GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Friday Frippery! A conversation regarding whales…

Call me FF…

moby-dick-john-barrymore

Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump! FF heard the unmistakeable sound of the captain crossing the deck.

“Ahoy, FF, thou lazy dog! Whyest dost thou lyeth there on that… thing… whilst Ahab practiceth his best cod Shakespearian?? Whatest is that thing, anyway, in the name of the gods above in Heaven, or perhaps the devils beneath in Hell! Or vice-versa. If Gods exist. Eth.”

FF raised her sunglasses and perched them on her golden curls. “It’s a sun-lounger, sir. Don’t you like it? I ordered it from Amazon and they had a drone drop it off an hour ago. It’s very comfortable.”

Ahab stuck his bone leg in the socket he had had specially made for it and, swivelling madly like Zebedee on his spring, cried out, “Thou liest here in the sun imbibing the devil’s grog…”

“It’s a margarita,” murmured FF, sipping.

“… when there is work to be (or not to be) done! Hast thou seen the great white whale?”

“No, and I’m at 92% now. Strange, isn’t it?”

Ahab ceased to swivel and fixed her with his mad eye. “Eh? 92%? Thou speakest in strange riddles as of one who has seen things not of nature!”

“Well, the book’s called Moby-Dick: or, the White Whale so you’d kinda think the whale would actually be in it, wouldn’t you?” FF waved her Kindle at the infuriated captain. “But no. We’ve sailed every sea in the entire world and not a blessed sign of him yet. A cheat, I call it! Plenty of other whales though – big ones, little ones, lots and lots of dead ones. And as for gory! Well, let’s just say I know more than I ever wanted to about how to skin them and squeeze the oil out of their blubber.” She shuddered, and sipped her margarita. “Sir.”

moby-dick-the_voyage_of_the_pequod

Ahab shook his fist at the cloudless sky. “Thou wasteth time reading stupid books on thy infernal device when thou shouldst be aloft the main mast searching for the monster whom thou hast sworn a great oath to destroyeth!”

“To be fair, though, sir, that was during the first night party and you’d been pretty generous with the old gin before you asked. I’m not sure that really counts as a proper oath.”

“Thy honour grovels on its lowly belly acrost the mud in the deeps where lie littered the bodies of great heroes and the monsters they pursued to their doom! Queequeg the cannibal shalt not fail me, he with his skin tattooed with marks that would scare the devils themselves. Nor even the poor, crazed savage, Pip, whose little black hand is nearly as soft as that of a decent white boy!”

“That reminds me, sir, an e-mail came in from Head Office. They want you to confirm you’ve completed the online training course in cultural sensitivity.”

“Aarghh! Get thee up to the lookout afore I call on the Heavens to strike thee with the unnatural fire of the corpusants!”

“No can do, I’m afraid, sir. Health and safety. You’ll just have to rely on the sonar equipment.”

“Gah! Art thou a yellow-bellied poltroon?? Thou wilt know real danger when Ahab sends thee in the little boat to stick harpoons in the monstrous Leviathan!”

FF shuddered. “I fear that won’t be possible, sir. Whaling has been outlawed by international convention. These days we use electricity to light our lamps.”

Ahab leapt up and down so hard his bone leg began to splinter. “Outlawed?! Never! For here, on the great ocean, Ahab is all – the captain, the King, the God! And the great white whale shall die, die horribly, because Ahab sayeth so! Look! What ist that strange vessel that approacheth?”

“It’s Greenpeace, sir. They’re here to protect the whale. I Skyped them when I realised you were insane, sir.”

Ahab turned purple with rage, and shook both fists at FF. “Thou hast ruined my revenge! Truly, verily, and yea, ’tis true what they say! To allow a woman aboardeth a ship is folly, for they are cursed, and curseth those who saileth with them!” Tap-thump! Tap-thump! Tap-thump!

“Silly old misogynist!” murmured FF, as she lay back on her lounger and opened the new Ian Rankin.

moby-dick-cartoon

HAVE A GREAT FRIDAY! 😉