She is the only woman who has allowed him to watch her as intently, as much and as long, as he wants, and the reason for this comes to him one night. She is self-possessed. There is nothing he can take from her by looking.
At the thought, he gets up from the bed and goes to the window, rests his forehead on its cold pane. She possesses herself. How much more this makes him want her!
It's grim up North. Nowhere more so - to judge by Kathryn Harrison's The Seal Wife (2002) - than early twentieth-century Alaska. Particularly so for a repressed, introverted young representative of the Weather Bureau, named Bigelow, who is given a small plot of land near Anchorage and tasked with observing and reporting on the climate. It's an unattractive assignment, and the setting - for all the rather dramatic beauty of its surroundings, which Bigelow intermittently appreciates - is unforgivingly harsh, on both a physical and an emotional level, a constant endurance test for its (mostly male) population of transient workers. Even the name expresses its isolation and transitoriness:
Bigelow disembarked in Anchorage, and by the time he'd thought to turn himself around and look back toward the ship that had brought him, it was gone. Anchorage - a place for ships to pause, to drop anchor for only as long as it might take to disgorge freight and passengers.
Bigelow's initial impression, or fear - that "he's arrived in a land that will insist on its strangeness" - is borne out in the tale that follows, an almost hallucinatory study of loneliness and the various ways a man can fail to understand. Driven to distraction by isolation and sexual frustration (Anchorage, we are told, boasts only "a handful of women among thousands of men", with depressingly inevitable results), Bigelow is drawn to an Aleut woman living in the vicinity of Anchorage. After stalking her for a while, he embarks upon a sort-of relationship with her (by which I mean he goes to her cabin every so often and has perfunctory sex with her; in return, he brings her food).
They have no shared language; Bigelow speaks for speaking's sake, but she ignores him so profoundly that he assumes she is mute. He cannot comprehend her silence, or her lack of any discernible expression (or the "private" nature of the pleasure she derives from sex, to which his presence seems to be largely incidental); she neithers protests nor precisely encourages, and so lies beyond his range of experience. Predictably, he becomes obsessed with "understanding" her - i.e., with provoking a understandable response, an acknowledgement that she might need him as he needs her, and thus a sense of ownership:
She opens for him, yes, but only her legs, and all the rest that she does - preparing food, mending furs, even waxing his boots - strikes him as an elaborate decoy, a way of distracting him from her deeper self, her deepest self, all that he wants most to penetrate.
Inside her is a name, a word he wants to know. To possess.
He longs to be noticed by her, to make his mark in some clear, obvious way. There is a parallel, of course, with his official purpose in Alaska, as there is with that of the all the non-indigenous residents of the area (mapping, mining, building railways, educating): to record, to conquer, to render wilderness manageable and comprehensible. To find, or impose, "A line that exists independent of inscription: a track through the wilderness, a boundary drawn between one reading and another" - an objective, universal truth. But, like the Aleut woman, the landscape is aloof, and resilient in the face of attempted exploitation:
Bigelow's breath clouds before his face, hanging still in the wordless winter air. He tries to picture himself in the landscape before him. He turns, making a full circle, trying to impose an image of himself on what he sees, but he can't. The scale is wrong, or the sky, the way its presses down on the land, and its emptiness, birds as evident in their absence as when they crowded out the sun. Can a man exist here? Can Bigelow?
Both in the title, and in an episode involving a captured seal - which is described in very similar terms (bright black eyes, curious lack of resistance) to the Aleut woman - there is a hint that there might be something else at work, that she might be a seal wife, or selkie (who appear in various forms in legends from north-western Europe), but this goes largely unpursued, and certainly passes Bigelow by.
Bigelow thinks of the Aleut woman only in relation to himself and his own desires, never as an autonomous individual, and so when she abruptly disappears he has no conception of where she might have gone - or why. It takes him a substantial portion of the book to even begin to imagine things from her perspective:
[M]aybe she was just tired of Anchorage, of its mud, its blocks of ugly houses, the clatter of hammers hitting ties, the seemingly inexhaustible, even rising, tide of railroad workers and prospectors, men who watched as she walked down the street. Men who, deprived of woman, reverted to animals, hands down their trouser fronts, eyes narrow, appraising.
Even here, he "sees her as they saw her" - he sees the scene through the eyes of the appraising men, not hers. Similarly, a subplot involving a woman named Miriam - who has such a terrible stammer that her only capacity for speech is to sing the words of others - is redolent with Bigelow's selfishness, and his romanticisation of his dependent lust.
The prose is as stark as the landscape, sparsely matter-of-fact about its grimy human world. It blossoms, occasionally, in descriptions of Bigelow's (non-sexual) interior life - his sense of wonder (and intellectual joy) at the displays on offer from the weather, especially of the transitory variety:
Bigelow records ephemera: clouds; a fall of rain or of snow; hailstones that, after their furious clatter, melt silently into the ground. Like recounting a sigh.
In subject matter and stripped-down style, The Seal Wife reminded me a lot of Alessandro Baricco's Silk - but I found it much less beguiling than the latter (but then, Silk was very much an exception to my general impatience with impressionistic books in which nothing much happens). Perhaps this was because I found Bigelow thoroughly unlikeable, perhaps because it was longer than it really needed to be - or perhaps just because it doesn't shy away from the grubbier side of what languid, unspoken longing is really all about...