Set in what feels like the Great Age of Explorationthe era of Shackleton, Perry, and AmundsenEXPLORERS OF THE NEW CENTURY tells the story of two teams racing across a nameless frozen expanse, each seeking to be the first to reach the AFP, or Agreed Furthest Point (which might as well stand for the South Pole, or the top of Everest, or deepest cave). The AFP is worth reaching because it has been acknowledged as there. Accompanied by their suffering mules and driven by their determination to push themselves to the limits and beyond, each team proves its mettle. But the cost is high--each step strains their limited resources, each calculation becomes a matter of life and death. Magnus Mills, one of the great fabulists in the English language--a cross between Hemingway and Kafka--has taken the exploration story and given it a haunting twist. The great drama doesn't involve reaching the AFP, but in what we learn about the explorers along the way.
In this acidly allegorical fancy, two unidentified nations at an unidentified time send coordinated expeditions into an uninhabited place of extreme weather-"the Agreed Furthest Point from Civilization." After arrival at camp, and a minor mishap that injures a mule (which has to be destroyed), the British-seeming team sets out, taking a difficult route over scree-strewn hillocks; the Scandinavian-seeming team, a few days ahead, progresses up a dry river bed. Given the polar explorer motif, questions begin to nag. Why does no one mention the poles? Where is the ice? Where are the sled dogs, and why are both expeditions encumbered with mule trains? Answers present themselves as we become familiar, through indirect hints, with the manner in which the mules have become a burden for both societies. One day, as disaster strikes the British party, a crew member and several mules drown-and one of the mules speaks. Mills (The Restraint of Beasts) expertly wields a narrow-bandwidth prose that hides distortions of reality in its very matter-of-factness. The effect is similar to the way old painters used to put anamorphic skulls in the foreground of their paintings: when we finally understand what we are seeing, it creates a backward-crashing estrangement from any sense of normalcy. (Mar.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
March 20, 2006
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