Book review – the sea is not yet full by J. J. Deceglie
the sea is not yet full is the first novel by Perth writer J. J. Deceglie. Published in 2005, it is a story about a young man named Sep. Sep is in his early twenties, has a girlfriend named Sarah and a job as a teacher. He lives in Fremantle, Western Australia. Sep and myself seem to have a bit in common, in that we’re probably the same age, both have jobs as teachers, both live or have lived in the Perth Metropolitan area, and both support the Fremantle Dockers. What I’m saying here is that the terrain this novel covers will seem very familiar to anyone who has grown up in Perth, with its slew of pubs and nightclubs, in the late nineties and early two-thousands. Streets are explicitly named, pubs go by their actual names. This is a world I know.
Contrasted with the world of Perth and specifically Fremantle circa 2000-05 is the literary world of twentieth century literature. Famous names are dropped throughout the sea is not yet full: Hemingway, Miller, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Joyce and others. Co-incidentally, Sep’s account reads somewhat like the work of many of the above names, but especially, to this reader, the writing of James Joyce and Jack Kerouac. Parts of this novel are told in Joycean stream of consciousness word associations, and part in breathless, sentence-less sections that stream forth for several pages. J. J. Deceglie has written the first Beat novel about Perth, or at least the first I have had the pleasure to read.
Not that the sea is not yet full is necessarily a perfect or ideal work, however. While I don’t have a problem with most of the literary innovations herein, such as sentences (and sections) that begin without capital letters, or speech without quotation marks, or sentences that habitually run on for half a page or more, the combination of some of these techniques occasionally lessens the readability of the text. For example, Deceglie is in the habit of having speech embedded within sentences without any form of demarcation as to which part of the line is spoken. Furthermore, as the sentences often run together, it was occasionally difficult to decide who was saying what. Of course this is a literary device like any other, but I did find at times that I needed to re-read or re-interpret a sentence to decide what was going on. There were occasionally minor spelling errors (‘too’ rather than ‘to’) as well as minor typographical errors regarding apostrophes. These are minor quibbles–for sure–and perhaps I am rubbing against the grain of the novel to highlight them, but they were things I noticed nonetheless.
So what is the sea is not yet full actually about? Firstly, I discovered that the title is part of a passage from the Bible, specifically Ecclesiastes 1:7: “All the rivers run into the sea yet the sea is not full unto the place from whence the rivers come thither they return again.” Now, I’m no Bible scholar, but I know someone who is, so perhaps I shall ask him to enlighten me as to the meaning of this passage. But the novel is straightforward enough, at least to begin with. When we first meet Sep, he is about to embark on his cherished summer holidays from his teaching job. Primarily, for Sep, this will entail drinking, talking about literature, fishing, but above all else, it means fucking or thinking about fucking. If this seems blunt, then so is the sea is not yet full. This is not for the squeamish, but then true literature rarely is. This material reminds me of another Beat, or perhaps the Godfather of the Beats, William Burroughs.
Imagine Naked Lunch without the heroin and with girls instead of boys. Change the set from Tangiers and New York to Fremantle and Perth. Voila! You have the sea is not yet full. This is intended as a compliment, for if Deceglie might not yet have attained Burroughs (or perhaps Genet’s) level of spiritual effluence, then it is not for the want of trying. And so this is a book about cocks, cunts, toilets and mouths. It is a book about vomit, saliva and buckets of semen. It is a dirty book and a degrading one. This is no use in denying this. And if Sep is trying to transcend his grimy reality through girls and booze and filth, then he isn’t getting very far. A single sentence on page 86 seems to sum up the novel perfectly: “Upward holy thoughts brought down by male human cunt lust.” And therein lies the hinge on which the sea is not yet full swings: the high and lofty versus the low and dirty.
Throughout this book, Sep is pining after an earlier girlfriend, Sully. We are given snippets of information about this, and it becomes clear that Sep is in some kind of moral freefall. He knows he is sinking and yet he continues to sink. He cheats on his current girlfriend Sarah with an array of young and old women alike, in beds and in one instant in a toilet. But Sep seems to derive little satisfaction from these encounters, instead spiraling down into an increasingly bleak cycle of drunken debauchery, guilty reflection, renewal (in the form of fishing trips with his brother Chris and other outdoor pursuits) and back to debauchery. If this seems grim, then it is because life is often like this, and this is often how people treat one another. Sep seems to long for something more, which is mainly defined in his longing for the purer Sully, but he is at the bottom of a deep well looking up at the sky.
The lifestyle is the problem, with its drinking and drug taking and debauched drudgery. Sep knows this and yet he struggles to escape from it. I am reminded here of Andrew McGahan, with his depressed, nihilistic characters and their futile obsessions. But where McGahan is prosaic and pedestrian (with his appealingly frank straightforwardness), then Deceglie is more cunning, more literary, more high-brow. It is a potent mix and, for the most part, a successful one. There is a clash occurring in the sea is not yet full, between the world of twentieth century European and American literature and twenty-first century Western Australia, with its vacuousness and nihilism. This is an age after history is finished, Deceglie seems to be suggesting.
It is a time when there’s nothing left to tell. And yet our small lives flicker on.
I liked one passage so much that I will reproduce it in full here in closing:
“I say fuck you, trying to turn the world into a pile of sameness, into little read stale waste balls of toe crust; all of you with anything inside you, rush to the libraries and read the greats, make note to read the ones the publishers rejected, the ones who refused to give in the to the suited devil average hack, who wrote til their fingernails bled and then sold their manuscripts door to door, send in your manuscript with the vomit stains you added whilst revolted by the indiscretions of everyday bookshop blurbs […] ” (p 88 )
If that seems disgusting, then you need not apply here. Deceglie is railing against the smug world of publishers and contracts and signings, and I hear him. If you would like to hear him too, then you can contact the author directly at email@example.com