Lily Tuck: “Ice”

08/23/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The American Scholar, Spring 2010. One of the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

“On board the Caledonia Star, sailing through the Beagle Channel and past the city of Ushuaia on the way to Antarctica, Maud’s husband says to her, ‘Those lights will probably be the last we’ll see for a while.’ ” With an introduction like that, and a title like “Ice,” you’d expect the setting to be important, and yet beyond the fact that this long-married couple is on a boat, the story of their continuing relationship — which isn’t really frozen so much as stagnant — might just as easily have taken place en-route to the Caribbean. What’s important is that they’ve gone on this sight-seeing trip, along with eighty or so other passengers (also in their mid to late sixties), as a means of dealing with Peter’s “restless and morose” retirement (from the legal profession) and to “survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.”

That said, Tuck seems unusually focused on details that don’t enhance our understanding of their emotional journey, and doesn’t really do all that interesting of a job presenting the wildlife to us: “Looking like giant rubber erasers, about a dozen seals are lying close together along the shore; their beige and gray hides are mottled and scarred. Except for one seal who raises his head to look at them as they walk past–the fur seal no doubt–none of the seals moves.” Save for that “rubber erasers” bit, the majority of her descriptions are bland and matter-of-fact. These facts also interfere with Maud’s thought process: so much is presented to her that she winds up leaping from topic to topic, when in truth, we want to drill down to her heart. Ultimately, Tuck summarizes things for us: that Maud has befriended the solitary wheel-chaired passenger, for instance, or that she wonders why there are rumors of a passenger once trying to hide in the Antarctic wilderness, hoping to be left behind. When it comes to the effect of such events, Tuck leaves us in the dark. We can look, she seems to be telling us, but we cannot touch.

Again, this might as well be happening anywhere, especially the way Maud and Peter correct one another — not all that lovingly — or the way they go about having (or not having) sex: “She does not feel like making love–too much trouble and often, recently, sex does not work out, which makes her anxious and Peter anxious and angry both.” She’s a pessimist; he’s an optimist: “She cannot look at the stars without wishing for a falling one, or gaze at the sea without thinking ‘drown.'” And yet, the sea and stars are everywhere. What of the ice? Tuck hints at her subject, as Maud recalls an old recurring nightmare of hers, which Peter seems to accurately define as “the terror of the infinite,” but when it comes time for her to have an experience, Maud remains on board the ship instead. Instead, when Peter returns, she implies that he’s flirting a little too heavily with Janet, another married woman, which triggers another flashback (again, with nothing to do with the present setting) that establishes Maud’s reliance on Peter . . . a scene that seems especially out of place here, given how little she seems to need or want her husband. (Indeed, she relishes sleeping in her own bunk, cocooned in her sheets.)

The prose is deliberate and clear, but the storytelling is sloppy and vague; a particularly troubling point is the way in which the third-person narrative continues to describe Peter’s voice as a “slightly inflected British” one. It comes across as a character trait that annoys Maud — why else would she keep noticing it? — but we’re never given a reason for why this might be the case. Given the utter lack of action in “Ice,” the lack of depth given to the characters is increasingly frustrating. Yes, a failing marriage is filled with the same sort of “uninhabitable empty space” that one finds in the Antarctic seas, but that’s hardly a rich enough insight to wrap a short story around; with nothing more offered, I can file to divorce this story.


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