“I am haunted by waters.” That famous closing line of “A River Runs Through It” gestures towards the intricate connections between the narrator’s family, the rivers they fish, and a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it. The waters haunting the narrator don’t torment him. Rather, they linger, encouraging him to meditate on his life, family, and what he does and doesn’t understand. Norman Maclean’s 1976, Pulitzer-nominated story is at this point a modern classic in its fond descriptions of river ecologies, its wry humor, and its larger existential questions. Turning to a more recent group of texts, we can see a continued interest in exploring both the literal and metaphorical meanings that water holds.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015) is also concerned with water in the western United States, although with its absence rather than its presence. Taking the adage “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting” as a worldview, Bacigalupi sets his novel in a not-too-distant future in which water’s scarcity has made states close their borders and wage corporate espionage to secure crucial water rights. Part noir, part Grapes of Wrath, The Water Knife explores how regional and personal loyalties crack and solidify as resources become scarce and the chance for profit skyrockets.
Here too is a concern with how and what we know. “There’s a theory,” one character muses early in the novel, “that if we don’t have the right words in our vocabularies, we can’t even describe our reality accurately, we can’t see it. […] Our own words make us blind.” This inability to “describe our reality accurately” haunts the novel’s three main characters. Lucy, a reporter embedded in a parched Phoenix, struggles with the risk of reporting a story she knows reflects the harshness of Phoenix life while also knowing that such reporting will risk her physical safety. Angel, the titular water knife, a covert operative who solves problems for his Las Vegas employer, struggles with the difference between declaring and demonstrating loyalty. And Maria, a Texas “water refugee” living in Phoenix, consistently worries that her desire for a better life muddies her understanding of how she can actually escape the Phoenix slums.
While Bacigalupi’s novel concerns itself with the presence and absence of literal water, Alyce Miller’s 2006 Mary McCarthy Prize-winning collection of short stories Water uses water in more metaphorical ways. In “Swimming,” for instance, the main character Helen escapes from her grief at the pool: “When she swam, she forgot about time. […] When she swam, she was stretching into infinity, a world without end. […] If she swam long enough, she ceased to exist.” Helen returns day after day, swimming to be “free of purpose and destination.” Out of the water, though, she must still interact with the world. This necessity leads to an encounter at the pool which provides her with both “purpose and destination,” although one requires her to participate in someone else’s make-believe.
In Miller’s “Hawaii,” the solace of water becomes even more distant. Young Taraji discovers his birth father lives in Hawaii, and the island becomes an imagined paradise for him in his life on the West Coast. When his mother becomes engaged to a white man, the Pacific Ocean acts as both a mental connection to and an obstacle between Taraji and his father. As his stepfather’s racism moves from verbal to physical violence, the ocean’s barrier lets Taraji turn to his father’s imagined island life as a source of strength to confront that hostility.
These texts’ interest in water are (ahem) just the tip of the iceberg. We could go on about graphic novels like Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge and R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher to classics like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Instead, we want to hear from you. Let us know on our Facebook page what you’ve read lately that has to do with water, and what you thought. Let’s start a conversation!