In Beyond The Sea, Paul Lynch takes a panga boat lost at sea and fashions it into a story that seems to inhale and exhale with the very days and nights experienced on Earth.
The novel, which was released overseas last year, begins when Bolivar, a fisherman mixed up with a cartel, coerces Hector into accompanying him on a fishing excursion and leads them right into a storm. The two characters represent a dichotomy between those of older age and a younger generation. Bolivar is a man with vices, who believes in putting the body to work. Hector is a discontented youth with long hair, a skull emblazoned on his sweater, and a predilection toward cell-phone use. Their division is tested when the storm leaves them stranded at sea, and their contrasting perspectives—Bolivar’s belief in nothing and Hector’s desire to believe in something bigger than himself—during their struggle for survival fuel the many somatic and ideological conflicts that span the narrative.
From the onset, Lynch’s work seems reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Of course, a similar setting is produced in Beyond The Sea, but Lynch’s form is also evocative of Hemingway’s style—both writers use short, deliberate sentences and ditch commas in spots where a conjunction might be present, and, as a result, relay a more natural and flowing narrative effect. Lynch’s writing, though, is more steeped in modernism as he does not include quotation marks in his dialogue, relying on periods even if a sentence is not grammatically complete.
However, the similarities do not end there. Lynch can be said to own the same distrust of adjectives and knack for the mot juste that Hemingway refers to in his Paris memoirs, A Moveable Feast. Lynch writes with such precision of language and attention to exactness that finding the truest words appears to be something else that he has in common with Hemingway.
As Bolivar and Hector float adrift by way of their motorless panga boat, they survive off of rainwater, birds, turtles, and fish. But they encounter a striking amount of human-made entities. Aside from container ships and jets, they see plastic, netting, barrels, debris, oils, and bottles, which they collect and use to fish and store water. What are we to make of this pollution that Bolivar and Hector use for survival? Perhaps nothing other than the fact that there is now enough junk out in the open sea that people stranded in its vastness hardly need to strain themselves to acquire it.
After weeks of surviving together, the two men begin to relate to one another, but they are still divided by Hector’s faith. The religious imagery is evident as Hector is described at one point as having long hair and appearing robed. But Lynch leaves the reader in anxiety about whether Hector is Bolivar’s savior. Hector’s faith leads him astray, as it turns out that his belief is just another way to obsess over the self, that is, something “designed for [him].”
As Bolivar contemplates Hector’s unwillingness to put his faith in their rescue, he asks himself, “why is it he won’t?” Then he answers himself: “What he sees in the waters or thinks he can. Far below, the shadow of a school writhing like the twistings of a man’s mind.” In the most involute manner, Lynch’s themes—haunting, existence, meaning, will, the mind—intersect with his imagery, and the critiques of anti-intellectualism, blind faith, and individualism, so that they all close in upon one another.
Although Bolivar and Hector set out together, Beyond The Sea is told through the perspective of Bolivar alone. His thoughts and feelings guide the narrative, and eventually, as circumstances take a downward turn, they provide intimate accounts of the ways that his decisions return to haunt him. The physical haunting that Bolivar confronts—fog, corpses, and memories—is less compelling than the philosophical questions that Bolivar faces. It is a great irony for the reader that Bolivar’s fight to physically exist becomes inextricable from an existential crisis.
Beyond The Sea is the best type of reading experience—one where nearly everything propels thinking. It grips the reader with large and unanswerable questions: What is true? What is knowing? What is meaning? Yet, somehow, Lynch provides exactly what seems to be impossible—answers.
Lynch writes that “man gives birth to his own problems.” He also writes, “Always waiting upon the awaited thing. But what if you hold what is given?” Perhaps, as the Earth’s revolutions rotate onward, both inside Lynch’s story and the lives of his readers, truth and meaning are within reach.
Beyond the Sea
By Paul Lynch
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Published March 10, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.