"World Elsewhere," by Peter Brooks. Simon & Schuster. 224 pages. $23.
By the third time or so that Prince Charles of Nassau-Seigen, the protagonist of Peter Brooks' novel, "World Elsewhere," makes his way through the lush Tahitian vegetation to the spring where, dropping his pareu loincloth, he makes bowdlerized and euphemistic yet wholly passionate and Arcadian love with Ite, his beautiful, unashamed and golden-bodied island girlfriend, one starts to feel that familiar throat-clutching panic of being trapped with someone who will not stop talking about their recent Club Med fling. Bittersweet tales of summer romance are fine in pop songs, but wear thin pretty quickly in conversation.
"World Elsewhere" is a fictionalized account of the actual French voyage to the South Pacific, circa 1766, of Nassau-Seigen aboard the frigate Boudeuse. The novel is based in reality, and there is some clearly impressive research on Brooks' part (the note on sources acknowledges the author's debt to several 18th century first-person accounts, most notably Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's "Voyage autour du monde," first published in 1771. Indeed, Bougainville is the captain of the ship in the book) but not much seems to happen.
Or rather, what does happen feels as scant and glossed over as Charles and Ite's repeated and frustratingly prim couplings. A treacherous circumnavigation of South America's Strait of Magellan; an accidentally lethal encounter with the weather-beaten indigenous peoples of those shores; the ship's arrival in gorgeous Tahiti, with its far more attractive natives, nicer weather, better food and less clothing all feel strangely enervated and uncompelling.
Even a potentially dangerous mission into the island's interior to find the Tahitians who have fled in the aftermath of the bayoneting of some locals -- the narrative's turning point and Nassau-Seigen's chance to prove himself -- is resolved almost the instant the ambassadorial party arrives, with a joyous roar from the crowd: "It was as if they could not stand not being loving for very long. Then at the outer edge of the boisterous crowd I saw a familiar graceful shape. People fell back to let her pass. Ite moved gently into my embrace."
To give Brooks his due, it's not all gardenias and breadfruit. He has also endowed his French characters with differing viewpoints on the philosophies of their day, and they debate Rousseau, the State of Nature, the dissipation of supposedly "civilized" French society, and the insidious inevitabilities of discovery and imperialism, in a sprightly manner.
But even this does not prove to be enough to have them emerge as distinct or believable people. Indeed, they remain as flat and inscrutable as the Tahitians.
Peter Brooks is clearly erudite as the day is long, and he loves his subject; it's apparent on every page. It is also apparent that he thinks that such a tale set in a paradise on the very threshold of its being lost would make a marvelous movie, and he's right -- the book is imbued with a sense of how visually stunning Tahiti must certainly be.
But erudition and stunning visuals, and even plot, need something more. They need characters we can care about. Otherwise, it's like flipping through someone else's vacation snapshots of people we don't know.
David Rakoff's writing has appeared in Outside magazine, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, Salon, on Public Radio International's "This American Life," and in Slate magazine's Daily News Quiz, among others.
Pub Date: 02/28/99