If Sandy Florian’s novella Boxing the Compass is the answer, then the question might be: is the era of climate change spawning a specific literature? Some exploration of this question will lead us into the astonishing work of mourning Boxing the Compass is.
Ironically, the phrase Homo sapiens is Latin for “wise man.” Like all species, the existence of Homo sapiens has always been finite. No divine favor, cognitive privilege, or technical fix has ever exempted Homo sapiens from eventual extinction. None ever will. Climate change just promises to turn this “eventual” extinction into an uncomfortably close event. In 2010, the renowned Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner hypothesized Homo sapiens will go extinct within a century. Entertain Fenner’s hypothesis, and then try to write a book for the ages: for at most two or three generations more.
Whatever else climate change is, it is an event in language. The extinction of myriad species of fish should make writers differently aware of the biotic referents of tropes such as “to spawn a literature.” Extinctions bring about irreversible absences. The prospect of the extinction of Homo sapiens draws language into a hurricane swirling words up and away, or down and out, from anthropic referents. What happens to words as their referents irreversibly disappear? In becoming bereft of their referents, words may kindle mourning. Within language, climate change is metamorphosing frighteningly many words into words of mourning.
Imagine a novella catching intimations of the oceans in their terrible fragility as sustainers of life by narrating a daughter in mourning for her mother. Imagine that, through the daughter’s grief, this novella allows the mourning climate change solicits in language to find articulation. With these imaginings, we arrive at Sandy Florian’s uncanny work of mourning, Boxing the Compass.
Florian’s novella remains also a work of ecstatic joy, but the joy only arrives by letting a profound and unprecedented grief achieve verbalization. In her novella, Florian coaxes her readers to open themselves to the abyssal mourning climate change brings into language. The novella threads together various topics: familial loss, the siftings of memory, the quest to realize self, and the struggle for artistic achievement. The novella also conducts exhilarating and ambitious engagements with precursors, including Plato, Montaigne, and Joyce. Yet, as with the contemporary world, climate change defines the novella’s horizons.
Perhaps the only devastation worse than climate change would be a devastation of language due to a refusal of the mourning seeking articulation in it. Why worse? The devastation of language such a refusal precipitates would block Homo sapiens from confronting the devastations climate change is bringing to their own species and to so many more. Alienating them from their only existence, their being one transient species among many, this blockage would also numb Homo sapiens to joy. Resisting such devastation of language, Florian’s novella bears witness to the devastations to which the mourning now at work in language testifies. This courageous resistance leads toward joy.
The third-person narrator of Boxing the Compass follows a woman through a day into which she awakens. After awakening, the woman leaves her apartment, walks to buy bread at a local store, returns to her apartment, brews tea, takes a bath, and again leaves her apartment to ride an urban commuter train toward the cemetery where her mother lies buried. Actually, the entire day confronts the woman with a process of awakening. The day is an anniversary of the day the woman’s mother died, the day disorienting the daughter utterly.
The novella’s conceit, boxing the compass, gestures toward this disorientation:
Sunless she peers. Moonless she seeks. Lifeless she searches the mirror longing for an internal magnetic compass, for those children cannot sail their ships who can’t with ease
box their compass.
To box a compass is to name in clockwise order the thirty-two points on the compass face. The novella has thirty-two chapters, each titled after a point on the compass: “0°,” “11°15´,” “22°30´,” and so on. Though the character learns well to box her compass, to think she simply regains orientation would be a mistake. She undergoes a radical disorientation of language, as distinct from its devastation. She learns to affirm a here and now in which the most traditional of semantic accretions dissolve in the hurricane of her imagination.
The narrator weaves biblical, poetic, and scientific language into meditations on the seas, and the woman recalls how in her childhood her mother taught her of the seas. She also lets us know her history as a bible reader. The motifs of bread and fish in Boxing are of biblical provenance. In the Gospel of Mark, at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Christ feeds five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fishes (6.35–44). In this gospel, the five loaves and two fishes become superabundant in their figuration of the Word, the Logos Christ is. Christ invites his followers to meet his risen self at or even in the Galilee, this sea coming to figure the entire unhinging of words from dying and death by and through the risen Word. Florian brilliantly mourns, disorients, and appropriates the biblical motifs of bread and fish in their figuration of the real presence of the Word. Rather than resurrection, Boxing is about lying down in various boxes: a bed, a bathtub, a coffin.
The woman also remembers lying down at the bottom of her family pool, and in this memory sound the words “Come here, come now,” words that iterate through the novella:
This call to come here, to come now, becomes a joyful affirmation of the here and now in all its finitude. Words entirely free of the referential may become entirely fictitious. Embracing language turning wholly fictional, the woman affirms a world wholly becoming, altogether transient. Hamlet says the readiness is all. Boxing the Compass helps readers to become ready, ready for joy too.
Robert Savino Oventile professes English composition and literature at Pasadena City College. He has published essays and book reviews in Postmodern Culture, Jacket, and The Review of Communication, among other journals. His poetry has appeared in The New Delta Review, Upstairs at Duroc, and The Denver Quarterly. He is the author of Impossible Reading: Idolatry and Diversity in Literature (Davies Group).