I read nonfiction books to reconfirm my ignorant political opinions, or to supplement my brain diet with a little history and science, or to soak up a good narrative that the academy-stunted imaginations of today's "literary" fiction writers are unable to produce. But rare is the nonfiction book that actually brings me news. I don't mean something half-digested about the previous year's headlines; I mean something new about how things really work in the world, right now. Big Dead Place: Inside the Strange & Menacing World of Antarctica is one of those rare books.
As you might imagine from the title, the book is about life in Antarctica, a place that, until recently, had rarely crossed my mind. My preconceptions about Antarctica were similar to most people's: I imagined it as somewhere that penguins could go about practicing monogamy and family values, where scientists practiced noble work in isolation and occasionally battled shape-shifting blob aliens, and where men's magazine writers occasionally, and sometimes actually, froze their nuts off in search of "adventure." It never occurred to me that, like the rest of the world, life in Antarctica is actually dominated by corporate bureaucracy and alcoholism.
Nicholas Johnson spent the better part of three years working as a dishwasher and garbage man in Antarctica, mostly at McMurdo Station, the main human outpost, but also at the South Pole Station, which, he writes, "looks like an elf village overrun by a blue-collar tribe that worships Martian gods." That sentence gives a good idea of the book's tone: irreverent, pop culture–obsessed, and dogmatically antiauthoritarian. Which makes sense, considering Johnson's pedigree is zine-related. His previous projects include a zine called Shark Fear, Shark Awareness, and separate short-term projects about his life as a sperm donor and his time as an English-language teacher in Korea. But Big Dead Place trumps that stuff in scope, and multiplies it by 10.
Johnson presents himself as a smart but aimless slacker who heads off to Antarctica on a semitrendy lark along the lines of a college kid going to work in an Alaskan fish cannery (which he also once did). After a brief and bizarre training session that involves wearing winter-resistant hazmat suits in an East Texas industrial wasteland, Johnson arrives "free of assumptions about the frozen realm of mystery," only to immediately begin arguing with a Housing Office bureaucrat because someone is sleeping in his assigned dorm-room bed. From there, he starts the midnight dishwashing shift at the McMurdo cafeteria, which proves to be typically mind-numbing work except that he gets to go on penguin-washing expeditions in his off hours.
Though Johnson can describe glaciers and crevasses, and does so beautifully, this isn't a book about Antarctic "nature." He writes, "I find nature creepy and disturbing." Instead, he reserves his most lyrical prose for the world of machines:
McMurdo is beautiful. A construction site exposed long enough to a rattling generator grows a building. Each growling machine drags a fumbled leash of diesel exhaust. A lineup of washing machines waits to be executed at the metal baler. In a janitor's closet a ladder leads to the attics, where a door opens into the sky. In the winter darkness, falling puffs of snow are bathed in the luminescent blue of a welding torch.
Much of the book is devoted to tales of boredom and drunkenness against that strange industrial backdrop, including more than one story about people fucking quietly in storage sheds while the business of Antarctic "exploration" goes on around them.
Johnson makes a strong case for humanism over bureaucracy, and international cooperation over a kind of frozen arms race. The petty bureaucrats that run McMurdo make good paper villains, but his real target is the National Science Foundation, which has been totally corrupted by the Raytheon Corporation. In the context of Raytheon's vaguely sinister aims, the antics of Johnson and his friends seem accidentally rebellious and subversive, whereas in a nonfrozen dorm setting, they'd just be immature. He's also particularly strong in criticizing naïve media descriptions of Antarctica, and reserves special scorn for the overhyped "rescue" of a doctor who needed breast cancer medicine, while actual workers at the base sat around with broken limbs and separated shoulders, waiting for the next airlift to New Zealand because the doctor's plane was too full of journalists.
There are hilarious and informative bits of history sprinkled throughout the book, but that sprinkling points toward Big Dead Place's major flaw: it's very unorganized. Characters flow in and out of the narrative without really distinguishing themselves. The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time for no reason. Occasionally, Johnson's asides seem overly hip and self-aware. And there's no satisfying conclusion. That said, it's worth hanging around until the end, when Johnson's roommate dresses as a character called "Boozy the Clown" for a party and proceeds to go on an alcoholic rampage. This causes other workers to take revenge, and leads to this paragraph, which could serve as the book's thesis statement:
You have come to the pristine and stark seventh continent with images of adventure involving physical endurance and rugged beauty. It is the middle of the might on a Wednesday, and you wake up to pee. You emerge from the women's room. A man in the hall runs past you with a frozen pig under his arm, pursued by a lurching, drunk clown.
For that myth-breaking image alone, Big Dead Place is one of the best books of the year.