Blue Road to Atlantis is a difficult book to classify. In many ways it is an allegorical tale. In others it is playful and imaginative tale jumping off of a classic work. Is it fantasy, fiction, a novella, what?
Well, the book cover sells it as an “inspirational guide to life in the tradition of Ishmael and Watership Down.” The blurbs on the back are from other inspirational authors and are about the book’s unique perspective on life. I didn’t buy the book seeking inspiration or a new outlook on life; however, I was interested in the story (plus I was taken by the small well packaged design – I am a sucker for intriguing yet short books).
The story is about two fish. One is a tiny remora named Fishmael and the other is a giant marlin known as the Old Fish. The remora tells the story from his perspective attached to the giant marlin. They are seeking the mythical Atlantis in hopes of preventing the “Red Tide” – a deadly current within the sea poised to wipe out huge swaths of life. The Old Fish is in fact the marlin featured in the Hemingway classic The Old Man and the Sea. The story is structured to build to that climactic battle between fish and man but from the fish’s perspective this time.
What is interesting is that there are in essence two stories. One is the regular plot; the story in which the characters move and act. The second is the philosophical or allegorical story that informs their dialogue and is supposed to give a larger meaning to the book. The literal plot line is not very complex, after all the book is only 140 pages. Basically the remora and the marlin swim through the sea encountering various personalities and exchanging words of wisdom about life as they recount their past together and pursue their “destiny.” This destiny is met when the same fisherman who hooked his one true love many years ago hooks the Old Fish. This event leads the marlin and the remora to examine their lives together and what is important in life. The writing is a combination of earnestness and pun filled jokes (obviously a story with a character named Fishmael is no stranger to literary inside jokes). The story also provides quite a bit of background information on the ocean and the creatures that live there. All of this makes for interesting and lighthearted reading even if it does get a bit cheesy at times.
The allegorical story is a little harder to get a handle on. Throughout the story, the remora and the Old Fish discuss the meaning of life in big and little ways. For the most part the wisdom imported is in the Zen variety. Throughout the book the characters exhort their fellow fish to “Swim with the current.” And that capture much of the tone of the story. The author weaves in a sort of find your destiny in nature attitude. The point seems to be that things were made a certain way for a reason and that putting yourself in the place you were meant to be is the key to happiness. The key metaphor of the story is the Ten Concentric Circles of Life. The idea is to draw ten concentric circles and then mentally fill in those circles with what is most important to you. In the innermost circle you are to put the single thing without which life would be worthless. In each succeeding circle you are to name the next thing without which life would be worthless making the hard choices about which goes where in the circles. Once you have finished you will have something of value:
Once you are done, admire your result. Savor it. Absorb the target in the sand before you. Imprint its message into your heart and take heed of it. For if you have been honest with yourself, when you are through, you r path will appear. You will finally understand what it is you ask of this world, and therefore, in which direction you must swim to find it.
In the climax to the story the remora and the marlin encounter a Dolphin who is apparently from Atlantis. This Dolphin with a Jamaican accent is the spiritual advisor the fish have been seeking all along. At the advice of the Dolphin the Old Fish, exhausted from trying to break loose from the hook, slowly swims his ten circles: adventure, humor, beauty, faith, trust, honor, freedom, clarity, life, and love. Love is the key. According to the Dolphin, the fish have been pursuing Atlantis in the wrong way. The way to life and to Atlantis is to let go and make love your innermost circle not life. I won’t spoil the ending so you can read it for your self.
So, you might be wondering, is this a story that changes your perspective on life? Is it “an inspirational guide to life?” For me, no. But as I said, I was not looking for a guide to life when I started. While the story might not be a life changing one, it is touching in many ways and provides an interesting way to think about life. I for one don’t see the circles of life as providing a clear worldview but I did enjoy reading the story and trying to understand the author’s perspective. I would say that if you enjoy simple stories and lean on the softer side this would be an enjoyable book for you. If, on the other hand, you are seeking complexity and have a deep cynical streak you might find this particular story a tad on the cheesy and simplistic side.
I found myself in the middle. I enjoyed the creative and interesting way the other used the story to communicate his ideas about life but I was not convinced he had anything terribly deep to say. Sometimes, you have to be satisfied with an interesting story. After all deep wisdom is a rare commodity.
If you want to know more about this book and the author, check out my interview with Jay Nussbaum.