Skating to Antarctica has confirmed for me that Jenny Diski is a writer I really love, one of those writers I’m incapable of being objective about and whom I will enjoy reading no matter what she writes. I read Stranger on a Train earlier this year and loved it and this book was great too. If I had to choose my favorite, I’d choose Stranger on a Train, although this may be for no better reason than that I prefer reading about America to Antarctica. But both books have a similar structure and accomplish similar things: they are a mix of travel and memoir, and they tease out connections between her difficult childhood and her adult character.
I described this book to a friend, and as I was describing it, I realized that it sounds exactly like the sort of book I wouldn’t like. I don’t normally go for reading about difficult childhoods. While I like certain kinds of life writing, personal essays in particular, the word “memoir” makes me think of dull, self-indulgent books that are more about exorcising personal demons than creating art. So I suppose this makes Diski’s accomplishment that much more impressive — in spite of my biases, I am ready to read about Diski’s difficult childhood in book after book.
What makes the book so good is her voice. Diski creates a persona I can happily spend time with, no matter what she is writing about. That voice is of the type I wrote about in an earlier post — brutally honest and not out to please. She is who she is and you can take her or leave her. She’s a contrarian, taking pleasure in seeing the world a little differently than everyone else, and this is an attitude I can appreciate, as long as the writer is witty and genuinely insightful, which Diski invariably is. Done badly, this kind of attitude can be incredibly annoying, but done well, it’s delightful.
Skating to Antarctica is a book about whiteness — Diski’s desire to be surrounded by nothing but shades of white, which to her means a state of nothingness and oblivion. She wants to get to the point where she has no tasks and obligations, where no one is making any demands on her, where there aren’t even any colors to look at. I know this feeling, not about whiteness in particular, but about nothingness. I feel that as long as I have things I need to do I can’t rest, and I want nothing more than days and days ahead of me with absolutely nothing going on. Never mind that achieving this state would make me miserable (although I’m not sure this is true for Diski) and never mind the more important point that this state of nothingness is really nothing but death — I want rest and this seems like the only way to get it.
Spurred on by this feeling, Diski decides she wants to visit Antarctica, the whitest, most desolate place on earth, the place where she can get closest to her dream of nothingness. Unfortunately for her, the only feasible way of visiting the continent is on a cruise ship, which means she has to share the experience with dozens of other people. But since it’s the best she can do, she sets off on the trip, determined to find as much oblivion as she possibly can.
At the same time she is planning and executing her trip, however, life threatens to intrude into her dreams of peace — her daughter has decided she wants to find what happened to Diski’s long-estranged mother. Diski has spent many years not knowing whether her mother is alive or not — and living in a state of happy ignorance. In order to explain why it is she really, truly does not care to know whether her mother is alive or not (if you’re thinking it’s impossible not to care at all, Diski has a lot to say to you before admitting you’re right), she tells the story of her childhood, of her horribly mismatched parents, her tumultuous relationships with them, her time in and out of mental institutions, and her knack at getting kicked out of schools.
So Diski moves back and forth between her dream of escape — the whiteness of Antarctica — and the unfortunate fact that the dream is impossible to reach. The choice is either to commit suicide, which while it was an option earlier in her life is not one now, or to stay enmeshed in the complications and obligations of life, however unwillingly. I admire Diski for facing this vexing, impossible situation so bravely, and for writing about it so well.