(or Moby-Dick, if you want to be technically correct…)

A few months ago, I decided to give Moby Dick another try after not finishing it in high school. I figured that whatever it was that kept me from finishing it wouldn’t apply any longer, since I’m now a much more mature reader and all that, and (hopefully) a little more patient. The process was somewhat on-and-off for me (after reading the review you might understand why), but I finally wrapped it up last night. And I figured I’d share my thoughts with you all here.

Moby Dick has got a really great beginning. The first two hundred pages or so were quite excellent I thought. Melville’s prose is in top shape, and lots of images and sensations are passed along with perfect vividness. The thing that really got me thinking in the book was how different being cold is now from what it was back then. Even more so than being warm. There are plenty of times when people are willing to subject themselves to heat even now–going to the beach, going to an outdoor concert in the Summer, hot tubs, sauna and so on. But being cold is now mostly just a temporary condition, something we feel briefly going between home and the car, or just after getting off the train. I’ve lived in apartments with no air conditioning before (though some of those were in the Central Coast of California, a locale where it’s not really needed and, in my experience, rarely used), but never one without heat. In Moby Dick, there’s the sense of cold as just being something that’s lived with, as sailors who literally have ice in their beards crowd into a bar without a fire to drink. Sure, some people could build fires to deal with the cold, but not everyone could afford it. The more tradition-fetishizing among us might talk about how much tougher people were back then, I’m just glad we figured that stuff out since being cold really sucks. But it’s one of those little details that takes you into the time and place more effectively that we now take for granted.

The book is ahead of its time in some ways. There’s a central relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg that is, to modern readers, obviously homoerotic though perhaps not sexual. In other ways, it hearkens back to an older literary tradition, dense with biblical and classical allusions. They are intended to place the narrative in the same epic tradition as those stories, and they work. And its depiction of the ocean is truly timeless, here represented as a force that returns men to their primal selves, between the lack of control and the separation from others. The book would have been a disaster if, say, it had been about Ahab trying to find the buffalo that stomped on his leg, since the element of being only barely in control would not have applied to a land-based story. The basics of the story are strong, and there’s a lot to like in the story’s first third. The bizarreness of the scene where Ishmael negotiates his rate on the Pequod is compelling, with two different but equally weird captains (one supremely spacey, one brash and tepee-residing) good cop-bad copping him into accepting very little money for his services. Lots of unusual but effective scenes like that.

Unfortunately, after a great opening, the book grinds to a complete fucking halt, and its middle section is unbelievably monotonous. It consists almost exclusively of three types of chapters:

  1. Descriptions of whales, the ocean, sailing and maritime phenomena.
  2. Episodes where the Pequod encounters another whaling vessel, Capt. Ahab feverishly asks if they’ve seen Moby Dick. They either have or haven’t, regardless, as soon as Ahab has his answer he abruptly shoves off.
  3. The Pequod finds a whale and kills it.

Of these, (3) gets the most tedious. I could see going through the routine once to show how it’s done, but they kill, like, four whales before Moby Dick even makes an appearance, and it’s the same every time. (1) is often tedious, and I admit that near the end I skimmed/skipped a few of these chapters (which are usually a page long, so don’t start hyperventilating about how I didn’t really “read” a 470 page book because I couldn’t take all of the yardarm parts). There are some nice descriptions, such as the one about “brit,” but after a point the obsessiveness of Melville’s descriptions just grates. I generally don’t like the sort of book that tries to include every single fact about its subject, no matter how tedious or unnecessary they are. After a certain point, it’s less about serving the story and more about the writer’s own obsessions, which most aren’t going to care as much about as he does by definition. I could tell what the intent of their inclusion was, but really it just felt like Melville couldn’t stop writing about all this stuff, and maybe he should have. (2) includes the more notable incidents, in particular the Town-Ho‘s story, a crazy story-within-a-story about a failed mutiny and the mutineer’s revenge that produced the only real suspense in the entire novel. That’s the problem when your book has such a famous ending! But the Town-Ho‘s story is a really great story, which has many of the same themes and ideas as the novel at large, but it’s short, intense, and a little bit crazy. I kind of wanted to read that novel right then.

The book is most famous for the Ahab-chasing-the-whale part, which makes up approximately the last 6% of the book. It’s great, every bit as epic and thrilling as it should be. But it’s a very small part of the novel, certainly smaller than the discussions of whale anatomy and yardarms. Ahab is actually more of a cipher than I thought he would be–my expectation was that the book would be about his struggle, the good man he used to be versus the vengeance-minded nut he became when he lost the leg (which happens three other times in the book, by the way, a prime example of symbolism overkill). But it’s not, really. There’s no conflict, just a single-minded desire for vengeance regardless of cost. It’s simpler psychologically, though perhaps less rich. It’s hard to get a sense of who Ahab was before the whale chomp, the book doesn’t really provide much of a sense of it. I suppose he was just a normal person, and despite his fits he still gets his crew to follow him. The elastic nature of Ahab’s insanity is one of the book’s great achievements, he’s able to pull himself together when he needs to keep his crew in line, but when alone he raves feverishly and constantly checks and rechecks his maps and calculations to find his whale. The book explicitly says Ahab has lost his sanity over the whale, and that’s good enough for me. It’s a good portrayal of madness.

All in all, I think I’d recommend the book. I really hated a lot of the middle section, which surprised me since the utter tedium of it is definitely not part of the conventional wisdom of the book, at least not any that I’ve received, and makes me think that it’s not very widely read these days, since the public perception is not in line with what the book actually is (it’s probably more in line with the movies based on the book, which I would have to assume focus more on Ahab vs. whale and less on the peculiar customs of the sea). It’s a shame, because the brilliant parts are really brilliant, and the prose is of a quality not often seen these days. My ultimate take is that this book is the prototypical book that kids in high school are forced to read miserably, while their English teacher raves about the sentence structure and descriptions. It should not be taught, like, ever. Even though it’s a “classic” it’s definitely a flawed book, not always easy to just pick up and read. But the brilliance of the good stuff manages to overshadow the lousy bits. Read it for what it is, and you’ll get something out of it. Skimming the middle stuff is very much recommended (except for the Town-Ho part, which I would seriously read a whole novel about).

Next up: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, a book that I don’t think anyone has actually read for approximately sixty years. I’m very excited.

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  1. Metavirus says:

    i really love Moby Dick. not just for the profound meaning behind the word “Eskimo” but also for my ongoing fascination with that time, long gone by, when people wrote literature assuming that their audience would have a MUCH better vocabulary than we have today. if you want a fun weekend activity, pick up whatever is the hot “Serious” literature offering of the year, read it, and then immediately read a few chapters of Moby Dick. wow. brain blown.

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