Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thar she blows

When I was about 10 years old I was watching an episode of Welcome Freshmen on Nickelodeon. In the episode there was some drama because everyone hated and/or some students hadn't read the assigned chapter of Moby Dick. Because I was the strangest little fifth grader who ever walked the land I finished watching the episode then wandered out into the living room to get a jump on my high school reading list. I was completely convinced (because the TV doesn't lie, obviously) that I'd have to read Moby Dick my freshman year and I knew that my dad had a copy of it on his bookshelf. The really impressive part is I managed to get as far as Queequeg's return to The Spouter before my little-kid brain went "I'm over this shit" and went on to read a Brian Jacques novel instead.

High-five, little Alli. You had completely the wrong idea about a lot of things but I can't deny that you had gumption - and the good sense to stop reading that damned book.

It is now almost twenty years later and I've now finished reading Moby Dick - I can't recommend it.

Here's the really funny thing, though: I actually like Herman Melville. I enjoyed the FUCK out of Billy Budd and Bartelby the Scrivener is one of the best and creepiest pieces of literature that I've ever read. Melville's prose doesn't escape me, or though me for a loop with its density now the way that it did when I was ten, so that wasn't the problem. The problem I had is that this book is messy. And I'm not someone who demands order of a book - I will if-on-a-winter's-night all fucking day long but I can't hang with a book that gets me into two really cool stories right at the beginning, abandons both of those stories for essentially 80% of its word count, and then does nothing with one story and murders the other. Bartelby is fucking great because you get lost and sucked in and scared by this wraith of a man and his unfolding horror. Billy Budd is great because you're drawn in by the conflict and are yourself conflicted and torn by the story and its characters. Moby Dick doesn't have characters, it has caricatures. Ishmael's a Keanu-Reeves-like blank, Queequeg starts with a personality that is promptly abandoned, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are never fleshed out, Moby Dick is a fucking whale, and Ahab is a goddamned cartoon. WHALING, not the whalers or the whale, is the main story in this book. And you know what, Melville's brightest moments in this story are when he's cracking little jokes in interminable chapters about mis-categorizing whales. There are a lot of funny one-liners and humorous anecdotes scattered around in the chapters about whaling, but none of those jokes make it worthwhile to read this whole goddamned white whale of a book.


However, there is one great, stellar, stunning, moving moment that stood out to me in an infuriating example of what this book COULD have been and how I could have loved it instead of being frustrated by it.

There's a moment, very near the end of the novel, when Ahab and Starbuck are near the rail of the Pequod. Ahab is beautiful in this moment. The scene is beautiful, the mate is beautiful, the unbroken peace of the ship is beautiful. Things are coming to a head and so you see a glimpse of suffering and kindness and the onrushing light of a new day that might bring either salvation or death and it's fucking fantastic. This one tiny little two-page scene is a great illustration of how powerful Melville could be as a writer, and it's a little irksome to me that instead of writing an epic of whaling with this one tormented man as the focus of a whirling maelstrom of madness Melville chose to write Moby Dick. I was rooting for you, book! I wanted to like you so much and I just couldn't do it, dammit.

Or maybe this is REALLY a book about the hallucinations and madness of Ishmael after being the sole survivor of a freak accident and the unreliability of his narration was rooted more in insanity than in plain shiftiness and HE'S the one with the monomaniacal fixation on whales who's spinning out lies to distract himself from his losses and it really is a much better book than I think.

I don't fucking know, and I'm just really glad not to still be reading it right now.


Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Amazon Kindle. Seattle: Washington . 1851.

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