Michael: We have in these Reckoning 1 interviews done a fair amount of thinking by now about generational understanding of humanity’s interdependence with nature and the conflict, at times epic, ensuing therefrom. “The Hole in the Reef” depicts such a struggle, one that appears to me at least figuratively epic, though when interpreted literally, of tiny, nigh-insignificant scope. There is a piece of what amounts to trash on the floor of the ocean—one piece among untold billions—and the battle father and son fight over it seems to me ultimately futile. What that result signifies for the relationship of father and son, and the relationship of both to the ocean, to the world, isn’t obvious. As the kind of person who picks up trash when he encounters it in the woods, on beaches, at the bottoms of rivers, I am well familiar with the accompanying sense of futility. The next person who comes along will in all likelihood replace that piece of trash with a new one. Another thing I’m afraid I’m in the bad habit of doing in these interviews is asking authors to do the work for me. What does it mean? Is Oliver changed by this experience—demoralized, galvanized? I don’t think his father is. Does that discarded piece of ocean liner or whatever it is signify that it isn’t worth trying to clean up this mess, that we’d be better off letting an older generation habituated to pissing on the natural world drink themselves unconscious and then pushing them over the side?
Ben: The Hole In the Reef has on its surface a story about two generations of men—a father and son—who have very opposite takes on the world. The father is a loner who defines himself by his opposition to nature. He could easily have played a stand-in role for Old Man and the Sea if called upon. He’s not averse to suffering, physically talented, and sees nature as something to be conquered. He’s also a terrible father. His son is clearly involved with people. He’s an urbanite—I don’t get into his backstory terribly far, but I imagine him as the type of individual who shows up on school cleanup days, who is involved in things like neighborhood committees, and who is politically concerned. Metaphorically, his father is the hunter, he is the gardener—I express this via his desire to have his own children experience a different life:
He vowed that thirty-five years hence, when his two small offspring were grown and thought of him, their own father, there wouldn’t be a hollowed, rotted acorn in place of their hearts, their real ones having been left abandoned at the bottom of some ocean.
So this is a struggle that plays out on the surface — of the responsibility to those around them, and the responsibility we have toward our environment; i.e. don’t drop your damn anchor in the reef. At one point the father even threatens to sink his own boat, so that his son will have to swim to shore.
But there’s a deeper, momentary crisis in Oliver in the course of the story as he allows himself for a very brief moment to succumb to his father’s mania for the hole in the ocean, and to momentarily believe it exists: that there is an actual, designed, hatched hole in the bottom of the sea. This is a worldview-upending moment:
To ponder it was to upend reality. Did humans put it there? He could not imagine why or how they could. The hole’s existence implied some other’s intention. Amidst all of the slow, wild processes, here was something that was a fabrication. It suggested he lived in a playground, a test bed, a Petri dish. Where the light of the lab might be turned off at the end of the work day.
In other words, he briefly sheds his scientific understanding of the world and allows himself to ponder the idea that the Earth was designed. To believe that the Earth is designed is, in my mind, to discard your responsibility for it. It is someone else’s (God’s) plan. His father disappears—probably down the hole—and so he goes to find the answer to it, opening the door. What lies on the other side? Nothing. It’s not a door, it’s trash. He angrily realizes his mistake, and sees that he must do what is right, despite the personal risks: assume responsibility.
A side note about the story: I often try to use constraints on my work in order to push myself, which I find will often make the work more interesting. This story had the initial constraint of: If they were in the boat, it was all dialogue. If he was in the water, it’s all narration. And with the regularity of the dives, there’s a sort of rhythm, one page of dialogue, one of narration. As the story progressed I had to break these constraints a little.