I’ve always heard my grandpa say “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” and I really couldn’t tell you why he says it. The actual line comes from an 1798 text, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I can safely assert that my grandpa has never read that and he was never a sailor. But, I found this to be a fitting title for this blog post and next time I see him, my grandpa will enjoy hearing about his five seconds of blog fame.
Anyway, due to the nature of this course, I’ve found that water is everywhere. Yet, I was still shocked to find the “language of water” in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One since water isn’t the driving factor of the plot. I mean at least not yet. I think it’s funny, because of the sheer nature of fluidity, that this recurrence of water has been grounding my thinking as I’m reading. I’ve been able to use language that is evocative of water, its properties and its force, as something I can hold onto as I dive into (see what I did there) a novel filled with specific genre conventions that I’m not very familiar with. It also allows me some ways to connect the novel with the ideas of churning and cycling that I’ve been thinking about all semester.
Here are a few examples of what I’ve found so far (also the pagination won’t be the same for everyone):
“The new buildings in wave upon wave” (7).
“The city as a ghost ship on the last ocean at the rim of the world” (7).
“It was time to stop drifting. Hence, law” (8).
“In retrospect, this drowning sensation was the first inclination that something started to go wrong with him when he came in from the wasteland” (45).
“A frigid worm of water snuck under his collar” (79).
This certainly does not exhaust the examples of this “language of water.” Here’s why I think that this thread within the novel is interesting and worth writing about. First off, I think that water often accompanies stories of disaster, so when writing a novel that deals with these survivalist characters, water language can help readers feel familiar in a setting or circumstance.
Second, like I’ve said, water is everywhere. Whether in excess or absence, or just in “regular” quantities, I think we understand its power. It is a language that everyone understands. I’ve never thought about it this way before, but very few things are more tied to the human experience/condition than water.
Finally, I think that “water” serves to bridge the gap between us and the Other, which we began to speak about in class on Friday. Throughout history, explorers looked for easy water routes or the Fountain of Youth, and even now when we explore outer space, we look for water and ice on new planets. To understand what we don’t know, we look towards water. I think Whitehead is picking up on that universality and really running with it.