Herman Melville, 1851
read Moby Dick 23 years ago, and was left with the impression that
the dull technical chapters ruined what was otherwise a fine novel of
the sea. I was wrong about that. It's not that the technical chapters
are dull; they aren't, especially. It's rather that the whole sprawling
massive length of the thing is dull. This is a shame, because it is also
a quirky and epic piece of writing that often shines. Melville threw
everything but the kitchen sink into this novel -- as with War and
Peace, you kind of wonder if it is really a "novel" -- and much of it
sticks. There are many passages of brilliance and many snarky passages
of biting wit. The tale as a whole is simple but sound, and you can
reasonably approach the thing as a treasure-house of odd facts,
opinions, incidents, and bluster.
But if there were ever a book
that needed a firm editorial hand, man, this is it. If it were just to
weed out the ceaseless apostrophizing that passes for dialog, that would
tighten things up beautifully. Or if the secondary characters,
Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb, could not just be cartoonishly different
from each other, but could be actual characters with something of the
breath of life in them, that would be great too. Or if Melville could
keep the grandstanding of his intimacy with Shakespeare, scripture, and
mythology under control -- catch up to the 1850s, grandpa! -- then I
might be able to get through more than five pages at a stretch without
Moby Dick was a flop at first publication, and
that was partially bad luck -- the final chapter was left out of the
original edition, and you can see where that could be hard on a book.
But it must also have struck its original readers as awfully
old-fashioned, and perplexing in its anything-goes structure. Seventy or
eighty years later, it began its rise as a critical darling. It has a
lot to recommend itself as such. Since it's old, we are required to
forgive it for being archaic; because we are interested in form, we are
intrigued by its one-of-a-kind narrative architecture; since we are
smart and catch the references, we end up being flattered by Melville's
overattachment to his influences.
The truth, as we say, is
somewhere in between. Moby Dick is a quirky, individual piece of
literature that didn't deserve to be a flop. Conversely, it is a deeply
flawed book that doesn't really earn its household-name status in the
literary landscape. It is bloated. To make a painfully obvious metaphor
-- and why not, Melville's characters can barely speak without doing the
same -- the lean musculature is there, but it's buried under tiresome
layers of blubber.
Which is to say: three stars. "I liked it."
This little book report was posted last week on GoodReads, hence the star rating.