Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bookish: Michael5000 vs. the White Whale

Moby Dick
Herman Melville, 1851

I 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 nodding off.

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.


Elizabeth said...

Those last two paragraphs are brilliant.

Michael5000 said...

Flattery will get you nowhere, you fabulous beast.