In the belly of the beast: Daniel Kraus’s novel ‘Whalefall’ considers the power of communion and grief
Humans know more about Mars than they do about the mysteries of the deep sea.
Known colloquially as the “twilight zone,” the abyssal zone—one of the deepest parts of the ocean—contains millions of creatures. From the smallest amoeba to the giant squid, mysterious creatures of all kinds are located in this dark ocean layer. The abyssal zone is also home to the scientific phenomenon of whale fall when the body of a whale sinks to the ocean floor. The carcasses of these whales, often sperm whales, can sustain an entire biosphere of organisms for centuries, as their blubber and bones become food and shelter to micro-inhabitants.
Enter Jay Gardiner, a 17-year-old scuba diver from Monterey, Calif., the protagonist of Daniel Kraus’s gripping new novel Whalefall. Jay’s father, Mitt, is a local diving legend in Monterey. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mitt takes his own life, drowning himself with diving weights. Wracked by guilt following his father’s death, Jay seeks a form of reconciliation by recovering the remains of his estranged father at the bottom of Monastery Beach, a treacherous location for divers and swimmers alike.
Perhaps grief is a kind of whale fall: the fertile ground from which hope can arise. This kind of fall occurs in our human experience, where death can create a new form of life.
Each chapter of Whalefallforms a layered narrative between past and present, with flashbacks to Jay’s youth and the current processing of his trauma during his solo dive. Jay uses his robust diving knowledge, instilled in him by the ramblings of Mitt and Mitt’s best friend Hewey, to navigate through the Pacific. The novel progresses by cataloging Jay’s P.S.I. (pounds per square inch), which is the way divers measure the minutes left of oxygenated air in their tanks. The growing pressure of the novel supports the narrative in two distinct ways. Jay experiences the literal atmospheric pressure condense around him during his dive, as well as the self-imposed pressure to find Mitt’s remains and reach a form of restitution in his relationship with his late father.
With about an hour of air left in his tank, Jay witnesses an 80-foot, 60-ton sperm whale hunt its most notable prey: the giant squid. Amid the chaos of the hunt, Jay is caught by his “bone bag,” the mesh sack used to collect objects from the ocean floor. Jay is entangled in the tentacles of the giant squid and dragged down the throat of the whale into the first of the whale’s four stomach chambers. The guts and goo of the giant squid, along with Brillo pads, trash bags and a gym sock, are all that are left to keep Jay alive inside the belly of the beast.
An environmentalist message is subtly laced throughout the novel. In the flashback-style narration, the reader gains insights into Jay and Mitt’s experience at sea on board Sleep, Mitt’s whale-watching vessel, and is drawn into the struggle for effective animal protection advocacy.
At the same time, the flashbacks of Mitt’s drunken ravings about the Inuit people’s respect for whales both inspire and disturb as he places the lives of these creatures over the value of his son. Jay’s memories revolve around his father’s tales of past adventure, rather than memories of the two of them sharing actual moments together. Their estrangement leaves Jay adrift, physically reassured by the absence of his abusive father but emotionally unsettled in their relationship upon Mitt’s death.
While our national whale story is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Jay’s journey into the belly of the whale will more likely remind most readers of the biblical story of Jonah: While Jonah has three days and three nights in the whale and Jay has a mere 60 minutes, their story arcs bear a striking resemblance. Like Jonah, Jay experiences a kind of metanoia while inside the whale. The reconciliation with the spirit of his father Mitt in a methane-induced delirium takes on a dialogue—like a form of prayer. Like Jonah, Jay has been “hurled…into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about” (Jon 2:3). Jay’s emotional catharsis while being crushed by the walls of the whale’s stomach holds the reader in the restless limbo of this action-packed thriller.
There is a spiritual element to the inner machinations of Jay’s mind as he comes to grips with the grief he has experienced. At his most desperate to survive, Jay recites a half-prayer from his father’s favorite novel, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row: “Our Father, who art in nature.” The line, Jay tells us, is not only tattooed across his father’s stomach (which is riddled with scars from his diving adventures) but carries the unique emotional weight that only prayer can. While Jay could never be formed in his father’s image despite Mitt’s attempts, he too is scarred. Internally, Jay suffers the unsparing wounds of grief. It is here, in the belly of the whale, that Jay most clearly experiences his remorse.
While our national whale story is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Jay’s journey into the belly of the whale will more likely remind most readers of the biblical story of Jonah.
Perhaps, then, grief is in some way a kind of whale fall: the fertile ground from which hope can arise. This kind of fall occurs in our human experience, where death can create a new form of life.
The novel is not for claustrophobic readers, who may find themselves squeamish at the vivid visual and aural language Kraus uses to depict his underwater world. Kraus’s mastery of undersea description comes as no surprise, given his previous work with director Guillermo del Toro. Kraus and del Toro co-authored The Shape of Water, which became the basis for the 2018 Oscar-winning film.
While the novel is gripping in every sense of the word (I never thought I’d have to so vividly imagine clinging to the walls of a whale’s slimy esophagus), for Kraus’s narrative to be effective, it requires an imaginative reader. Despite the very real possibility of being swallowed by a whale and the 2020 viral video that inspired Kraus, some elements of Jay’s survival are difficult to grasp. His emotional survival is heroic, but between the severe lack of oxygen and sizzling stomach acid, his physical survival seems unfathomable.
For some, the book’s premise may be outright dismissed. For others, it may be all the more reason to dive into Whalefall.