Review: ‘Compass’ by Murray Lee


Compass brings about the collision of the South and the North, the spirit and the body, the idea of survival and its spartan reality. In the Arctic, an anonymous writer, dubbed ‘Guy’ by his local Inuit guide, sets out to glimpse The Edge for himself. Where the ocean seeps into the sky, he hopes to blur the gap inside him. But what he ends up enduring there leaves him permanently inverted.

Despite the severity of the world Guy slips into, the novel itself is truly, shockingly funny. This ambush firmly dislodges expectation from reality, enhancing the ambiguity of the events to come. Suffice to say, his comical outlook on life — forever chasing its prime — is filled with enough zingers to startle a squeal out of the most somber reader.

The friction between the protagonist and the tedium of life in the Arctic gives way to a memorable account of insomnia. The state he’s in is as relentless as it is disorienting, and leaves him floundering through several insanity-driven impulses.

The protagonist’s focus on the suspension of time produces a tale that is as amusing as it is tinged with despair, foreshadowing a fierce overlap of sensation. And there’s a certain ingenuity in Lee’s treatment of time. Handled differently across cultures, it’s nevertheless an abstract notion that we have all sought to subdue with logic.

By wrapping the narrative around the Inuit community’s unique interaction with time, the author allows an unfamiliar land to appear accessible. What’s more, the cultural clashes rocking Guy’s frame stir the muteness of the land, turning his imprint into a neverending source of drollery. 

The story’s absurdity reaches its climax shortly before the long-awaited departure for the floe edge. And yet, the trip’s swift unraveling soon catches up to the Kafkaesque levels of surrealism that precede it. That’s because giving up on the convention of time loosens up the narrative, allowing illusion and fabrication to pitch an entirely separate reality. 

We experience a blend of the surreal and the acutely physical. While putting the body through its paces, the protagonist is propelled towards heated, two-way arguments with creatures native to the land. And yet, the mysticism of these interactions is never addressed outright. 

Instead, his psyche — the fabric of which is under constant strain — takes it in as something inherent to the Arctic, both feral and wildly misjudged. His step toward madness is, in many ways, masked by the very fluidity of movement demanded of him.

The smoothness of this transition leads us to a very unsettling realization. Namely, that cause and effect are not all that distinguishable away from the sterile plane of civilization.

The protagonist is so imperfect that, to many, he may appear as an anti-hero. And yet, having admitted to appropriating his colleagues’ work with the aim of advancing his own career, he betrays a note of compelling self-awareness. The prospect of death is consequently treated as an end resisted by biological instincts, not the smothering of a bombastic mind. 

His life is no more meaningful than that of the next person, the resonance of his name is faint enough to prove inconsequential. He’s everyone, and he’s no one. This is why his story holds so much appeal, and why the reader ends up ensnared. 

To discover the end of his journey is to have glimpsed the potential outcome of one’s own actions in similar circumstances. The fact that this process of self-discovery is compressed between layers of witty, delightful prose is an added reward; one that speaks to Lee’s innate talent.

The story is told retrospectively, fostering a foreboding sense of things to come. And in this deeply immersive world, where language serves as a metaphysical portal, emotion prevails over action. That is to say, on the face of it, not much happens following the story’s pivotal — albeit quiet — tragedy. Guy’s memory of it evolves into a black hole, into which his senses are tossed. Always with a certain levity, however.

Instead of sensationalist events, we’re mesmerized by the point of hysteria that can be reached —  and sustained — during a moment of stillness. Lee captures the static din of distress exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that it feels like a pinprick drawn along the edge of consciousness.

As such, it mirrors Guy’s physical entrapment in the open spaces of the Arctic. This produces a sense of disorientation, leaving the sky at our feet and the sun dragged from spot to spot by ocean currents. Again, time is wrung and dissected. The body is made into a clock, turning the environment into a commodity that proves scornful of reason. And so, Guy’s sleeplessness creates an “undiluted intensity” that expresses elements of the subconscious. 

Compass’ world is an unruly one, fixed in a place of constant reactivation. The protagonist, overwhelmed by how impotent he is in the face of it, morphs into a modern-day Robinson Crusoe. But where myth and truth merge, a mystery is born; one that leaves him estranged from the human world pulling him back.

Overall, Lee’s novel is a debut of startling prowess. Fiercely-written prose pinches the folds of the narrative to form a tale of survival; one that drifts along with the current of its underlying mysticism. Above all, the ambiguity of both deed and thought is allowed to outlive the last page, paying heed to the ferocity of the unknown.

Publication date: September 27, 2022 (Publerati)

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