Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book report: "Moby Dick"

I spent most of July reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Or, If Thou Preferest, The Whale.  I can't recall a book that was so incredibly tedious to read, yet left me with so much to consider after the reading was over.  After a month-long trudge through chapters and chapters of cetology, the study of whales, and the historical and mythological overviews of the roles of whales and whaling in human history, I find myself thinking a lot about cetology and the historical and mythological overviews of whales and whaling in human history.  I mean, damn.  Maybe this was a good book!

Be warned: what follows is a book report, not for the faint of heart.

I think I spent too much of the book worried about themes I wasn't understanding, or symbolism I was missing.  What is it all about?  Nature and man?  Vengeance?  Obsession?  What does a big white whale represent?  How big is a whale, anyway?  What does the boat look like?  I was never quite sure of any of it.

Melville wrapped the entire novel -- which includes digressions into history, satire, and drama, as well as a few postmodern winks and some oddly bogus science -- in sprawling, languid sentences, long sentences like the horizon on the sea, sentences whose intricacy would be lost below their placid, boring surface, as well as by my own inattention.  I often found myself realizing that something was happening -- there is a whale hunt occurring; men are dying; wooden boats are destroyed with the flick of a tail or the seizure of a jaw -- yet I had missed the action in the thickets of Melville's language. Only when I closed the book to think about what occurred could I appreciate the magnitude of these events: desperate or unbound men gathered on a boat, acquiescing to a madman's wish for revenge against a legendary white whale, the leviathan, chasing the beast around the world until the madman's appetite was satiated, whatever the cost.

But there were a few surprising things I pulled from the book; a few discrete notes from Melville's awesome cacophany.  I really liked Ishmael, the narrator.  He was more prominent early in the book, and later he would mysteriously disappear for long stretches so an omniscient narrator could take the reins.  But as I read Ishmael's voice I felt like he would have been a friend of mine.  He was naive but earnest; friendly, curious, observant, unruffled.  Driven to the sea by his restlessness and frustration with humanity, he easily accepted the exotic people and places he found.  He seemed like a good guy. 

Along a similar vein, I thought this was a very cosmopolitan novel, in its way.  The crew of Ahab's ship, the Pequod, came from all corners of the globe.  Many were Americans fleeing shady circumstances or unhappy lives, but there were others, particularly the harpooneers, from Asia or Africa or the Middle East.  Although the book is rife with the racism of the time, on the ocean no one claimed citizenship or pride of place; they were in a no man's land, where they could not afford the luxury of prejudice, and were forced to work and live together. 

The last third of the book is the pinnacle of the voyage, when Ahab finally finds the white whale, and chases it for three long days (three days of danger, three days of death, three days of Jesus in the grave) until the final confrontation.  And here's the ending of the book (SPOILER ALERT!!!1!): the whale defeats Ahab and destroys the Pequod.  All of her crew is killed, yet none are granted the honor of a described death.  Everyone, all of the characters we have known, and all of the ones we have not, are sent to an anonymous, watery grave.  Save one: beloved Ishmael, the sole survivor of the battle, who floats in the water for two days before he is rescued.  Rescued in order to tell the tale.

A couple of things about this: although the violence and drama of the final days was muted when I first read this section, it amplified as I thought about it and returned to it.  Ahab's death was fitting yet tragic.  The loss of beloved characters like Queequeg and Starbuck was all the more powerful for its understatement (no final words for them, no last memories of home or cries of anguish).  And finally, the cataclysmic end of this book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In both works, the entire universe of the novel is utterly destroyed in the final pages.  The characters and the setting are obliterated, as if they had never existed.  Here, the Pequod and her crew are dashed, except for one.  And of course, Moby Dick presumably survives to barrel through the seas and face other battles.  Maybe that's it, then: none of it remains, none of it matters, save the water, the whale, and a voice to tell the tale.

Moby Dick: I didn't enjoy it, but maybe I love it.

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