Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ah, Moby-Dick. For most of a lifetime, I've avoided reading you, and now I'm getting my comeuppance, by which I mean that I'm beginning to see what I was missing all these years, by which I mean that I now regret that I don't have years' worth of rereading behind me, by which I mean that I'm uneasy making thoughtful pronouncements about a book I haven't read a dozen times. Careless snap judgments: I'm okay with them. (See "Books I'm Reading" in the sidebar for a recent, possibly unreasonable snap judgment.) But MD requires greater care.

I could wander into the side issues of New Bedford, where Melville sets his early chapters and which also, coincidentally, happens to be the county-courthouse town of Bristol County, Massachusetts, where my parents have lived since I was in 8th grade. When I was a child, New Bedford equaled (according to my mother) "that scary place you have to drive into when you have the bad luck to get jury duty." Being a braver driver than she is, I did, a few years ago, bring my children and my mother to the whaling museum. But what I remember most about the history of whaling is that Paul, who was about 5 years old, (1) threw a loud fit because he couldn't find anything he liked at the gift shop yet still longed to spend money there; and (2) decided, as a result, to cross all city streets without looking both ways or holding anyone's hand. Apparently, his evil stomping really did have the power to halt all traffic, but it didn't endear him much to his already nervous grandmother.

In short, my New Bedford is not Melville's; and though in retrospect I think Paul might have benefited morally from a run-in with Queequeg's harpoon, this sort of maundering evades a commitment to the seriousness of Melville's mission . . . which isn't to say he's humorless. But unlike Dickens, he is intensely undomestic, and this probably accounts for why it's taken me so long to care about reading the novel.

He's also a clumsy writer. Consider this sentence, for instance, which I've plucked quickly from among hundreds of similar ones: "Affected by the solemnity of the scene, there was a wondering gaze of incredulous curiosity in [Queequeg's] countenance." (Hey, yesterday didn't I quote a Dickens sentence with countenance? Ack. More spooky book fates.) This blunt little sentence balances on a dangling modifier, meaning that the two halves are linked only by the comma, not by grammatical logic. There are lots of danglers in Moby-Dick, and lots of chunky asides that reach for rhetorical flourish but end up floundering in a kind of metrical quicksand. Try reading this sentence aloud:

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say--here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.


But, as it's taken me most of lifetime to discover, not all great books are well written. And though I may never forgive Theodore Dreiser for the hideous prose of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy, I am forgiving Melville for nearly everything. Even though I'm only 8 chapters into this novel, I am fascinated by Ishmael, that unreliable narrator, that self-confident greenhorn . . . a man who himself seems likely to be all the things he derides in those innocent Green Mountain boys who arrive in New Bedford ready to catch a whale. And Queequeg is irresistible--sitting at the boardinghouse breakfast table forking up rare beefsteak with his harpoon. Melville's characters are complicated; their motivations are ambiguous and changeable; the darkness of the sea and the mission looms behind them. There's a magnificence to this novel that overrides its sentences. I'm excited to be reading it.

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