"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sailing Melville's Fateful Ocean of a Novel

Moby-Dick or, The WhaleMoby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this novel a cynical man. And when I had slogged about two-thirds of the way through Moby Dick, I started drafting a cynical review. It went something like this:

If the film Rocky had been written by Herman Melville, the first 14 rounds of the big fight would involve Rocky and Apollo Creed dancing around the ring, sermonizing at great length on the glory of being gallant gladiators, all the while never throwing a punch. Finally, in the 15th round, Rocky’s cranky old manager Micky, fed up with the endless posturing, would jump in the ring and take a swing at Apollo. And as Apollo proceeds to kick the crap out of the old man, Rocky would hide in his trusty spit bucket. The End.

Moby Dick is a problematic novel. And now that I have read the whole thing, that makes me ache inside. Because I wonder if Melville went to his grave knowing just how close he came to writing the undisputed great American epic. He did not, but he came very close.

Though the central story is classic--and hopefully the iconic image of vengeful Ahab chasing the white whale will forever be imbedded in American culture--the novel itself is not an indisputable masterpiece. Nothing that is as rambling, verily overflowing with encyclopedic tedium, can be called an indisputable masterpiece—at least, not if it is graded as a novel.

Much of Moby Dick is historical and cultural discourse about whaling. These extensive diversions deprive the plot of needed rhythm and flow until late in the novel. What is more, Melville’s sentimental, alliteration-laden prose reads overly extravagant by contemporary standards. His writing also betrays an antiquated attitude--hopefully antiquated--toward issues of race and gender. This too undercuts the novel’s timelessness, and thus its eligibility to be the undisputed great American epic.

All that said, in the last hundred pages, Melville makes it all worth it. This section moved me as much as any book I have ever read. And had I not sailed two-thirds of the way round the world with Ishmael talking my ear off about whaling trivia, I don’t think I would have been as mesmerized as I became. When the Pequod finally reached the haunted whaling grounds of the Pacific, I, like the weary crew, was ready to see Ahab’s obsessive quest to its end, come what may.

In Melville’s defense, this novel is strewn with brilliant proverbial gems. I did a lot of underlining in my Borders Classics edition. In particular, the opening paragraph is a phenomenal preamble. I plan to read this novel again, free of the distraction of expectations. For though it requires a fisherman’s patience, I consider it a privilege to set sail with Melville. His epic expertly captures the American spirit and ego in all their strength and vulnerability. If you have not slogged through Moby Dick, you have missed something special.

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