29 September 2010

I Read It So You Don't Have To: "Moby-Dick, or The Whale"

As a professional nerd, I often guilt myself into reading classic novels. Shortly after I graduated from college, for example, my mind chided, "You have an English degree and you've never even read The Great Gatsby. What kind of budding writer are you?" So then I had to read it. And yes, it's excellent. On the other hand, I can't just pick up a thick Dostoyevsky tome and dive in without being mentally prepared for it. There must be not just the shame, but a genuine interest in finding out what makes the book a classic work.

However those factors must combine to produce actual results, they were in harmony about a month ago when I decided to finally read Moby-Dick. I'd heard it described long enough as one of, if not the greatest English-language novel, that my mind was already nudging me toward taking the plunge. When I saw a nicely designed edition at The Strand, complete with purty pictures that soothed my savage brain, I decided to do it. And so began my epic journey.

Call me An Asshole.

The book opens with Etymology and Extract sections that analyze the word "whale" and quote numerous authors and books on the subject. When I began these sections, I thought it was an inventive way to introduce the subject, and wondered if it was perhaps a precursor to the song and poetry quotes a lot of modern day fiction authors preface their own novels with in the hopes that they will lend thematic weight to their stories of ninja detectives fighting ghost monkey rapists. But then the Extract section goes on. And on. And on. Many of the quotes serve to give us an idea of the whale's immense size and power. Others just seem to have mentioned the word offhand. Here are a few:
  • "Very like a whale." -Hamlet
  • "Spain--a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe." -Edmund Burke. (Somewhere.)
  • "On One occasion I saw two of these monsters (whales) probably male and female, slowly swimming, one after the other, within less than a stone's throw of the shore" (Terra Del Fuego), "over which the beech tree extended its branches." - Darwin's Voyage of a Naturalist
So...Charles Darwin saw whales at some point. Great. Thanks, Melville. That will really help contextualize your book.

I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come, like the many omens weighing down the pages of Moby-Dick. Instead, I shrugged it off. "Only 17 pages of this stuff," I thought. "Then the book will properly begin." And it does. And it starts off great. Right on the first page is this gem from the point of view of the novel's famed narrator, Ishmael:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos [melancholy] get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Here, the author perfectly, beautifully communicates a certain weariness of the soul that anyone whose exasperation at life has expressed itself as a mad urge to get the fuck of Dodge would understand in an instant. And the imagery it expresses is striking and wonderful. I'd love to see a scene where a man just starts batting off the old-timey hats of 19th-century gentlemen in the streets of New York. I read that and said, "Book, you and me are gonna get along just fine."

Lord, was I ever wrong.

From there, Ishmael makes his way to New Bedford, where he meets his new best friend, a South Pacific Islander named Queequeg (which is just fun to say). Together, they make their way to Nantucket to sign on for a whaling voyage and end up on the Pequod (less fun to say, but still not bad) under the command of Captain Ahab. It takes about 150 long pages for that to happen, but still, things are happening. There is a story, and through that story, we learn about the characters and the world they live in. There are many asides and much philosophizing, but it helps us understand the narrator, the stylized tone of the novel, and the whaling industry at the time. And, if we're in the mood for it, we can go ahead and philosophize and ponder along with it.

Once the Pequod is actually underway, however, things quickly go downhill.

There is a clear point where that happens, and it's a chapter titled "Cetology," which is on page 190 of my edition (The Modern Library Classics). This chapter is 18 pages - 18 fucking pages - in which the narrator proposes and thoroughly lays out his system of classifying the different whale species. Why? "...at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow." He doesn't want us to get lost. He wants to make sure we understand whales, and all their many species, and just how impressive the damn things are. Even if this means describing and classifying species which aren't even mentioned in the rest of the book.

Here, I reasoned to myself: "I can make it through a tedious display of 19th-century knowledge on whales. Because once that's over, I'll get to enjoy the rest of the Pequod's many adventures on the high seas before its final battle against the White Whale."

But the Pequod doesn't have many adventures after this. Eventually, Ahab informs the crew of his desire to hunt down and kill Moby Dick, the legendary whale that bit off his leg and turned him into a madman. Then they sail around the world, killing whatever whales they see and chatting a bit with the other whaling ships they encounter. Then they fight Moby Dick.

That's pretty much it. And that would be fine if the novel was, say, 400 pages long. But it's 827 pages long. That's a little over 210,000 words. And a considerable portion of those words is devoted to telling us all about whales and the whaling industry to the great detriment of the story and characters. Poor Queequeg, who starts off as a great badass, is relegated to a relatively minor role. He's a dominant presence in the beginning third of the book, and then just some guy who harpoons whales, has a coffin built for himself, and gives his name to a dog.

Rather than telling us more about Queequeg, or the other men in the 30-man crew, the novel describes the following (as indicated by chapter titles):
  • Monstrous Pictures of Whales
  • Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales
  • Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, &C.
  • The Whale as a Dish
  • The Sperm Whale's Head
  • The Right Whale's Head
  • The Honor and Glory of Whaling
  • Jonah Historically Regarded
  • The Tail
  • Schools and Schoolmasters
  • A Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton
  • The Fossil Whale
  • Does the Whale Diminish?
"Shut up! Shut the fuck up!" I wanted to shout at Ishmael many times over. He's a deeply complex character, one who has never found his proper place in the world, and possibly feels like he has no right to be in it as the lone survivor of the Pequod (SPOILER ALERT!). But too often he comes across as that shitty kid from Jerry Maguire, except all he can talk about is whales. "DID yooouu knooowww..." On and on and on with this fucking guy! It absolutely kills the momentum of the story. All of this insider information on whales and the industry becomes exhausting rather than illustrative, so much so that you don't even want to read the character-building monologues and soliloquies the crew of the Pequod are prone to because it's just that much more. Here's the sort of thing Melville thought was more important than actually have his characters, you know, do stuff:
Whatever superstitions the Sperm Whalemen in general have connected with the sight of this object [a squid], certain it is, that a glimpse of it being so very unusual, that circumstance has gone far to invest it with portentousness. So rarely it is beheld, that though one and all of them declare it to be the largest animated thing in the ocean, yet very few of them have any but the most vague ideas concerning its true nature and form; notwithstanding, they believe it to furnish to the Sperm Whale his only food.
That's not even a particularly bad example. Yet it's still the type of writing you read once, then realize you've stopped paying attention as you were reading it, so you read it again and try to focus, then realize you still don't actually understand it because there are so many unnecessary words and it doubles back on itself, then you read it one more time to hopefully process it and, maybe, appreciate it.

It pissed me off so much I wanted to dig Melville up and his scream at his bones, "Hey, asshole! Your book isn't actually about whales! Stop telling me so fucking much about them!" It's as if Harper Lee spent half of To Kill a Mockingbird dissecting and analyzing the American legal system. Or if Stephen Crane had described in intricate detail the soldiers' uniforms and where they came from in The Red Badge of Courage. Or if J.K. Rowling told us exactly how the spells work in the Harry Potter series. And no, I don't buy the argument that Melville had to inform his contemporary audience about the subject. Dickens managed to inform his readers about all manner of subjects without boring the everloving hell out of them or us.

It's especially frustrating because around all that shit is great writing. Sure, even the good parts can be a bit of a verbose slog for us modern readers, but Melville had a sleeve full of tricks and an ability to sink his teeth into florid prose. He occasionally livens things up with play-like interludes, chapters composed entirely of dialogue, and sequences where he freely wanders around the ship and gets into people's minds or listens to the varying thoughts and interpretations different crew members have on the same subjects. And when he does actually allow his characters to live and breathe, they come off as interesting and engaging people we'd like to know more about. He even gives a shading and humanity to his minority characters unusual for a writer of his period, though he is prone to describing them in condescending ways dripping with casual racism. "Savage" and "cannibal" come up frequently, and his chapter on the black crew member Pip has some thorny knots to untangle.

I'll leave you with an example of the great writing Moby-Dick does have to offer for those with the patience to wade through all the agonizing detail. It's a dramatic speech Ahab gives to a whale's severed head and its comical ending:
"Speak, thou vast and venerable head," muttered Ahab, "which, though ungarnished with a beard, yet here and there lookest hoary with mosses; speak, mighty head, and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world's foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there, in that awful water-land, there was thy most familiar home. Thou hast been where bell or diver never went; hast slept by many a sailor's side, where sleepless mothers would give their lives to lay them down. Thou saw'st the locked lovers when leaping from their flaming ship; heart to heart they sank beneath the exulting wave; true to each other, when heaven seemed false to them. Thou saw'st the murdered mate when tossed by pirates from the midnight deck; for hours he fell into the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw; and his murderers still sailed on unharmed--while swift lightnings shivered the neighboring ship that would have borne a righteous husband to outstretched, longing arms. O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!"

"Sail ho!" cried a triumphant voice from the main-masthead.

"Aye? Well, now, that's cheering," cried Ahab, suddenly erecting himself, while whole thunder-clouds swept aside from his brow. "That lively cry upon this deadly calm might almost convert a better man.--Where away?"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review,enjoyed reading it. now I won't have to read the book!