- Published: 4 May 2021
- ISBN: 9780857526816
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 608
- RRP: $32.99
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2021
Little America III, Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica
March 4, 1950
I was born to be a wanderer. I was shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave. Some birds fly until they die. I have made a promise to myself: My last descent won’t be the tumbling helpless kind but a sharp gannet plunge—a dive with intent, aimed at something deep in the sea.
I’m about to depart. I will try to pull the circle up from below, bringing the end to meet the beginning. I wish the line were a smooth meridian, a perfect, taut hoop, but our course was distorted by necessity: the indifferent distribution of islands and airfields, the plane’s need for fuel.
I don’t regret anything, but I will if I let myself. I can think only about the plane, the wind, and the shore, so far away, where land begins again. The weather is improving. We’ve fixed the leak as best we can. I will go soon. I hate the never-ending day. The sun circles me like a vulture. I want a respite of stars.
Circles are wondrous because they are endless. Anything endless is wondrous. But endlessness is torture, too. I knew the horizon could never be caught but still chased it. What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it.
It isn’t how I thought it would be, now that the circle is almost closed, the beginning and end held apart by one last fearsome piece of water.
Final entry from The Sea, the Sky, the Birds Between: The Lost Logbook of Marian Graves. Published by D. Wenceslas & Sons, New York, 1959.
I thought I would believe I’d seen the world, but there is too much of the world and too little of life. I thought I would believe I’d completed something, but now I doubt anything can be completed. I thought I would not be afraid. I thought I would become more than I am, but instead I know I am less than I thought.
No one should ever read this. My life is my one possession.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
I only knew about Marian Graves because one of my uncle’s girlfriends liked to dump me at the library when I was a kid, and one time I picked up a random book called something like Brave Ladies of the Sky. My parents had gone up in a plane and never come back, and it turned out a decent percentage of the brave ladies had met the same fate. That got my attention. I think I might have been looking for someone to tell me a plane crash wasn’t such a bad way to go—though if anyone actually ever had, I would have thought they were full of shit. Marian’s chapter said she’d been raised by her uncle, and when I read that, I got goose bumps because I was being raised (kind of ) by my uncle.
A nice librarian dug up Marian’s book for me—The Sea, the Sky, etc.—and I pored over it like an astrologist consulting a star chart, hopeful that Marian’s life would somehow explain my own, tell me what to do and how to be. Most of what she wrote went over my head, though I did come away with a vague aspiration to turn my loneliness into adventure. On the first page of my diary, I wrote “I WAS BORN TO BE A WANDERER” in big block letters. Then I didn’t write anything else because how do you follow that up when you’re ten years old and spend all your time either at your uncle’s house in Van Nuys or auditioning for television commercials? After I returned the book, I pretty much forgot about Marian. Almost all of the brave ladies of the sky are forgotten, really. There was the occasional spooky TV special about Marian in the ’80s, and a handful of die-hard Marian enthusiasts are still out there spinning theories on the internet, but she didn’t stick the way Amelia Earhart did. People at least think they know about Amelia Earhart, even though they don’t. It’s not really possible.
The fact that I got ditched at the library so often turned out to be a good thing because while other kids were at school, I was sitting in a succession of folding chairs in a succession of hallways at every casting call in the greater Los Angeles area for little white girls (or little race unspecified girls, which also means white), chaperoned by a succession of nannies and girlfriends of my uncle Mitch, two categories that sometimes overlapped. I think the girlfriends sometimes offered to take care of me because they wanted him to see them as maternal, which they thought would make them seem like wife material, but that wasn’t actually a great strategy for keeping the flame alive with ol’ Mitch.
When I was two, my parents’ Cessna crashed into Lake Superior. Or that’s the assumption. No trace was ever found. My dad, Mitch’s brother, was flying, and they were on their way to a romantic getaway at some friend’s middle-of-nowhere backwoods cabin to, as Mitch put it, reconnect. Even when I was little, he told me that my mother wouldn’t quit fucking around. His words. I’m not sure Mitch believed in childhood. “But they wouldn’t quit each other, either,” he’d say. Mitch definitely
believed in taglines. He’d started out directing cheesy TV movies with titles like Love Takes a Toll (that was about a toll collector) and Murder for Valentine’s Day (take a wild guess).
My parents had left me with a neighbor in Chicago, but their last will and testament left me to Mitch. There wasn’t really anyone else. No other aunts or uncles, and my grandparents were a combination of dead, estranged, absent, and untrustworthy. Mitch wasn’t a bad guy, but his instincts were of the opportunistic, Hollywoodian variety, so after he’d had me a few months, he called in a favor to get me cast in an applesauce commercial. Then he found my agent, Siobhan, and I got consistent enough
work in commercials and guest spots and TV movies (I played the daughter in Murder for Valentine’s Day) that I can’t remember a time I wasn’t acting or trying to. It seemed like normal life: putting a plastic pony in a plastic stable over and over while cameras rolled and some grown-up stranger told you how to smile.
When I was eleven, after Mitch had stepping-stoned from movies of the week to music videos and was white-knuckle climbing into the indie film world, I got my proverbial big break: the role of Katie McGee in a time-travel cable sitcom for kids called The Big-Time Life of Katie McGee.
On set, my life was squeaky-clean and candy-colored, all puns and tidy plotlines and three-walled rooms under a hot sky of klieg lights. I hammed it up to a braying laugh track while wearing outfits so extravagantly trendy I looked like a manifestation of the tween zeitgeist. When I wasn’t working, I did pretty much whatever I wanted, thanks to Mitch’s negligence. In her book, Marian Graves wrote: As a child, my brother and I were largely left to our own devices. I believed—and no one told me otherwise for some years—that I was free to do as I liked, that I had the right to go any place I could find my way to. I was probably more of an impetuous little brat than Marian, but I felt the same way. The world was my oyster, and freedom was my mignonette. Life gives you lemons, you carve off their skins and garnish your martinis.
When I was thirteen, after the Katie McGee merch had started selling like crazy and after Mitch had directed Tourniquet and was rolling around in success like a pill-popping pig in shit, he moved us to Beverly Hills on our shared dime. Once I wasn’t stuck out in the Valley anymore, the kid who played Katie McGee’s big brother introduced me to his rich dirtbag high-schooler friends, and they drove me around and took me to parties and got in my pants. Mitch probably didn’t notice how much I was gone because he was usually out, too. Sometimes we’d bump into each other coming home at two or three in the morning, both messed up, and we’d just exchange nods like two people passing in a hotel corridor, attendees at the same rowdy conference.
But here’s a good thing: The on-set tutors for Katie McGee were decent, and they told me I should go to college, and since I liked the sound of that, I weaseled my way into NYU after the show ended, with substantial extra credit for being a B-list TV star. I was already packed and ready to move when Mitch overdosed, and if I hadn’t been, I probably would have just stayed in L.A. and partied myself to death, too.
Here’s something that might have been good or bad: After one semester, I got cast in the first Archangel movie. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if, instead, I’d finished college and stopped acting and been forgotten about, but it’s not like I possibly could have turned down the colossal amount of money that came with playing Katerina. So everything else is irrelevant.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath.
As Marie prepared to break into her father’s bedroom, she felt a little pool of guilt well up inside her for betraying him.
The members of the National Security Council and their advisors all rose as President Bedford Travers entered the White House Situation Room located beneath the Oval Office.
I am searching your face for remnants of the young man, the one who wrote of the cries of the holy Lammergeier as it feeds on the bones of the dead.