo four months prior, showed up later that day and we went fishing.”

What really drove it home for me was a sudden reference to “Seismic Man” who showed up probably a hundred pages after his introduction and it turned out they were banging (?!) and I could not remember a thing about how/where/when they had met, what sparked their spark, and so on.

That was frustrating.

But, in an interesting note, her sentences were also often reversed in structure. The subject would be buried in the tail of the sentence, rather than at the head. That combined with multiple comma-splices created sentences I had to read multiple times in order to understand the content. This didn’t happen on every page, mind you, but when she was explaining something with a lot of detail, usually in the science realm.

I’m not going to trawl the book for an example, but if you are confused about what I mean about burying the subject in the tail of the sentence, here you go:

Normal Sentence: “The subject would be buried in the tail of the sentence, rather than at the head.”

Wheeler Science Sentence: “Rather than at the head, you would find buried at the tail of the sentence the subject.”

You can see how this would cause a mental hop, especially at a longer, multiply spliced sentence. By the time you get to the end of a longer, more detailed sentence and have discovered the subject, you have to go back to the beginning to understand the relation between the first two-thirds of the sentence and the subject.

Why did I describe this an interesting a few paragraphs earlier? Because much of the book is indirect and informationally jumbled, so much so that I think it’s not “bad writing” as much as linguistic differences between Wheeler and myself as well as differences in how we process information.

(Though, at a certain point, one has to admit that the information in this book was rather disorganized. If I was studying structure of novels and using this book as the focus of a paper, I’d be color-coding the shit out of it based on paragraph topic and doing a sub-code for all sub-topics within each paragraph, then graphing it all. SEE, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU GET A BACHELORS IN SOCIOLOGY. YOU UNNECESSARILY GRAPH THINGS.)

Other things:

I never felt like I ever knew Wheeler. It wasn’t until the last quarter of the book where she really started inserting herself and exploring who she was as a person, and even most of that occurred in the last fifty pages (mind you, my copy was 334 pages–not counting the epilogue, the bread-pudding recipe, the acknowledgement section, and the bibliography (which I appreciated all of)). Yes, she would occasionally make jokes and insert mild self-reflections, but they always felt cut-off before they ever blossomed into fully formed ideas or realizations.

I wanted to know her. I generally feel that, if you’re reading a travel book, your companion should be as familiar to you as the area traveled within by the end of the book. I don’t think travel writers should remove themselves from their books for the sake of other information.

But that’s my opinion. I’m sure some people read travel books and give them one-star reviews because the writer kept bringing up their own opinions and stories.

So, at the end of the day, did I enjoy the book? Parts of it. Wheeler’s jokes, her descriptions of the places she stayed, of the environment, the fact that she went back (unnecessarily, mind you) a third time. The dialogue she would insert, the tales of the culture of the people who work in Antarctica. All of that was wonderful.

The science? I would’ve enjoyed it, but it was presented so assbackwards to my way of reading and thinking, that I couldn’t understand most of it. The weaving in and out of characters with no real reminders? I could’ve done without. The awkward similies? It’s a personal preference, but I tend to hate them. (Give me metaphors or give me death!)

Am I going to read Travels in a Thin Country? I don’t know. Writing, of course, develops as you do it. Theoretically, then, your second book should be better than your first. As Terra Incognita was the second book, I’m feeling skittish about Thin Country.