If you haven’t yet read J.M. Ledgard’s novel “Submergence,” you should. Ledgard is wonderfully worldly, veering between microscopic jellies of the ocean to intricate knowledge of Somalian culture and the psychology of al-Qaeda jihadists. It’s hard to come up with a comparable author who demonstrates such widespread and intricate knowledge of the world. Although it’s a disservice to the book to write a summary, because it falls far short of what Ledgard accomplishes in this book, a plot summary goes like this: a deep-sea science who repeatedly plunges thousands of meters in a submersible falls in love with a secret service agent who ends up captured by Somalian terrorists. Ledgard has wonderful metaphors comparing cityscapes to “scans of a damaged brain” and says that in a moment of tension between potential lovers time is “folded tightly … wadded like origami.”
The erudition on display in this novel is incredible. Bruegel the Elder’s and Hugo Simberg’s paintings are dissected, religious habits predating Islam are discussed, and microorganisms that preceded humanity by billions of years are invoked, ostensibly to induce humility in the flash-in-the-pan uppity human species. He describes the color of magma burning in seawater. How finger length marks Islamists the way mustaches identified Nazis.
One of the things I like best about this book is the way Ledgard moves from small scale to large scale. He’s always contextualizing the story of these two people with distances — the distance of space, of time. He sets this story inside a context of geological time, evolutionary time, and historical time; he also sets the story on multiple continents, and moves freely between them, sometimes inside the same paragraph. For instance, when the oceanographer Danielle Flinders buys a cabin, she buys one high on a mountain overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and thinks “if she were immortal, she could sit on the mountain under the moon and stars — the snow globe — and not get her feet wet in a million years.” When she bikes along valley floors, she “visualized the day they would be at the bottom of a new sea.” Ledgard doesn’t miss the chance to use historical time, either. When James More, the secret service agent, visits Kismayo, we learn this:
“Kismayo is famous for its magicians and for the refreshing breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean at night. The great Muslim travelers visited the town, so did Zheng He and his Chinese fleet. The Portuguese built a fort there, which the Omanis captured. The Somalis drove out the Omanis, then yielded to the Italians.”
All of this has the effect of endowing these small careers and tiny love story with cosmic significance. This is a novel that wears its ambition on its sleeve, never missing the chance to remind us of the transience of our species, our minuscule size in the universe, and how human consciousness might be a curse.