Monday, August 18, 2014

Reviewing William Langewiesche's "The Outlaw Sea"

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime by William Langewiesche was a perfectly decent nonfiction book, often riveting and mostly well-written, but marred by two and a half flaws.

I picked up the audiobook version from my library without really knowing (or being able to discern from the blurb on the back cover) what it was about. All I knew was it was vaguely nautical and catalogued as nonfiction. It turned out to be about four main stories to do with modern seafaring—I say “about four” because sometimes the storytelling was fluid enough to merge one story into another, and other times the “storytelling” stopped while the author went on a tangent about the politics of international shipping companies and policies—and these stories varied from a shipwreck due to the boat being too old, to a case of modern piracy, to the accidental sinking of a ship in the Baltic, to an investigation into “ship-breaking yards” where old ships go to be literally broken up and junked. 

I said this audiobook had two and a half flaws. Put those to the side for a moment while I say what this book did right

First, while it’s a nonfiction book, it reads like fiction, which is to say it isn’t boring, dry, dense or textbook-ish at all. Yet just because the prose flows doesn’t mean it isn’t backed up by research: Langewiesche usually refers to the source of his information, whether it be reports, newspapers, or eyewitnesses he or someone else interviewed.  Second, some of the accounts, especially of the shipwrecks, are very well written and bring to life the adrenaline-paced action and the true horror of a boatload of people trying to cling to life in the middle of unimaginable disaster.* 

Now that I’ve established that the book isn’t completely flawed, let’s look at the flaws that could have been avoided to make it a truly excellent read.

Picking up from where I left off last week, the main problem with The Outlaw Sea is a lack of clear direction. My guess, after reading it through and then mulling over “What was Langewiesche’s point, anyway?” for about two weeks, my conclusion is that his thesis was:

“Seafaring is as unregulated and dangerous as the sea itself, and governments who think they can bring order to it by making laws and treaties are only fooling themselves.”

Even this guess is only that: a guess. Those long tangents on politics and international regulations I mentioned above gave me the impression that Langewiesche disapproves of the measures most countries—particularly the United States—have taken. Yet for all his disapproval he doesn’t really offer any alternative solutions, and so comes off as a pessimist who just likes to complain about things. 

Which brings me to my second and a half flaw, and that’s to do with Langewiesche’s performance.  This was an audiobook “performed” by the author, meaning Langewiesche himself read it, and unfortunately the book itself suffered from that performance. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a book read aloud in such a monotone. In fact, the only inflection he seemed capable of projecting was that of sarcasm, which is how I know he disapproves of pretty much everything he talks about in the book and thinks most of the people involved are crooked, misguided, or inept. The shipwreck scenes may even have benefited from his monotone, unemotional and impassive method of reading, but otherwise it was grating. It was as if by the time it came to record this audiobook he was so frustrated by the people he was writing about, how they were unable to control the situations that led to piracy, ship malfunctions, death and even the dangerous disposal of toxic vessels, that he was sick of the whole thing.

I'm giving this flaw another “half” because his bored, sarcastic tone was especially inappropriate when he mentioned “God” in any context, which he always inflected “gawwwd” as if anyone who may believe in God, either the reader or the people who were praying for deliverance from pirates or drowning in the story, were the most contemptible ignoramuses on the face of the earth. During one of the scenes he actually writes something about “there was no God there to save them,”** and the way he reads it leaves no doubt that Langewiesche means it derisively. Besides being completely unconnected to the story, such a sarcastic aside actually derails some of the momentum of that scene’s pacing. In short, it’s bad taste AND bad writing, a double whammy a nonfiction writer should know better than to commit. If Langewiesche doesn’t believe in God that’s his business; it doesn’t give him the right to condescend or sneer at those who do.  

*The only problem Stylistically is that there was one sentence during a pirate attack scene where he writes “It was a bad moment.” Oh really? A bad moment? During a pirate attack where the pirates say they’re going to kill them? You don’t say! See, you're not the only one who can be sarcastic.

**Sorry about the paraphrase here; that’s the hazard of reading via audiobook is that it’s hard to page through and quote word-for-word.

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