Water Music

~~contains spoilers, but don’t let that stop you~~

In 1795, Ned Rise is trying to make a bit of money by producing a live sex show in a London tavern. Mungo Park, meanwhile, is on his first expedition into Africa, bankrolled by Sir Joseph Banks and the aristocratic subscribers of the African Association, trying to be the first European to see the Niger River. Rise and Park are the twin poles of Water Music, TC Boyle’s debut novel (published in 1981). In usually-alternating chapters, we see them succeed and fail, following each man through years of misadventure. They will meet in Africa, on Park’s second expedition, but their lives run in curious parallel, often almost but not quite overlapping. An additional strand details the tribulations of Park’s fiancée and then wife, Ailie Anderson, who waits for years for him to come home and marry her, only to lose him to Africa a second time when Banks et al. commission him to find the Niger’s source in the early 1800s.

Water Music reminds me a good deal of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, though less single-mindedly scientific and with a less overt thesis. It is tremendously diverting, scurrilous, funny, sad, but one of the most significant criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it is that it seems not really to have a point; that it’s an incredibly virtuosic performance for no real purpose, other than to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with a book being merely entertaining, especially when it’s done this well, though when it’s done this well, one can’t help feeling that it could have accommodated more meaning. However, having finished the book, it’s apparent that Boyle does pull out a thematic conclusion. Rise and Park, having come together only one hundred pages before the end of the book, are forced into situations that change them: Rise for the better, as he suddenly develops a clear-eyed sense of other people’s characters and his own capacities and responsibilities, and Park for the worse, as the relentless pursuit of their expedition down the Niger by indigenous Africans turns him from a naive, excitable young man into a naive, infuriated one, his soul crabbed by racist hatred and megalomania. When, in the book’s final pages, they are faced with almost certain death, Rise at last rises (haha) to the occasion, preventing Park from murder and narrowly saving his own life (for probably the fifth time) in the process.

Rise’s miraculous ability to escape death is threaded throughout the book. As a baby, he’s saved by a mysterious harridan who reappears periodically in the narrative, haunting and mocking, perhaps a personification of street London itself. Fleeing an abusive master who mutilates him to make him a more convincingly crippled child beggar, he’s taken in by a kindly clarinetist named Barrenboyne who trains and feeds him, though Barrenboyne is shot and killed in a duel with a black man over a racial insult (who is later revealed to be Mungo Park’s first and best guide through Africa, Johnson). Jumping into the freezing Thames to escape justice when the police break up his live sex show, he should drown, but instead washes up at a fish shed in Southwark, where two brothers take him in. Sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a death pinned on him as murder by the vindictive landlord of the raided tavern, he wakes up coughing on a dissecting slab, not a cadaver after all. Thrown down a well, locked up in a prison hulk, sent to the malarial swamps of the Goree as free labour, Rise survives time after time after incredible time. So does Park, curiously: we first meet him as a tortured prisoner of the Moors, but he endures many more tribulations–flash floods, crocodile attacks, curious cannibals, territorial leopards, Moors again–before his final voyage down the Niger. The two men are defined by their tenacious relationship with existence. At one point, wedged into a well several feet from the bottom so that his friend Boyles can take his turn sleeping on the ground, Rise wonders whether he really did die on the scaffold and everything since then has been hell; Park, wedged into the fork of a tree to avoid ravening nocturnal predators, wonders something similar. Boyle draws these connections lightly and many dozens of pages apart, making him a good deal subtler than Dickens, of whose work Water Music is also reminiscent (though really the aptest comparison would be Hogarth, with his etchings and engravings teeming with faces and bodies, grotesque and gorgeous, drinking, spitting, swearing, laughing, eating, pushing each other over. And indeed, the front cover of this edition is a Hogarth painting.)

If we didn’t already know that this was the debut novel of an aggressively clever young man, the style would make it clear. Water Music is defined by its frenetic energy, which is partly what makes it difficult to detect a purpose to its narrative: it can be hard for an author to maintain a thematic throughline when they’re so busy hopping up and down. Detail and abundance are the watchwords here, and never once does Boyle’s energy flag. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a brief (for this book) history of Johnson, the guide. It is on page ten of my edition:

Concerning Johnson. He is a member of the Mandingo tribe, they who inhabit the headwaters of the Gambia and Senegal rivers and most of the Niger valley as far as the city of legend, Timbuctoo. His mother did not name him Johnson. She called him Katunga–Katunga Oyo–after his paternal grandfather. At the age of thirteen, Johnson was kidnapped by Foulah herdsmen while celebrating the nubility of a tender young sylph in a cornfield just outside his native village of Dindikoo. The sylph’s name was Nealee. The Foulahs didn’t ask. Their chieftain, who took a fancy to Nealee’s facial tattoos and to other features as well, retained her as his personal concubine. Johnson was sold to a slatee, or traveling slave merchant, who shackled his ankles and drove him, along with sixty-two others, to the coast. Forty-nine made it. There he was sold to an American slaver who chained him in the hold of a schooner bound for South Carolina. The boy beside him, a Bobo from Djenné, had been dead for six days when the ship landed at Charleston.

Water Music, p. 10

And here, for comparison, is a passage from page 419:

And so here they are–guideless, cowryless, goodsless, anchorless, their clothes in rags and their bodies devastated with disease, sunburn and culinary fatigue, the current carrying them where it will, the water level dropping as the dry season advances, sandbanks lapping at them like tongues, humped white rocks protruding from the sickly wash of the current like picked ribs, mites, flies, ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes biting, the odor of dead fish and exposed muck so rancid and oppressive they can hardly breathe–here they are, overjoyed, celebrating, heading south.

Ibid., p. 419

Not an ounce of the hyperactive drive from the first pages has been lost. Clauses pile on top of one another like waves. It’s not always forward movement–Boyle loves to circle, as in between the two dashes above–but it doesn’t stagnate. It’s like a spun penny that never falls over. I would argue that Boyle doesn’t need 438 pages to tell this story, and that his stylistic exuberances are in large part responsible for the book’s unnecessary length, but I’m also not sorry to have read a single one of those pages.

I haven’t even gotten to Ailie, the woman and then wife whom Park abandons again and again, or Fanny, the much-loved chambermaid who sacrifices herself to a sadomasochistic young lord who is obsessed with her, in order to ease Ned Rise’s time in prison. Neither of them has quite what you would call a happy ending. Ailie glimpses happiness with a man she’d previously rejected, but a sort of vision recalls her to her responsibilities, and although she never sees her husband (or brother, who accompanies him on his second expedition) again, she spends the remaining decades of her life determinedly fostering the cult of Mungo Park, the great lost explorer. Yet she also loses her youngest son to the lure of exploration, and in our final glimpse of her, she seems drowned in despair: Africa, empire, conquest, has destroyed nearly everyone she has ever loved. Fanny, meanwhile, dies a terrible death: sex-trafficked into Europe, kept half-unconscious by laudanum (to which she becomes addicted), repeatedly gang-raped for years by an aristocratic group of sex-cultists, she escapes back to England with her toddler son after a particularly violent orgy, but loses him. Penniless, friendless, she falls from Blackfriars Bridge, even as Rise continues to search for her. It is difficult to read these passages. Ailie starts off spirited and bright, funny, sarcastic, impatient; Park’s self-centeredness and inability to trust his wife with the truth makes her life a waste, and renders her a husk of her former self. Fanny is beautiful, good-natured, and brave; the choice she makes for her man brings her nothing but humiliation, pain, shame and death. What are we to make of this, other than to nod in recognition as, once again, patriarchal societies that fundamentally despise women end up destroying them? They are very skilfully rendered sections, and there is no doubt that the 1790s and early 1800s were not forgiving times for women whose lives did not follow the prescribed track; it’s just that we do already know this. Is dwelling on the point realistic, or cruel? Hard to say.


Water Music was first published in the US, by Little, Brown, in 1981. My edition was published by Granta in 1998.