'The Mosquito Coast', by Ultan Banan. Ruminations on modern culture.
The Mosquito Coast
It was twenty or more years ago when I read The Mosquito Coast. I had always considered Theroux a pulp writer, and I was never a pulpy kind of reader, but for whatever reason, I picked it up and had a go at it. It was brilliant; all at once, a scathing critique of modern consumerist culture and way of life, an exploration of man and nature, of civility and savagery, and a look at the constructive and destructive power of sheer human will and determination. And the ending, it stuck with me for years after. I recall watching the film, too, the one with Harrison Ford as Allie Fox, but don’t recall it having the same emotional impact on me. But still, when I learned it had been serialised with Justin Theroux (I’m a big fan of The Leftovers and Maniac) as lead and producer, I was very excited. My excitement lasted for two episodes. Now, six episodes in, I’m asking myself, ‘When do we get to the jungle?’ I’m not even sure why I’m still watching.
Yes, the show has lost me. But I’m hanging on, hoping that it somehow relieves the taste of bitter disappointment that I’ve been left with. Nothing of the book remains in the travesty that is the series save for the name of the protagonist and a brief reference to a homemade ice-making machine on the first episode. I am confused and asking myself the question, Why? Why was this conceived of and billed as The Mosquito Coast and not some new show altogether? My guess is they’ve three seasons planned and are dragging it out for the sake of longevity. Except that’s exactly how it feels, like they’re dancing around the bush, killing time, throwing in daft plotlines of border runs and Mexican drug cartels simply to stretch it out for a few more seasons. To me, it’s a complete travesty of the novel.
The Lykovs, a family far from civilisation
Another story that has stayed with me for many years, is the story of the Lykov family, who were discovered living deep in the Siberian wilderness by a group of geologists in 1978. Some forty years isolated from the rest of civilisation, they were found living in a precarious state of near-starvation in a log cabin on the side of a hill far from humanity. When the geologists had established contact with the family, it turned out the Lykovs had fled religious persecution in the late days of the Tsar and the early days of the Bolsheviks, and had lived since in the Siberian wilderness without human contact for four decades. Having gained the trust of the Lykovs, the family were nevertheless reluctant to engage too closely with their new acquaintances. The father, Karp, was pretty resolutely opposed to modernism, but did allow himself to accept the gift of salt from the geologists, having described forty years without the stuff as a ‘torture’. But, over time, they availed themselves of tools and seeds from the visitors, and it was said that, when they visited the geologist’s camp, they were enraptured by the television.
Either through disease or the effects of hunger (it isn’t certain), three of the Lykov children died close together in 1981, the old man dying in 1988. A single daughter, Agafia, remains there, I believe to this day.
Whether for religious freedom or to escape the horrors of modernity, such stories always capture my imagination. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that I was so disappointed by the serialisation of Theroux’s novel. What have the NSA got to do with it, and why is there a Walter White-like hitman chasing the family around Mexico? That’s not why I’m here! I didn’t come here for this! I wanna see the Honduran jungle, white saviourism and lush critiques of the modern consumerist culture. Goddamnit. Why did you have to go all Hollywood and woke on me?
(Spoiler coming.) Just as with the Lykovs, the story doesn’t end well for the Foxes. In the penultimate scene, the father is lying on the coast, far from the jungle, a bullet in his spine and being ripped apart by vultures, a perhaps shallow allusion to the fact that, here or there, within civilisation or outside it, life will grind you down and tear you up. The close of the novel finds the Fox family once again within the bosom of the modern world, the father dead:
“Beyond the palms was a paved road, a parked jalopy, a driver. Soon we were inside, on our way back to La Ceiba and home. The world was alright, no better or worse than we had left it – though after what Father had told us, what we saw was like splendor. It was glorious even here, in this old taxicab with the radio playing.”
A solid, circular plot, if you ask me. Uncomplicated. Complete.
So, Hollywood, next time you decide to fuck with a fine novel, let’s try and do it without the cartels and the NSA, please. If we want that, we’ll go to Narcos and Homeland.
(P.S. I swear, I wrote this whole thing without connecting Paul and Justin Theroux. Paul’s his uncle!)
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‘The Mosquito Coast’, by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.