The Expeditions, Karl Iagnemma, Dial Press
The trouble with the family saga—or its great strength, depending on your point of view—is that one never really knows whose story it is. This problem is a double one, of ownership as well as perspective. How fitting, then, that Karl Iagnemma’s debut novel, The Expeditions, should be just such a doubled story of a prodigal son and the father who quests after him instead of waiting as such fathers usually do for the son’s return and that the story should be set in the American West of the early nineteenth century, when questions of ownership were never far from the minds of anyone engaged in the struggle to subdue the West and, of course, make it profitable.
As the novel opens, sixteen-year-old Elisha Stone, aspiring scientist and son of a preacher, has run away from home to join an exploratory expedition from Sault St. Marie. Nominally in search of a new species to discover, Elisha is actually just a young man in search of a mentor, a calling, and ultimately, himself. His father, a minister struggling to sustain his faith after the loss of his beloved wife, journeys after Elisha in search of a version of himself that he can reconcile with his wavering religious faith. “The life of sin,” Reverend Stone realizes, in a moment of clarity about his own failings, “was like a solo sail into an endless ocean, rootless and undirected,” (196) an observation with which Elisha would surely agree, except that for him the “solo sail” is a source of excitement, an opportunity for discovery. The towns through which Reverend Stone passes are hotbeds of religious oddity, packed with seers and mystics who rap tables and claim to speak with the dead, while the wilderness in which Elisha seeks his fortune seethes with strange flora and fascinating fauna—not to mention Native Americans, whose customs and language are a special point of interest for both father and son.
For the most part Iagnemma deftly handles the difficult history of the colonization of North America, in particular the violence and greed that fueled it. At the same time, the story is a classic father-son struggle that, being old as Oedipus, doesn’t really require the myths and history of the American West for its narrative power. Nonetheless, by linking the two strands, Iagnemma enlarges the old father-son theme, seeing it as a crisis of authority that is similar to those that comprise more familiar heart-mind dilemmas, as when the ordinary progress of normal science intersects with vicissitudes of popular religious belief. (Think of Galileo and the Church, or the fortunes of evolution in Kansas public school curricula.) Iagnemma, a mechanical engineer by training and a research scientist at MIT, is on familiar ground here; his 2003 short story collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, explored similar ideas.
Despite his sympathy for scientific idealism, he is not blind to the corruption to which science, like any endeavor, is vulnerable, in virtue of being a human project and not something else. In the end, Iagnemma wisely refuses to take a side in this old debate. Instead, he transcends the argument, giving up on both science and religion as sources of authority. While Iagnemma’s resolution to this dilemma is not new, his embrace of the independent authority of art, of responsible workmanship married to aesthetics, is satisfyingly well done. Staging a photograph on a city street after the titular expeditions have ended, Elisha reflects that “There would be a moment […] when the sun’s low glare would set the scene alight, and the soot and mud and grime would vanish into a shimmering golden light, unlike anything else in nature, unlike anything except itself.”
Diane Greco is a novelist whose work has appeared, most recently, in Fence and the Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Providence, RI.