Thursday, September 13, 2012

Literary Bite: Moby Dick

My fatal flaw in reading Moby Dick was my timing. It is good reading, but it is not beach reading, pool reading, metro-on-the-way-to-work reading, nor camping reading. So starting Herman Melville’s masterpiece at the beginning of August, when I should have stuck to summertime funtime reading, was probably not the best choice.

Here’s the read-out: Moby Dick is a masterpiece, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it. I’m glad that I’ve read it though, and surprisingly, the story was not what I expected at all.

So what drove me to embark on this literary masochism venture? Moby Dick is consistently considered one of the best American novels ever, and yet so few people (people I know, that is) have read it. Like many of my former book club’s assignments, it’s a book I want to have read because it has influenced American culture and is a constant source of references.

Reading Moby Dick is kind of like being in Moby Dick. All Things Considered  “declared it a great lesson in ‘how to pursue a pointless battle to its bitter, violent, inevitable end.’ By which we meant, in part, reading the book.”

And according to this reviewer, “This is a feat of endurance, captain… The long stretches of tedium interrupted by bursts of gripping excitement? Exactly like the experience of whale hunting. The intense, exhaustive, narrow focus on whales? The equivalent of a claustrophobic sea voyage with an obsessive captain. And so on. The novel all but dares you not to finish it, lest you fail like Ahab.”

If that was intentional, then go Melville! I can’t think of another book like it.

I expected the story to be much more philosophical – a lot of ranting and raving about the white whale on the part of Captain Ahab. I guess the best way to describe it is that I was surprised by how practical the story is. Moby Dick really is all about whaling.

Many of the chapters seem infuriatingly irrelevant – whale anatomy, the intricacies of whaling, and every aspect of whale ships –and an impatient reader is tempted to skim (I didn’t…but I definitely wanted to) because well, get me to the story already! 

But then there are moments of brilliance and poetry, even in those seemingly tangential ramblings. My favorite quote comes from “The Tail,” which is quite literally a chapter devoted to every aspect of a whale’s tale. "Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic."

And here’s a shocker for you – Moby Dick is a romance novel! And not just romance, but bro-mance (or possibly a gay romance depending on how you read it). The relationship with the narrator (“Call me Ishmael.”) and the South Pacific “savage” Queequeg starts at the beginning of the book with the two sharing a bed and then falling in love, as best friends? As lovers? Who knows...

And a less explicit but much deeper relationship is the one between Captain Ahab and First Mate Starbuck. Starbuck knows that Ahab’s quest is crazy, but he can’t help getting sucked in.
  • “Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! …Away! let us away!—this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.”
And I think Ahab loves Starbuck because Starbuck is the only one who even kind of understands him.
  • “Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky… Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye;”
(Unlike I’ve always been taught, Melville does not economize when it comes to exclamation points!)

Moby Dick is definitely not a rush-through-it kind of book. Maybe this would be a good book to read one chapter a week, which would give you time and patience  to focus on appreciating the superb writing – seriously, the level of language really is unparalleled.

And though you’ll be tempted to skim or skip, do read all of it, because you never know what you’re going to like. (The infamous chapter “Centology,” which describes (inaccurately) all of the whale species, happened to be one of my favorites!)