Hernan Diaz, In the Distance
Publisher: Coffee House Press
2017, 272, paperback, $17
HERNAN DIAZ’S DEBUT novel, In the Distance, is a treatise on isolation and detachment. The novel’s protagonist, Swedish immigrant Håkan Söderström, arrives in California in the 19th-century—young, alone, and lacking even a fundamental understanding of the English language. His primary goal: reuniting with his older brother who, he believes, has landed somewhere in New York. In the Distance follows Håkan through deserts, plains, canyons, prairies, and mountains as he endures a heartbreaking odyssey of survival, lost love, greed, and violence that challenges and, occasionally, reinforces our conception of the Old West and Westward Expansion. At its core, In the Distance speaks to the isolation felt by many who, through immigration, are forced to confront the vast and foreign landscape of the United States.
The novel begins late within the chronology of its own narrative: the Alaskan frontier, a white void, and an horizonless expanse. Håkan, at the tail-end of his life, is sitting on the deck of an ice-locked schooner, stoking a meager fire and telling his story to a gathered group of sailors. The narrative of Håkan’s life that we receive in the following pages starts from a limited vantage point, a good distance away from Håkan’s interior life. We’re given limited access to Håkan’s emotional landscape at first, mired instead in language of action and Håkan’s physical positioning in the world around him, but as the novel progresses and Håkan heads east, we sink deeper into a mind constantly challenged by his inability to communicate with the English-speaking people around him. It’s perhaps fitting that Håkan only truly finds himself while alone in a mountainous expanse devoid of any sign of man:
“Although he had ridden through unmarked plains in the past, this time there was something new. He was the new thing in that landscape. It was the first time those fields were in someone’s consciousness.”
Throughout his journey east to find New York, Håkan encounters prospectors in search of gold, bandits and crooks, a naturalist in search of the origin of man, a tribe of indigenous people mutilated by the true foreigners in this land, a caravan of immigrants in search of their own piece of America, and an immense, nearly impenetrable solitude. At every turn, Diaz works to establish then reestablish, refract, and retell stories of a country in search of itself.
Perhaps most striking is Diaz’s mastery of language, which flourishes both outside and inside of Håkan. Landscapes of the Old West are captured in lavish detail and beautiful imagery, while Håkan’s body, actions, and mental processes are relayed with acute precision and evocative metaphor:
“Moving through the throbbing desert was like sinking into the state of trance immediately preceding
sleep, where consciousness summons up all its remaining strength only to register the moment of its own dissolution.”
All of the wild expanse contained within In the Distance is sieved through a truly foreign consciousness that allows readers with even limited historical knowledge to see around Håkan in a way that is somehow both harrowing and pleasurable. In one section, he sees soldiers dressed in blue and grey uniforms, though he has no knowledge of the Civil War, no name to place upon their conflict. In another section, after traveling through a desert, reaching a mountainous region, and leaving only to find himself in another desert, he briefly wonders if he’s traveled around the world, failing to understand the true immensity of the country that he’s in. While chasing an ever-changing horizon, Håkan burrows deeper into himself, finding comfort in solitude and the machinery of monotony. Diaz steeps readers in Håkan’s isolation—to an almost suffocating degree—and what emerges on the other side is a tale fit to stand amongst greats like McCarthy, a tale of insulation and unrivaled expanse.
Hernan Diaz is the author of Borges, between History and Eternity (Bloomsbury, 2012), managing editor of RHM, and associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University.