Tabitha Lasley’s debut memoir, "Sea State" (Ecco, 240 pp., ★★ out of four), sells itself as a “study of love, masculinity and the cost of a profession that few outside of it can truly understand.” The author has said she wanted to write a book about what men are like with no women around.
In theory, it sounds like a truly engrossing read about an oft-underlooked subject: what it’s like to work on oil rigs in an industry that’s likely to disappear in the next decade or so (if we humans are smart about climate change and the horrific impact our oil consumption has on the planet). I expected a dissection of life in a working-class industry populated by hard-nosed men sent off to live and work in solitude in the middle of the North Sea.
While the alleged focus of the book drew me in, the final product ultimately left me frustrated and annoyed. This book is not what it seems to be, barely giving readers much of anything about these men and what it’s like to work at sea drilling for oil. Really, this is a memoir about an affair and a woman who is thinking about writing a book of substance but never actually does.
In her mid-30s and bristled by a relationship on its way to an end, Lasley quits her plum magazine job and pours her savings into a rental apartment in Aberdeen, Scotland – a small city these oil rig workers regularly visit on their off weeks to decompress, drink and partake in the occasional sexual dalliance. This is how Lasley meets her first interview subject, a married man named Caden. The two quickly form a pseudo-relationship, though it is clear from the onset that Lasley is grasping at doomed straws here. Which is what makes it so frustrating when this relationship overtakes the book's focus, leaving little room for rumination on the actual subject at hand. This isn’t a book about oil rig workers, it’s a book about avoiding writing a book about oil rig workers.
How can you say you’re writing a book about what men are like with no women around when you are, in fact, a woman around them and that is your only context? How does that work? In this regard, "Sea State" doesn’t work at all, particularly when there is such a focus on women and the author’s own womanhood. None of the women are portrayed particularly well, and the way Lasley writes about other women feels fairly dismissive and at times drenched in her own internalized misogyny.
Lasley supposedly interviewed more than 100 men for this book, though you would hardly know that from reading it. That's because this book isn’t about masculinity and men, it’s about her and how she dealt with a failed relationship by dancing, drinking, doing drugs and occasionally listening to some men talk about their work in the most superficial of terms. Lasley is a good writer, which is perhaps why this bait-and-switch feels particularly frustrating.
To her credit, Lasley does not paint a rosy self-portrait – her actions and feelings are often cringeworthy and embarrassing, and laying herself out bare like that is no small feat. However, it all culminates into something lackluster and far too navel-gazing. Lasley frequently waxes nostalgic for her younger days, sounding embarrassingly stuck in the trap of always looking backward and comparing the present to the past in a romanticized way. But isn’t that sort of mindset exactly what she should be investigating? Isn’t that outlook, in a way, exactly what’s keeping the oil industry limping into the present when it should be left behind in the past, too?
It’s a neat and tidy read – Lasley comes full circle in her journey, bleak though it may be, back in her hometown working at a chicken restaurant and writing the book at the library in her off hours. Many of the men in this line of work, no doubt, have had similar trajectories, as the oil work in the North Sea has slowed considerably and they’re forced to head back home to the women they’ve left behind. But Lasley spends so very little time actually looking at what life is really like for these men that it’s a stretch to make that connection in what she has actually written.
"Sea State" feels adrift in a sea of its own self-involvement; I only wish there had been more honest investigating.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Sea State': A woman in crisis dives into sex, drugs, oil rig workers