January 2010

Cass Daubenspeck


The Guide to the Flying Island by Lee Upton

There is a lot to see on the flying island. Weird tourists, impassable caves, the transcendent beauty of an ocean view from far above its foaming waves. Apparently, there's a disappearing nun, too. But Jake Isinglass is the only one who sees it.

In Lee Upton's novella, The Guide to the Flying Island, the title itself suggests an illusion. Islands don't really fly, everyone knows that. And this one doesn't either: it only appears that way by some trick in the atmosphere. But what Jake saw is real, or at least he thinks it was. And on his search to find the nun, he starts down a path he didn't expect to travel, confronting another mystery that was right in front of him all along.

Upton is a renowned poet, and her fiction only proves the persistence of that inner bard. In the small coastal town of Truror where her story takes place, Upton uses celestial descriptions of the landscape -- “all around him light was breaking like a smashed mosaic” -- to tryst the world of intuition with illusion, and wend Jake on a journey of self-doubt towards reconciliation. The flying island, with its warm rain, its high cliffs, and its hovering, free air, situated somewhere between the ground and the heavens, is much more than a tourist attraction or a workplace for Jake. It is a spiritual frontier.

Upton's flying island is much like the "Land of Undone" in her poem of the same name. The goal here, like for Jake, is to research the finitude of history, and come up with something new, something undiscovered -- something felt. Thus the keys to survival are intuition and persistence, and readers will admire Jake for his. He goes after what he sees, believes and trusts it, even if the answers defy him at first. His story is a philosophical decree, then, embedded in the divine convictions of the transcendentalist. But more than the Romantics, Jake suggests there is some hope to be found in the manifest world (“Someone, Wordsworth or someone, had once said that no man can be happy looking into the distance. Wordsworth, or whoever it was, was a fool.")

The red-letter quality of the island is not that it actually "floats," in the end, but that it appears to fly.The spectator is urged to believe what he sees, suspend better judgment, and look at the world with new eyes.

The Guide to the Flying Island by Lee Upton
Miami University Press
ISBN: 1607435713
99 Pages