This week’s short fiction focus comes from the January 5, 1976 New Yorker: Mark Helprin’s Notes From the Samantha. What an extraordinary piece of short fiction! What started out as a comical little story about a fictional ship that survives a cyclone only to rescue a monkey turns into a rather sinister reflection on humanity and weakness.
Writing a series of letters to his commander, ship captain Samson Low recounts the bizarre occurrence of a tornado at sea that nearly sinks the ship. As the men are recovering from their fear and shock, they discover a monkey floating on some logs and other debris just off the bow. On impulse Captain Low hauls him aboard. The next few letters detail how the monkey works on the crew’s psyche – at first they mock them, then they fear him only to suddenly bestow a certain nobility upon him. But soon enough they start to hate and dread his continued presence on board. Factions form about whether to throw the creature in the sea. The men fight amongst themselves while the monkey sits aloof on the upper mast. They create a raft for him, intending to put him to sea in a place where he will float to land. But this plan fails. As the story unfolds, the tension builds until it sets the scene for the Captain’s final, inevitable act.
I love stories that begin on one emotional plane and glide effortlessly to another. Stories that really hone in on some aspect of the human condition, for this story it was fear. Helprin does a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and attraction in fear, something that fuels the story through to the end:
We were afraid, though every man on deck wanted to see it, to feel it, perhaps to ride its thick swirling waters a hundred times higher than our mast – higher than the peaks inland. I confess that I have wished to be completely taken up by such a thing, to be lifted into the clouds, arms and legs pinned in the steam. The attraction is much like that of phosphorescent seas, when glowing light and smooth swell are dangerously magnetic even for hardened masters of good ships. I have wanted to surrender to plum-colored seas, to know what one might find there, naked and alone. But I have not, and will not.
This story introduces me to Helprin’s work and I just discovered he has five novels and four short-story collections. I will definitely be looking for more.