Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

Submergence BY J. M. Ledgard. Coffee House Press. Paperback, 208 pages. $15.
The cover of Submergence

Has a novel ever been more aptly titled than J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence? From the opening pages, we’re reminded relentlessly that “submergence,” “submersion,” “sinking,” “diving,” and “descent” are very much what this painstakingly crafted book is about. It’s a thematic obsession that ties together philosophical synopses, historical anecdotes, essayistic meditations, two central characters, and three interwoven plots. Submergence is plainly a novel of grand ambitions—a brooding, atmospheric spy tale that wants to say something about science, religion, and destiny. Unfortunately, it too often confuses mantra with meaning. Repeating “the depths” over and over again can be mesmerizing, but it doesn’t go very far toward illuminating them.

The set-up of Submergence suggests that the book might have been a lively work of highbrow genre fiction. James More, a buttoned-up British spook, has been kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda group in Somalia and forced to withstand beatings as he traverses the country with his captors. Danny Flinders, a sexy Franco-Australian biomathematician, is preparing for a research mission in the Greenland Sea where she will study the “largest uncharted hydrothermal vent field in the world.” Woven between these narratives is the story of the previous Christmas, when James and Danny met on the beach of a historic hotel on the French Atlantic coast, shared a feast of pheasant and sole, and fell in love.

Ledgard, a political and war correspondent for the Economist based in Nairobi, is a writer of impressive erudition, and in Submergence he bounds between subjects past, present, and future. Anecdotes about Che Guevara’s love of rugby, Osama bin Laden’s early years, and the death rites of the Kikuyu people flit in and out of the text, while historical forbears loom like unwelcome ghosts: James is not only a descendent of Thomas More, author of the fifteenth-century philosophical tract Utopia, but has also inherited the legacy of nineteenth-century British sea captain John More, who was swallowed, Jonah-like, by a whale. Danny travels on her voyage aboard the Pourquoi Pas?, named, we are told in a footnote, after a vessel helmed by Jean-Baptiste Charcot that sank off the coast of Iceland in 1936 drowning the French polar explorer and much of his crew.

But the protagonists aren't drawn with as much detail or care as their impressive pedigrees. James, the agent of empire, is little more than a vehicle for furthering the novel's central motif. He has been kidnapped in Somalia while posing as a water engineer, and when we meet him, he’s a prisoner in a fetid cell, “sunk to the bottom, on a floor of excrement,” where “the ceiling was the underside of the surface of a strange sea.” His captors keep him alive largely for his supposed irrigation expertise. “Water be my cover, water cover me,” he pleads.

It’s through James that we meet Somalia’s Al-Qaeda fighters, the most nuanced characters in the book. There is Saïf, a Saudi suicide bomber whose vest failed to detonate, who is by turns vicious and compassionate while serving as James’s personal guard. There is Aziz, an Iraqi doctor who treats James’s injuries with care and engages him in geopolitical conversation, all while despising him as a crusader. The jihadists watch Bambi and root for Arsenal but think nothing of killing to fight Western values. As a journalist, Ledgard is familiar with the contradictions of men like this, and while he doesn’t have sympathy for their cause, he nonetheless sees them in three dimensions. Too bad we don’t spend more time in their world.

Instead, we hang out with Danny Flinders as she seeks to “understand the pullulating life in the dark parts of the planet.” Danny, who is disposed to marveling over the Sumerian myth of the undersea city of Abzu and listening to Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony in her bunk, is a scientist-poet who could only exist in a novel. She is beautiful. She is brilliant. And she is “broadly scientific, in the Enlightenment sense of requiring the humanities to touch upon her thinking,” a cold rationalist who nonetheless values manned submersible missions because “they provided the necessary leap of imagination, the human connection to the deep.” Oh, and did I neglect to mention that she really likes to fuck? “She enjoyed sex on her own terms, and was inclined to regard her sexual partners as to some degree disposable, like squash partners,” we learn. To put it bluntly, she’s a philosophy grad student’s idea of a beach paperback pin-up.

Up until now I’ve avoided the phrase “Ledgard writes” when citing passages from Submergence. There’s a reason: Submergence may be written in the third-person, but it isn’t narrated like a novel. It’s narrated like the Bible, with the occasional use of an omniscient passive voice (“it was said”) and the anticlimactic tendency to collapse entire scenes into a single sentence. In what should be a gripping moment, James, submerged up to his waist in the Indian Ocean, turns his back to a firing squad and awaits his execution. But the suspense is short-circuited: After the terrible burst of gunfire, “he cried out and pulled off his soiled kikoi and washed himself between the legs.”

Instead of building tension through action, Ledgard ratchets up the stakes of the novel’s apocalyptic visions. As James becomes increasingly certain he will die as a prisoner and Danny sails toward the point at which she will descend into the ocean’s depths, hints of a nightmarish present metastasize into hallucinations of an impending dystopia. Early on, James describes his experience swimming in fancy hotel pools as floating “in the deep end above the mess of lights of an African city in the valley below—disordered clumps, wrongly beautiful, like a scan of a damaged brain.” Later, contemplating the fundamentalist faith of his captors, James imagines a not-too-distant world of “new cults concerned with the harvesting of body parts and brains" that "would absorb the mystical agency of angels, demons, miracles, and creation myths.” For her part, Danny wonders if we’re not heading toward a “reboot of mankind, where the genetic distinctiveness of human beings breaks down.”

Ledgard's most interesting thoughts burst forth in these fascinatingly unhinged premonitions, in which the novel finally moves beyond the theme of "submergence." “If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is,” Ledgard writes of the human devastation of the oceans, “but we don’t because it’s happening here and now.” Submergence tries to remove us from the "here and now," but the writing is so dense with allusion, argument, and pretension, that it feels suffocating, not clarifying. By the end, we find ourselves inundated, deluged, and—oh, yes—submerged.

Eric Benson is a writer based in Brooklyn. He writes about national politics, technology, and jazz.