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Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s deftly structured novel of Antarctica, The Big Bang Symphony (Terrace), is confidently intelligent in tone, and delightfully complex. Its narrative is character-driven: authentic, pragmatic, witty, at times too serious but talented, grounded, and blessedly flawed.
The Big Bang Symphony is a big slice of life at the bottom of the world, the women, the laborers, the support staff: Rosie Moore, one of the station cooks who at 30-years-old “wanted to land somewhere permanent” and knows her desire for home had driven her “to travel to the opposite of what she wanted, into the very heart of transience—and then get out again—to get it”; Alice, the chocolate-loving graduate student, a geologist who “was leaving her mother. Finally”; and Mikala Wilbo, reared in a California commune and grieving for her lover Sarah, who died three years ago from lymphoma.
“[Sarah was] like the line between Mikala herself and the rest of the world. Irrevocably a part of herself and yet a border she had to cross each time she wanted to get beyond herself. A kind of impermeable skin.”
The Big Bang Symphony draws the reader into the world of McMurdo Station, a U. S. research base located just northeast of Mt. Erebus, on the southeast coast of the Ross Ice Shelf. There is adventure, mystery and absurdity, and there is the majesty of Antarctica, its haunting emptiness and unforgiving environment a hologram, perfectly suited to reflect the indomitable forces which compel and sustain each woman’s search for what is true—even if that truth is the simple equivalent of what can be perceived as true.
Grounded in characters who are integrated into the world at large, the novel challenges even the progressive notion of gender as the framework that controls and sustains patriarchal social order. The three protagonists, Rosie Moore, Mikala Wilbo, and Alice Neilson are not prototypes of feminism—they embody a feminism passed on by the generation that came of age in the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. These women are not pathologized or victimized. They are of whole cloth; vital, competent, and empowered to explore their existential dilemmas regardless of their fears, reservations, and histories.
What is home and family each of them will ask? What does it really mean to be alive? They are not women enmeshed in isolated existential crisis; they are women in progress. Their sexualities are neither static nor unyielding—not bound by traditional notions of morals or social presentiments. Thankfully, difference as female is just another way to be—even for the most lovable (and heroic) man in the story, Earl Banks, a big-hearted, pot-smoking musician, a caldron of contradictions who “knew he was too much, he knew he was trouble.”
The Big Bang Symphony opens with a crash landing and the death of a young woman (in the parlance of the Ice, a FNG (pronounced fingee and meaning fucking new guy), who, in the confusion of the evacuation of the plane, is separated from the other passengers and freezes to death. We never know anything about this 24-year-old woman, not even her name, and this deliberate narrative decision works very well in setting up the thread of shared experience as points of reference and portals of insight.
The narrative unwinds and steadily gains momentum, blooming into metaphor and symbolism, positioning the Antarctic landscape as the container of future hope, the great white blank of possibility, the theatre of the absurd, and perhaps the site where more mysteries of the Big Bang will be unveiled. The Big Bang Symphony, is a post-postmodern text not least because of its assimilated characters; the over-arching promise of science as a vehicle of creativity; and the obviated presence of feminist sensibilities.
Bledsoe teases out details of character like a sketch artist, filling in the outlines of head and body with an emotional existentialism at once honest, unflinching, and compassionate. Bledsoe’s characters have hutzpah and weirdness in equal measures whether West Coast crunchy or Midwest pragmatic.
The Big Bang Symphony
A Novel of Antarctica
By Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Hardcover, 9780299235000, 312pp.
April 20, 2010