Thornton (Tales from the Blue Archives, 1997, etc.) tries hard to re-evoke the life and times of the Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924).
Non-Conradians may feel rather left out here, so thoroughly steeped in the great author’s life and novels is Thornton’s ingeniously attempted literary tour de force. His own narrator, the Englishman Jack Malone, actually (that is, fictionally) knew Joseph Conrad over a period of years, and, with other friends, enjoyed evenings of conversation and tale-telling on the deck of the sailing boat Nellie, anchored in the Thames. Many will immediately recall Heart of Darkness, where the tale is told on that very same Nellie’s deck, spun out then, however, not by a man named Malone but by the famous Conradian narrator-character Marlowe, who “tells” the story. Like Conrad, Thornton even goes so far as to nest one narrative inside another, so that inside the tale that Malone-Marlowe tells us (he writes it in 1930, remembering back to 1924), we find Conrad in turn telling a tale to Malone-Marlowe. Conrad’s tale is the best one, about a WWI minesweeper: After sinking a German sub, the English captain heinously betrays his command, out of personal spite, and lets the German sailors drown. The tale, with its Lord Jim parallels, will be interwoven throughout Malone-Marlowe’s later narrative, but not always convincingly. Malone’s tale has largely to do with his belated discovery that Conrad had indeed turned him into a narrator and had “used,” in his novels, the stories Malone told on the Nellie. Malone’s discomfiture rings thinly at best for a reader today—what’s wrong with being made a character? And Conrad’s own discomfiture—afraid that if people learn that there was a “real” Marlowe, he’ll be accused of having “cheated” by using hand-me-down stories—brings even more incredulity.
Still, in spite of false notes and some psychological thinness, Thornton does manage to bring back Conrad, his London, his Thames, and even his dangerous but beautiful South China Sea. (N.B.: A feature film of Thornton’s 1987 debut, Imagining Argentina, is scheduled for release this September.)