“IN THE DISTANCE”: a review

Mary Strachan Scriver
5 min readMay 22, 2021

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“Clangston,” the location of an anti-Western, is organized around a man who is barely human. He is enslaved for the sake of his most primal strengths, which do not include eloquence. I expect Jason Momoa is already thinking about a movie version, though it is the coruscating prose that makes the book worth reading, the same as it was for Cormac McCarthy’s slightly antique rhetoric that excused his blood-soaked versions of the Mexican border wars.

There is an audience for horror or “Gothic” ghastliness, quite aside from the more scholarly purpose of Derridanian deconstruction of the Western that was once as tame and squeaky clean as Roy Rogers. This version is not like Clint Eastwood being competely amoral and vicious. It’s more like detective heroes who survive being thrown down wells, machine gunned, tossed off tall buildings, and persisting simply because the story must go on. Though in this version a good question to ask is “what story”? This man, so exceptionally physical and innocently emotional, wanders in a circle.

He is remarkably resistant to cold, evidently genetically as old-time Blackfeet were said to be, in the way that some fringe-dwelling people are able to live at high altitudes or by diving for long periods of time. He’s also very big, which is another quality of Blackfeet, as are some Scandinavians around here — often seven feet tall. I see them at the grocery store.

An odd sci-fi vibe develops from the fact that the author, Hernan Diaz, is operating entirely from library research. He’s never seen a buffalo, never smoked a “calumet” (a three-foot pipestem normally reserved for ceremonial events) or tasted bannock baked by winding it around a stick and holding it over a campfire, though he must have found it in a book somewhere. Or a blog as I did.

This quote is from an interview with Diaz:

“As a literary genre, the Western is a great riddle to me. Because it whitewashes American history and offers a very attractive myth of the birth of this country, it should have become the national genre. Vigilantism, greed, racism, and plunder are all romanticized in the Western. There is a very American obsession with space and exploration, but in the end, nature tends to be debased to a mere source for the extraction of wealth. Also, the genre usually favors the individual over the law. And there is the gun fixation, of course. The list goes on.

“In short, even if the Western should have become our national genre, it has a marginal place in the literary canon. It is only codified in the early 1900s, several of its foundational texts are out of print, and the most interesting Western novels tend to be from the second half of the twentieth century. Compare this with another American genre, detective fiction. It was born in the 1840s! And its steady influence goes well beyond the realm of literature — it taught us, for instance, that reality is not given but needs to be deciphered.

“So I saw in the Western a slightly derelict genre that was ready to be taken over. And because of its ideological connotations, it seemed like hijacking the Western was a perfect way to say something new about the United States and its history.” (Herman Diaz in an interview with the Paris Review linked below.)

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/10/10/feeling-foreign-an-interview-with-hernan-diaz/

Diaz goes for the “settler” point of view. No awareness of the indigenous, because he himself is multi-national but attached to immigration as a solution that’s his foreground. In the American psyche this is a dilemma and contradiction: wanting to be original but never there originally. To many the route to originality seems to be through violence and sex, hopefully shockingly entwined. “Blood Meridian,” indeed. I don’t know what ideology is being taken over. I’m not even sure it’s new.

It doesn’t seem like proceeding from one atrocity or catastrophe to another is the best way to counter the kind of domestic familiarity that I’m dealing with in “Begin Again.” (I’m not indigenous, but my maternal family migrated West on the Oregon Trail from Kentucky.) Still, it’s true enough that America was born in blood. This is Cormac McCarthy North.

The book seems to have been written by assigning a theme to each chapter. In my view chapter six is the best chapter — and I suspect it’s Diaz’ true allegiance. It’s devoted to natural history and the religious stance that is without any formal denomination but that seems to be almost a revival of the Transcendentalists. The personification is a man named “Lorimer,” who dissects small creatures.

“The hare, like a blade of grass or a piece of coal, is not simply a small fraction of the whole but contains the whole within itself. Our flesh is the debris of dead stars, and this is also true of the apple and its tree, of each hair on the spider’s legs, and of the rock rusting on planet Mars. Each minuscule being has spokes radiating out to all of creation.”

After Lorimer this is hardly shown nor even mentioned. There is a great deal of sensory material, particularly smells, not usually pleasant. As a person who has lived with this world a long time, I have to say that anyone who doesn’t know horse dung from cow flop or buffalo chips has never seen or smelled any examples.

Diaz’ other scholarly work is about Borges, an important writer from Argentina. Someone at the BBC describes Borges’ short stories this way, which explains some of the writer’s choices:

“They are fictions filled with private jokes and esoterica, historiography and sardonic footnotes. They are brief, often with abrupt beginnings. Borges’ use of labyrinths, mirrors, chess games and detective stories creates a complex intellectual landscape, yet his language is clear, with ironic undertones.

The chapter about the notorious attack on a wagon train by bad guys “disguised” as Indians was interesting but didn’t say much about the actual historical incident. The scene about an indigenous camp is the most “goth” of them all, nearly a zombie story. The chapter about the very big horse is okay, but I’ve never seen a “yellow and orange” horse — maybe he means a palomino with a sorrel mane.

Carys Davies in a review in “The Guardian” accurately says that the most powerful scene in the book is the beginning, where a man heaves himself up out of a frozen sea and intends to walk to Sweden while the ice remains. It’s almost as though the rest of the book was conjured up to justify that vision. It’s not impossible to do such a thing, but unlikely. How likely is a lot of our adventure tales in all media? It’s pretty good imagining for someone to whom “west” means the other side of the library where he read a newspaper story about people who do that kind of polar plunging.

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Mary Strachan Scriver

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.