I'll miss reading Moby-Dick for the first time. Since June, Herman Melville's masterpiece has been my constant companion. I was in no rush. I read it in sips, I read it in gulps. I took a break from it and listened to the music it inspired, from Led Zeppelin to Laurie Anderson to Thomas Chapin. I paused to copy paragraphs that are especially striking. I set down a chapter to look up images and videos and songs of whales.
Finally, last night, in my bed, beneath a yellow lamp, past midnight, I read the last page for the first time and I literally exhaled a quiet 'ohhh …'
It was impossible to read a novel with such an outsized reputation and not have heard first what others think of it. Some of what others say is true: this is a dark and strange novel, slippery and mournful, a haunting tale–truly, a tale in the old-school sense–of obsession and mutated faith.
But what is perhaps less well-known about Moby-Dick is that it is also wildly funny. The early chapters of Ishmael and Queequeg's growing friendship are especially hilarious, as is the candor of our narrator's storytelling. The book is witty and clever and provoked me to out-loud laughter. As a novel, Moby-Dick toys with the absurd–those extended forays into the culture and science of whaling were not only palatable but rather fun because of the absurdist tone that threads through them. Ishmael is in on the joke, and invites us in too. Melville plays with different literary forms: some chapters are written as plays, complete with stage directions, some as soliloquies, some remind me of arias. Many chapters are only a paragraph or so long, while others linger on a tangential story that, say, Ishmael tells years after the events of the novel to two enthusiastic listeners in Peru.
In the meantime, the expansiveness of this novel–its way of exploring tangents and finding its way back to the story–builds heat.
Much commentary about Moby-Dick is fixed on dissections of "theme" and "symbolism" and so forth. While some of this is valid and interesting, lost in the clamor is the fact that the novel is at heart a breathless adventure story. Victor LaValle knows what's up:
… I sat down to read Moby Dick again. I hadn't read it since college and, to be frank, I didn't like it much then. I hardly remembered the damn thing, really. But this time I found myself tearing through the book. When I read it in school it had been assigned and it was 'important' and our examination of the text had been as ponderous as the term 'important' would suggest when applied to a novel. But this time, on my own, I got about a third of the way through and I had a revelation: this is goddamn adventure book! And those adventures were broken up by more thoughtful (rather than ponderous) sections that described the practice of whaling, or how machinery on the whaling ship worked, or a sermon from a mad old preacher. And, to quote a great song, this time "the combination made my eyes bleed."
I know people complain about the whaling bits in the book, but I found that Melville used a perfect structure for his big book. The whaling bits are there to put the brakes on the mad adventure stuff, the craziness of Ahab's quest, the riveting fights to catch and kill the whales, the frightening battles of will amongst the men on the ship. The scene where Tashtego (one of the crew members) falls into the head of a whale they've killed and is rescued by Queequeg is truly thrilling.
And let me set that statement on a new line so I can write it again. In Moby Dick there's a scene where a man falls into the hallowed out head of a whale. That head is being suspended against the side of the ship but this man's weight causes the ropes to break and the head falls into the sea. The head sinks, with Tashtego still trapped inside. Then one of the other men, Queequeg, leaps into the water and rescues his crewmate by cutting a hole in the whale's head while it's underwater!
If I told you that plot point, on its own, and asked you to identify it you'd be just as likely, more likely I bet, to say it was a scene out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. And that's exactly my point. Melville (like so many "classic" or "canonical" writers) didn't shy away from extreme drama, over the top action. And he also didn't think that such dramatics made it impossible to indulge sincere and scintillating philosophy on the page. These things can be put together on the same page, in the same story. In fact, each is often served by the other. Flannery O'Conner knew this. Gloria Naylor does too (check out Mama Day or Linden Hills).
And finally, the narration of Moby-Dick is full of glee and elegance, words that are as rhythmic as waves, or prayers.
I am madly in love with this book.
American Icons: Moby-Dick (Studio 360)