September 11, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Virginia Marshall
The subject of Morten Strøksnes’ Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean is a 1,300-pound fish that lives 4,000 feet below the freezing surface of the North Pole. The shark remains off-stage most of the book, but the premise is entirely dependent on the evasive, gruesome creature.
In Shark Drunk, Strøksnes, a Norwegian journalist, describes his various trips to northern Norway to join his friend Hugo Aasjord as they try to capture a Greenland shark “by using the old methods,” which involves a chopped-up, rotting bull, 1,300 feet of rope, and countless hours of waiting in the middle of a frigid fjord.
Translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, Shark Drunk is a feast of a read. However, Strøksnes and Hugo aren’t planning to feast on the fish if caught. The fresh meat contains the nerve gas trimethylamine oxide, known to induce a drunken, psychotic state when eaten, making the person “shark drunk.” At one point, Hugo mentions that he might use the oil from the shark’s liver to make paint for his next landscape painting. But mostly, it seems, the point is to go after the thing; the point is to wait and wonder about the mysterious creature and its inhospitable home.
That is the joy of Shark Drunk: experiencing Strøksnes’ wonder as he fills the narrative with impressive facts and stories about sea life in the far north. He writes about the history of fishing in Norway, the effect of climate change in the Arctic, his childhood, as well as mythology, art, literature, and the science of tiny plankton and outer space. I especially appreciated Strøksnes’ text when I visited the northern Norwegian island of Svalbard this past summer. His prose not only made the rocky shores and towering fjords take on new meaning, but his focus on those parts of the natural world that we cannot see—the depths of the ocean that are in some ways more unreachable than Mars—gave me a special, almost mystical view of the landscape. Shark Drunk was a better companion during the trip than any Lonely Planet travel book could be.
The one flaw in the narrative was that Strøksnes tended to drift through topics somewhat randomly—spending a few pages fixated on the physical distance between galaxies and then shifting to describe the claustrophobic drinking culture of Hugo’s small fishing village. That approach made it hard to find footing in the text, and at times his narration could be didactic.
The book’s chronology was loosely tethered to the four visits Strøksnes made over the course of a year, returning each time to drop rancid meat into the ocean and wait for the shark to make an appearance. His persistence is surprising, even to Strøksnes. “We still feel the drag of the irresistible arm Melville wrote about,” he confesses. “Two men in a small boat, never sure what they might encounter out on the sea or what they might pull up from the abyss, beneath melted stars and electric full moons, where breakers and swells assault the islets like hysterical herds of cattle and the lunatic eye of the lighthouse never lets us out of its sight.”
It is the mysterious, glimmering passages like these where Shark Drunk proves itself a unique read. Strøksnes allows himself a certain amount of poetry when he writes about the striking Norwegian landscape from different vantage points—approaching his subject first through the lens of Ovid’s ancient book about the North, then retreating and trying another view, this time by describing one of the countless mackerel that are the shark’s food. The pattern is similar to the fishing tactic the two men use to lure the shark: Strøksnes and Hugo drop bait into the ocean, retreat, then return and re-bait the hook, all in attempt to reel in that mysterious, monstrous subject.
Aside from the omnipresent shark always lurking just out of sight, there is another theme that skirts the edges of Strøksnes’ narrative: the disastrous impact of human activity on the wonders of the deep. But Strøksnes, in his characteristic sideways approach to the heart of each subject, gets at it by first describing the thirty words one Norwegian community had for describing different types of wind. Over several brief passages, Strøksnes expounds on our modern ways of understanding the world, from NASA’s advanced technology to the constellation app he pulls up on his smartphone to observe the heavens. He concludes with a quiet punch:
Unfortunately, the vocabulary, which was previously so rich in describing the nuances of nature, has severely diminished over the past decades. As the words disappear, so does the knowledge of complex ecological connections. Our view of the various landscapes is reduced, we attach less meaning to them, and they become less valuable to us. And that also makes them easier to destroy, in our pursuit of short-term gains.
Strøksnes is searching for the shark, in the end, not to reel it up and display its drunken flesh to the air, but to bring his world closer to that of the unknown. By forming those “disappearing words” into descriptions of the shark and the sea and the land, Strøksnes casts his line into the deep and waits for that one monstrous tug at the other end.
Virginia Marshall is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. She is also a freelance radio producer and assistant book review editor at the Harvard Review.