Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Star Rover by Jack London

No bars can hold him
Darrell Standing is an inmate in San Quentin Prison. A former professor of agronomics at the University of California, he was convicted of a murder he admittedly did commit. Once incarcerated, he is wrongly accused of a conspiracy to escape, and unjustly sentenced to solitary confinement. He spends five long years in solitary, during which he endures frequent beatings and long periods bound in a straitjacket. The near suffocating constriction of the jacket has an unexpected side effect. Over time, Standing develops the ability to separate his consciousness from his imprisoned body, enabling him to travel through time and space to experience past lives. Among the many personalities he inhabits while in the jacket are Count Guillaume de Saint-Maure, a swordsman of medieval France; Jesse Fancher, a nine-year-old member of a wagon train crossing Utah in 1857; a nameless 4th-century hermit in Egypt; Adam Strang, a 16th century Englishman, supposedly the first white man to set foot in Korea; Ragnar Lodbrog, a Norse-born Roman centurion in the service of Pontius Pilate; Daniel Foss, a seal hunter shipwrecked on an Antarctic isle in the early 19th century; and a series of prehistoric tribesmen representative of various ages of mankind’s distant past. In his death row cell, Standing compiles a manuscript detailing the biographies of these past lives, as well as the harsh conditions he endures at San Quentin.

The Star Rover, also known as The Jacket, was published in 1915. Though considered a novel, the book really reads more like a collection of short stories loosely tied together by the prison narrative. Like most of Jack London’s work in the genre of science fiction, it is audaciously imaginative and years ahead of its time, yet it may have been conceived simply as an opportunity for London to try his hand at historical fiction. While the Kiplingesque tale in Korea and the wilderness survival tale of the shipwrecked sailor seem right at home within his body of work, the swashbuckling French story seems more fitting to Alexandre Dumas, while the tale of the Roman soldier is reminiscent of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. London seems to relish the opportunity to cast his net so far afield, but he achieves mixed results. There is little cohesion between the various lives or with the prison story that frames them. In the penultimate chapter, London tries to tie everything together with a sweeping panorama of the history of mankind, interwoven with his philosophy of the meaning of life. While the conclusions he reaches in this chapter are arguable, the power and mastery of his writing is undeniable. It’s as grandiose and hyperbolic as anything he’s ever written, straddling the line between genius and mania.

Fans of London will enjoy this book because it’s like a Frankenstein’s monster of all of his pet interests: agricultural science, prison reform, evolution, seal hunting, prehistoric man, the supernatural, sailing, Korea, manifest destiny, and so on. It’s like a patchwork quilt of clippings from his entire career. I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone who’s new to London, because to the uninitiated reader it might all just seem like a big incoherent mess. Like many of London’s works, there’s also an unfortunate undercurrent of racism. Standing only seems to be able to channel Aryan males, and many of the stories share the theme of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed race conquering the globe. Thankfully it’s more subtle and less offensive than some of London’s more overt statements on race. For most of the book, London speaks of humanity in universal terms, and The Star Rover reads like a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. At times it can be quite inspirational, at times depressingly brutal, and at other times just plain bizarre.

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