Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading:
“Not a Bad Bunch”
Issue No. 102 (April 30th, 2014)
Boredom is dangerous. It can make us lazy, complacent, and if we suffer too much of it we’re liable to become boring ourselves. For the whalers at sea in Anu Jindal’s “Not a Bad Bunch,” boredom is far more insidious; according to the ship’s surgeon, who narrates the story, it’s an early symptom of an infectious and barbarous madness. The crew isn’t looking for trouble—they’re hunting for whales—but in such close quarters with few distractions, any transgression is cause for revenge. As the narrator observes, “A man breathing too loudly. One bad joke… All of us were forever at the seething point. Occasionally we spilled over.” Trapped on a ship with little to do but count waves and await the unremarkable “regular loveliness” of a sunset, boredom becomes a plague, a disease whose only cure may be destruction.
Of course, it’s not the boredom alone that makes these men violent. Violence is in their blood; they are a breed of men for whom an “eye for an eye” means they’ll simply continue their attacks blindly. These are men who drop an octopus in a boiling cauldron just to see what will happen, men who orgiastically kill a garefowl, an exotic bird and the last of its kind, only to be momentarily moved by their power to change the world. But the wonderment is fleeting. As they sail from one “arctic place” to another, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter where they go: they’ll never outpace themselves and their nature.
As the narrator describes the savage escapades of his shipmates, we realize that he, although of a higher station, is at best a man of questionable talents and dubious morals. He frequently interrupts his narrative to share the stories of brutalities committed by other men on similar ships, as if to make his crew seem better by comparison. Or if not exactly better, then to spread the culpability around to show everyone is at least a little guilty of something. For, as the title suggests, good or bad isn’t defined by actions alone, but how one’s deeds compare to the deeds of others.
But there is some innocence here, albeit in the form of a fetus the surgeon keeps in a specimen jar in his quarters. There is also a desire for redemption, if only to escape the doom they’ve certainly earned—a scene where lightning threatens to strike their ship becomes an opportunity for confession, in another scene the men pay tribute to a suicidal crew to ward off a similar fate. And there is even tenderness and love: a passion between two whalers ignited, of course, by a violent outburst.
Fortunately, for those of us in danger of succumbing to madness, this narrative is rich with the unexpected, some surprises coming from the men and others hauled from the deep. “Not a Bad Bunch” is a sea-faring adventure and a cautionary tale. So, for the sake of us all: alleviate your boredom and read this story now.
Benjamin Samuel Co-Editor, Electric Literature
Read the story here.