books
August 20, 2010

When To Go Into The Water
by Lawrence Sutin | Sarabande Books
Review by Charles White
(This review originally appeared in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Volume 14, Number 4)

book coverLawrence Sutin’s slim and stark fiction, When to Go into the Water, is probably one of the most accessible avant-garde books ever written. One is tempted to call it “experimental pop,” the result of a precise and frankly gorgeous talent.

Sutin’s collection of vignettes, which move back and forth through time from World War I to the mid-21st century, creates a cumulative narrative effect that is equal parts bildungsroman and metaphysical pamphlet. Sutin leads his protagonist, the unflappable Hector de Saint-Aureole, through calamities both historical and personal, with sumptuous language that somehow never manages to surrender its economy. Instead, it achieves a pitch-perfect tone that deftly modulates between the comic and profound. The result is as fluid and immersive as the image of water that is the book’s recurring obsession.

It is the character of Hector himself that makes this novel so resonant. While Sutin allows his protagonist moments of philosophical speculation, these moments are always decidedly human, a natural part of Hector’s considerations about where he stands in relation to his ever-expanding notions of the world. There is no sense of authorial intelligence imposed, no clever manipulation of motif. Instead, Hector’s naivety leads him into unique observations of his place in the universe. An example of this kind of poignant observation occurs when Hector strains to differentiate between flotsam and jetsam:

Flotsam consists in all natural matter that floats upon the ocean. Jetsam consists in all manmade matter that floats upon the ocean. What then is a human corpse? And were I to slip myself over the side of the ship, would I possess the courage to let myself drown as flotsam drowns — nature blissfully sinking into itself — or would I start screaming for help as jetsam still claiming its right to salvation?

This struggle between human will and natural fate haunts the book and informs Hector’s lifelong wanderings. In some of the best passages, Hector takes on the persona of a Sebaldian traveler, a man placed into the impossible immensity of being who must somehow chart the fundamental question of his own mind.

Some of the less successful sections in the book are in flash-forwards that trace the fortune of the book Hector writes about his unusual travels. Hector’s work is also titled When to Go Into the Water, but this self-referentiality is not terribly relevant. These sections lend a science fiction quality to the book, not unexpected considering Sutin’s acknowledged influence of Philip K. Dick, about whom he published a landmark biography. However, these digressions disturb the unassuming quietness of the Hector sections and strive too hard to serve as thematic touchstones. The result is a series of tonal dead air that is happily relieved whenever Hector returns.

Ultimately, though, Sutin has written an odd, stimulating, and pleasurable short novel that allows itself the most entertaining qualities of its own form. It is hard to remember such a huge story compressed so tidily and with such success.