Tivoli resident Samantha Hunt caught the ear of the literary world with her first campaign: a striking novel called The Seas, originally published in 2004 and reissued now by Tin House Press with a new introduction by Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts. Among the many formidable ears Hunt caught were the pair belonging to novelist Dave Eggers, publisher and founder of the influential literary journal McSweeney’s. The stunned Eggers declared Hunt’s “one of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices I have read in years,” and The Seas was off to the races, netting Samantha Hunt a National Book Foundation award for writers under the age of 35, clearing the path for a decorated career in serious fiction and the teaching of same (currently at Pratt Institute in New York City).
Hunt will celebrate the republication of The Seas with a reading and signing at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck on Tuesday, July 10 at 6 p.m.
The narrator of The Seas is a young woman who believes herself to be a mermaid, and not without some cause; in its psychological dimension, the novel walks a fine line of ambiguity. She lives in a failing, poor and largely drunk coastal fishing town from which most residents lack either the means or the imagination to escape. In that remote setting, the narrator is further isolated by the cultured eccentricity of her family (told multigenerationally and exquisitely) and by the stigma associated with her father’s suicide (or return to his native oceanic home, depending on whom you ask). She is in a love with a damaged veteran of the first Iraq war, a fisherman named Jude who does not own his own boat and thus lives a life virtually without prospects. In his own damaged way, Jude loves and idealizes the narrator, but finds his gratifications elsewhere.
A strange and lyrical mix of the gritty and mythic, The Seas is one of those novels that takes you in to a fully formed world with its own laws of language and perception and a decidedly blurred border between quotidian reality and…something else, a broader reality that pivots on linguistics and nature. It is tempting but naïve to think that visionary, single-effect novels like The Seas occur to their authors with the same profound coherence and all-at-onceness in which they immerse the reader. “No,” says Hunt, “The Seas did not come to me as a fully formed vision. Does that really ever happen? Rather, it came after much reading, writing, working. I wrote The Seas over a number of years, between the hours of 4 and 7 a.m., before heading off to my day job.”
With an anthropomorphized ocean as one of the novel’s most willful characters, The Seas is awash in water imagery and themes. “The Seas started with a question about the color blue,” Hunt recounts. “I wondered why so many states of blue are oxygen-free: the ocean, the atmosphere, the blood in our veins. The blueness of a young woman trying to find her identity in a small, narrow-minded, alcoholic, sexist seaside town that has already assigned incorrect language to her (slimy, slutty, sad) struck me as another blue place where it is hard to breathe. She thinks she is a mermaid, despite the presence of legs, because she’s brave. She takes hateful language and changes the meaning. People see that her father walked into the ocean and label it suicide. She sees that her father walked into the ocean, and she calls it mermaid.
“The Seas started as 250 short pieces, investigations into blue. I then spread them out on the floor, found the narrative in them and pieced them together. It’s a less daunting way to write a first novel. Plus, the world in fragments makes sense to me.”
Serious, literary and short, Hunt’s debut novel was first published at the absolute height of a culturewide obsession with pop fantasy, magic and heroic myth. Does Hunt recognize any affinity between her psychological mapping of the intersection of the modern world, the outcast and the mythic dimension and those that captivated a generation of young readers and their disposable income?
“I don’t use the words ‘magic’ or ‘fantasy.’ I find them dismissive of realities that veer from the mainstream – i.e., most women’s and girls’ experiences of the world. I grow tired of hearing that the way I experience reality is not real. Language is glorious, but language is also a tool of control. My narrator rejects ugly definitions of her life. So I don’t see my work as fantasy, no. I don’t use the word ‘magic.’ I prefer the word ‘science.’ There is much from science we don’t yet understand, but we don’t dismiss it as magic.
“I studied Geology as an undergrad, and read in one text – Waves and Beaches, by Williard Bascom – that there are hundreds of kinds of waves that don’t yet have names. That makes me laugh. The ocean doesn’t care what we call it!”
Lest the talk of mermaids and myth should create the impression that it is escapist, if not fantasy, The Seas is very much a novel of the modern world, and a grim one at that, documenting advanced states of socioeconomic decay and its attendant despair in acute and emotionally rich ways. “The Seas is based on a town I know very well where the fishing was failing, where alcoholism was rampant and where young men and women have very limited choices. So, Jude winds up fighting a war he doesn’t believe in. I never name the town, because I want a reader to be able to step fully into the book. Indeed, once at a reading in California, a reader told me that he knew the town where The Seas is set. ‘You do?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said and named a town in Alaska, a state I’ve yet to visit. I was very happy to hear that.”
Reading/book-signing of Samantha Hunt’s The Seas, Oblong Books & Music, Tuesday, July 10 at 6 p.m. 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck. For more information, visit www.oblongbooks.com and www.samanthahunt.net.