The Face of the Deep

AUGUST 6th, 1998

by Judith Moore

Author: Thomas Farber was born in 1944 in Boston and grew up there. Farber's father, Sidney Farber, a Harvard University Medical School professor, did pioneering work in chemotherapy for cancer. He built in Boston the first hospital in the world for the care of children with cancer (Children's Cancer Research Foundation, now the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.) Farber's mother, Norma Farber, trained to be an opera singer. She won Belgium's Premier Prix in singing in 1936. "My parents," said Farber," were married forever. We were born relatively late in their lives. There were four of us, I'm the third. My mother had been writing poems since childhood. When she turned 50, her first collection of poems was published. " At the time of her death in 1984, Mrs. Farber had written six books of poems, a novel for adults, and 18 books of stories and verse for children. Her children's book, As I Was Crossing Boston Common, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1975.

Farber graduated from Harvard University. "I first came out to California in the summer of 1964," he said. " And with great ambivalence I've ended up for many years staying in California and making my home in Northern California, in particular, Berkeley, and also for a while, Bodega. By 1970, I had discovered Hawai'i, but always kept my place in Berkeley."

Farber's books include Learning To Love It: Seven Stories and A Novella, Hazards to the Human Heart, Tales for the Son of My Unborn Child: Berkeley, 1966-1969, The Price of the Ride, Who Wrote the Book of Love, Compared to What? On Writing and the Writing Life, Curves of Pursuit, and On Water. Awarded Guggnheim. National Endowment, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships for fiction and creative nonfiction, Farber has also been a Fulbright Scholar and a recipient of the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.

The Face of the Deep; Mercury House, 1998; 192 pages; $14.95

Type: Essay Collection. Farber, a passionate surfer, praises water and surfing and snorkeling; examines and explicates Pacific Rim literatures; considers the difficulties and pleasures of writing about water; meditates on death and dying.
Places:Boston, Cocos Islands, California, Diji, Hawaii, Rotuma, Samoa, Tonga
Time: 20th Century

On the day we talked Farber was in Hawaii where he'd gone to surf. From his window he could see the Pacific. I asked how he happened to get interested in in surfing.

"When you see a surfer further out, or at a point break, just carving a line on a long board, the forms are so beautiful it just makes one want to go do it. I still spend a lot of the day, when I'm in Hawai'i, watching. Looking out. The beauty of it! Yet another wave coming in! Where do they come from? They come from so far away."

I asked Farber to describe his new book. "This is my second book about water and the Pacific. (The first was On Water). It's a book that's set in the Pacific. The setting is the ocean. But for me, really, much of it is a book about storytelling-- and the place that I happen to tell stories about is the Pacific and the water."

I said that for all the joyous scenes of riding waves and snorkeling on ocean depths, several of his essays also seemed to be asking questions about death. Did these questions perhaps arise because Farber was getting older?

"Not just because I'm getting older. Partially. because the world is getting older. The changes in the world and the ocean are frightening. And also partly because water is complex and travel is complex. Both travel and water can elicit in one a sort of awe and terror about elements more powerful than oneself. I think that's always an aspect of the ocean. And because so many of these essays began in travel, of course, one aspect of travel always is that of saying goodbye; every small goodbye is a rehearsal for a larger goodbye. I think one becomes more deeply aware of that as one ages. I think it's part of the reason we travel, that it is kind of a dress rehearsal, both for good-byes and for homecomings."

Farber writes in the The Face of the Deep about his returns home from trips and his friend's expectations that he wll tell then stories from his travels. "I have trouble with that, because often when I'm just back home, I can't figure out what the narrative was. Friends will not be unreasonable to say, 'How was your trip?' But sometimes it's hard to articulate or to be true to what happened and not to make a formula.

"I'm not a young writer. I know a lot about storytelling and the tricks we play and the magic we play. Black magic and white magic. I can't pretend not to know those things I've learned about storytelling, as a writer and as a reader. As one gets to this point in his career, one wants to make the story do justice in the complexity of what one's encountered."

In one of the essays in Farber's new book, he tells that in a plane trip from San Francisco to Honolulu, he grew restless and walked to the rear of the aircraft. There, he met a man in his early thirties, who, when asked what kind of of work he did, answered, "Narcotics agent." The fellow went on to tell mad, wild, unreliable-seeming stories. I asked Farber if he thought the man was truly a government agent.

"I don't know. He may have been just out of his mind completely. But I didn't embellish my story of his story. I think that travel often undoes people. And it undoes them on airplanes very quickly. I include myself in that. I am one of the loose marbles that rolls back to the airplane by hour two. I've heard some extraordinary storytelling on airplanes. And this fellow was only a slightly heightened case, I think, of the disappearance of ties and connections which make people suddenly create a narrative. Whether the narrative is true or not, in his case, I don't know. He certainly was pretty far into the game. But, as you know from reading the book, I also make my argument that this is a very American phenomenon. I connect all of this to Melville, to the confidence man. I think these are familiar types in our odd culture."