Reviews: The Climb of Your Life – Mal on Dan Simmons’ Abominable
Captain Jack Sparrow nailed it when he said THE WORLD ISN’T GETTING ANY SMALLER, THERE IS JUST LESS IN IT. That for me is also one of the great difficulties in writing convincing adventure stories these days. It is not that there is less in the world it is just that there is just less world to write about. Or so it is easy to believe in that very modern conceit born of over-familiarity with social networking and the hubris that we have seen it all. Until a writer like Dan Simmons comes along and with a story like The Abominable, and he reminds us that we have not. He takes something so very old and gives us something that feels so very new and thoroughly modern. Yet the story of Jacob Perry (Jake to his friends) and his ascent of Everest on a mission to find the last know whereabouts of a notorious gentrified fop unfolds as a classic tale of high adventure. No pun intended.
Dan Simmons is deftly following in the footsteps of Conan Doyle or Verne as he masterfully constructs a thought-provoking and old-school exciting yarn. I say that from a place of respect and affection for the genre of adventure writing of this calibre and in no way wish to sound flippant in this use of this word. The world building which only writers of this ability are capable of takes place between the covers and will, I hope, validate the comparison and perhaps expectations.
It is so well constructed I want to actually believe it to be real. The author must have researched his subject with an absolute passion as the attention to detail and depth of characterisation border on the forensic, in the illuminating use of the word rather than the gruesome. Details that must be absorbed as the reader progresses into a world that punishes any lapse of attention with fatal and final consequences. The cold, cold rock of Everest becomes almost a metaphor for the natural world we inhabit and which we attempt to convince ourselves we dominate.
Mount Omolongma, as it was called by the Tibetan locals, or Mount Everest as it was renamed by The Royal Geographical Society in 1865, is the highest mountain in the world. This is a primary school declaration, a building block of information in geography classes the world over. The highest peak in the world named after a by now obscure Surveyor General of India, George Everest, a loyal servant of Empire. The mountain had already been surveyed and mapped by the Chinese more than a hundred years before but such was the way in the glorious days of a global Empire upon which the sun never set, as they put it modestly. In 1924 George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a summit attempt only to vanish from the world’s eyes into the clouds surrounding the peak area. Mallory’s body was eventually found by another expedition attempting to reach the peak many years later in 1999, high up on the North Face. Debate continues as to the success of their ascent (did they make it to the summit before others before perishing on the return, or expire before the peak?) and Simmons offers some possible answers. It is one of the strengths of this outstanding novel by a remarkable and prolific author. There is nothing happening between its covers that could not have actually happened many years ago in the real world of 1925. Which makes the events recorded within all the more…well, abominable.
(The Yeti as imagined for Troughton-era Doctor Who, (c) BBC)
The main characters – Jake Perry, the Deacon, Jean-Claude, Reggie and Pasang – are so fully developed by the writer it is hard to imagine that they have not surely lived and drawn breath. Their shared trials and tribulations on the absolutely unforgiving, almost vertical slopes of Mount Everest become ours. It is really quite heart pounding as we scale the heights and the world diminishes beyond heart of the central narrative. They forget, you forget, but the forces gathering beneath them do not. Many obstacles present themselves in the path of the adventurers as the team ascend and the road behind grows darker still. There is factional infighting amongst those who hold the region to be theirs. Help will not be forthcoming, they are on their own. There are also bandits who rob, steal, plunder and murder as they choose. And then there are the rumours of Yeti who roam the silent heights. Mythical beasts, whom, it is said rend and tear and haunt the nightmares of those who make their home on these hard slopes. And there is something else, a darker evil that could devour the whole world.
I mentioned Jules Verne earlier and it is a generally accepted notion that he had a most profound influence on the writing of science fiction and all things fantastical. In his own way so too has Dan Simmons, with a vast body of work in which he excels in any field he chooses to work. Science fiction, horror and history, the rich pantheons of life, whichever genre he intends this novel to belongs to it will surely stand amongst his very best (and it is good you cannot easily label it one single genre). It is ambitious. The scale of the novel stretching back through time and across the globe. It mixes reality with fiction so convincingly it is difficult at times to determine the truth of events. Yet like From Hell and Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s interpretation of the Jack the Ripper murders it feels as though it should be true. The symmetry of events and their explanations is so flawless it has the rightness of truth. That said the truth of history is rarely so elegant as well-crafted fiction. The darker truths The Abominable brings to the surface are some of the ugliest of the twentieth century.
One night at the cinema I witnessed the audience burst into applause during the closing credits of a wonderful movie. I only saw it happen once and I must confess I would go to more communal events if crowds reacted with such disarming charm and spontaneous demonstrations of delight. Mister Dan Simmons had me do the very same thing after reading the closing paragraphs of this book. Not as impressive a demonstration of delight as the one I witnessed in the cinema I accept.
It was however as well meant as the one performed by the crowd of strangers in the darkened theatre. Caught up for a moment in that astonishing frisson created by a writer on a roll and at the peak of his powers. Set aside a few days to read this book that will enlighten and reward you with a story of heroism and decency in the face of appalling cruelty. A story of such emotional resonance it will still be with you long after you turn the final page. It will feel as though you are saying goodbye to friends you have grown to love and respect.
It is amongst the best of books.