Of an (Afraid-of-Disappearing) American Learning to Swim: On Reading Emily Kiernan’s Great Divide


Water often symbolizes freedom from the structures that bind us; it floods, blurs, sweeps, and/or removes us from the gridded patterns and routines (the everyday) of place, language, tradition, relationships, bureaucracies, hierarchies, and our taken-for-granted constructions of realities in which we put much or all of our faith. The ocean, in particular, symbolizes vagueness and uncertainty, lacking the signposts, roads, organization, and direction of civilized land. While the ocean is often feared and avoided for its vagueness and lack of concrete understanding in more contemporary and postmodern literature, it has traditionally served as a place of refuge for those soiled or repelled by the controls of organization and so-called promises of society, as we are reminded in the opening passages of Moby Dick (Guzlowski 2004). Yet in Moby Dick, the character most telling of the ocean’s metaphor is not Ishmael or Ahab, but the lesser-mentioned Pip, who upon falling into the ocean experiences the pathless unchartedness of an oceanic black hole oversoul. Even upon his return aboard the Pequod, he remains ghost, purely spiritual and ostensibly bodiless, a Deleuze-Guattarian body without organs gone off the deep end, incapable of communication and no longer plagued by judgments, tastes, opinions—his own or those of others—or any other defining rhetoric. To the phenomenologist, Pip’s plunge represents bracketing taken too far. Pip, now deemed idiot by the other passengers, has gone completely mad.

Yet in Emily Kiernan’s Great Divide, we find Jane, a mentally and socially unraveling becoming-Pip who chooses not to passively or accidentally let an oceanic flood consume her but to abandon the road she has been traveling and her material possessions (car, phone, shoes, food) as well as much of her haunting past and desperation-littered future to consciously dive into the flood that has been following and surrounding her. And we are not led one way or the other to believe she has or will go completely mad. She just swims. And that’s ostensibly the sole remaining remembrance of her past: Jane’s mother teaching her to swim, her mother with arms underneath Jane’s body, her mother teaching her how to move her body through water. This is what Americans need: the belief in how to move one’s body through water where society’s frames become dissolved, disappeared, recreated, and recalled.

This is the twenty-first century; the ocean now chooses all of us. Our labels of who we are and are supposed to become are not always clear. There no longer is the relatively simplistic coming of age of adolescents becoming adults—that adolescent dip into oceanic vagueness and confusion to emerge out of high school or college as a well-defined adult with one structured path—but a constant process of reinventing oneself onto death. The icecaps have been melting, the tides rising, and our preconceived notions and sedimented traditions are increasingly in flux, always in threat of being transformed, submerged, or washed away completely. Blame globalization’s incessant physical and virtual saturation throughout the world, Moore’s law, the destruction of functioning communities brought on by Broadacre City suburbs and an infrastructure almost solely built around automobiles, or any of the other factors instrumental in complicating—for better or for worse—our collective and individual identities. Americans desperately struggle, perhaps more than ever, to create and/or cling to secure identities we subconsciously imagine will prevail even beyond our own mortalities. We mustn’t be a nobody in life, for that’s what we become in death.

Yet, from the onset of the novel, Jane is a nobody and remains so. She lacks community outside of her penniless and sexually-abusive father from whom she is finally trying to escape. But it’s all she’s known. It’s all she is. Her mother, who picked up and left years ago with Jane’s sister, has little connection to Jane. In more recent times, Jane reconnects with her sister now living on the East Coast and through her, falls into a relationship with a boy who serves as the other end of a great divide: Jane on the West Coast, the boy on the East. And this is the novel’s premise: two individuals, each on one side of the country and planning to meet the other in the middle, in Kansas. But this is not the Great Divide. The Great Divide is the precarious balance of an existentially phenomenological self between a concrete reality and the flooding of oceanic vagueness, of possible realities outside that concrete reality and the only identity she’s known. Jane is a selkie—the half seal/half woman she learned about from fables as a child—a littoral creature torn between sea and land. Jane, in her struggles to balance this split, finds herself overwhelmed by both her current static milieu and the threat and attraction of the sea. But it’s the flood of the sea that finally takes over. She loses the safety and necessity of definable identity, history, and communication found in the structure and organization of striated land. Within this process, she swims. She moves her body through water.

While it may seem Jane is doomed, destined to drown in the flood, we can’t make that assumption; the author leaves that conclusion open. What’s important here is that she takes that stroke into the water and as far as the reader knows doesn’t drown, buoy helplessly in place, or find herself completely swept within a current. “Untrue, maybe, but deep enough to swim” provides her paradoxical axiom (Kiernan 25). All things being untrue—just mere interpretations, reactions, and habits, all open to dissolution through an oceanic flooding— if we can put just a little stock into some of these untruths, we can stay afloat. Some meaning can be made. We can carry on. We can swim. And there is not enough evidence to suggest Jane has abandoned all untruths; her mother taught her to swim, and she remembers this until the end of the novel, where she still dreams of a shore, even if a new shore. This is potentially, if only potentially, enough to kick and stroke (to swim) and not to kick and stroke (to die).

Jane’s situation is an uncertain one, but it is an improvement from the existential death she faced in her previous situation. As Becker (2011) would say,

The question of personality growth and change, if it is deep-going and authentic, is usually whether one will end in madness or suicide or whether one will, somehow, be able to marshal the strength to take the first few new steps in a strange world (46).

Jane’s swimming is necessary. Moreover, if we are to grow authentically within a world of untruths and constant nuance, we must bravely swim it alone, and must keep swimming like Jane: clenching to a few past untruths that remain; dreaming of and listening for new, strange shores; and awaiting other untruths into which we’ll pour our faith. For this growth is especially individualized and a risk in a consumerist culture where superficiality reigns supreme. There are few genuine collective identities (shores) to which to latch or to look for sincere communication and public meliorism. Those that might seem benevolent or worthy enough often succumb to Becker’s death-anxiety-induced violence and Badiou’s evils: put simply, forcing and defending the dogmatism of a monolithic worldview (including those often labeled under diversity and humanitarianism) in resistance to untruths, uncertainty, and openness. Certainly, we all do this to an extent, even if to the degree of, “Untrue, maybe, but deep enough to swim.” We are all carriers of Stockholm syndrome, of which Jane is accused for her reluctance to leave her father (Kiernan 34). We have beliefs and faiths. That’s how we swim. We all put more belief and faith into physically moving our bodies from room to room, to the grocery store and back, to a restaurant, and via whatever transportation than in anything of which science and religion—that grotesque dualism—could convince us. We rely on beliefs in our untruths and from that we are able to move. This is reality. This is real despite whether or not that in which we put our faith is eternal, static, or true.

We move and transport our bodies and how we do so is our ultimate reality as humans and evidence of our ultimate beliefs and faiths. Yet, our tastes, judgments, opinions, inflexible definitions: too much stock in these becomes sophomoric. But swimming is holy. The problem is we lack identity as swimmers if there’s no one there to see us swimming. We remain nobodies. But the more we can mitigate the violence of the patriarchal need to prove one’s identity and beliefs as superior, the more those swimming can feel the pull of an identity, an identity responsible in preventing our going mad, our disappearing. This is not an identity of proof and defensive/offensive arrogance, but one built on a community of other swimmers swimming and floating about, listening to others swimming, open to winds and currents, and listening to the now audible if still distant shores where soon and from time to time we’ll find comfort, rest, and peace.


Becker, Ernest. The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man. New York: The Free Press, 2011. Print.

Guzlowski, JZ. “No More Sea Changes: Hawkes, Pynchon, Gaddis, and Barth.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: William Gaddis. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. 31-42. Print.

Kiernan, Emily. Great Divide. San Francisco: Unsolicited Press, 2014. Print.

Michael Martrich is a writer and musician from eastern Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Like a Sewn-up Skin with Salt” Near-Recognizing the Sea: An Idiot Body Without Organs Threatened and Tempted by Becoming (Listening, Whispering) Sea-Ghost (Villanova University, 2014).

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