Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Moby-Dick update

At eight o'clock yesterday morning I was sitting in a garage in Cambridge, Maine, waiting for an oil change and reading Moby-Dick. The radio was playing Devo, tools were clanking, and I kept glancing up from the page to stare at the strange items on the coffee-break table next to me. One was a gallon glass jar filled with transparent brownish liquid. At the bottom floated what were either a few onions or the remains of an unidentifiable science experiment. The jar looked as if it may have once housed a Mutter Museum exhibit, but I suspect it was really the remnants of a pickled-sausage feast. Distracted by the jar and its table mate (an official and very dirty Nascar coffeemaker) and the fact that I seem to have memorized all the lyrics of "Whip It," I had a difficult time concentrating on Ahab.

Do not think I am blaming the oil-change guys for my distraction. For some reason I find Moby-Dick a challenge. If I'd been reading Dickens, all the garage paraphernalia would have slipped comfortably into the story. But Melville's tale doesn't take kindly to external interruption, though it interrupts itself constantly.

As I'm sure you've all noticed, there's a great deal of non-story in the novel. Entire chapters perorate on details of the whaling industry, the varieties of whales, the precedence order of the crew members. I find these deviations from the plot both aggravating and interesting. Ahab looms in the background, but Melville is always turning away from him to talk about something else. Frequently these something-elses are quite interesting, but they fracture my attention and they also keep me from closing in on the characters. I'm 150 pages into the book, and I still don't have a clear vision of any of the major players.

Still, there are wonderful moments--and frequently they involve descriptions of the sea or the boat rather than the humans. Since I am a writer and a reader who loves people, my attraction to these passages surprises me and, to tell the truth, pleases me. Maybe every artist gets sick of her stuff: maybe everyone wonders, "Why do I seem to write the same old story over and over?" It is refreshing to find myself pulled into a new place.

Here's a passage that particularly struck me. Though it does concern humans, it seems almost to be shedding its human skin as it progresses. In a way, what it's shedding is exactly what Dickens's novels accrue.

The three mast-heads are kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regular turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two hours. In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant--the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thought of what you shall have for dinner--for all your meals for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare is immutable.

And now I am off to do chores and make sauerkraut. Wish me fermentation luck.


Ruth said...

I wonder if the non-story in MD is not unlike the vast periods off time on a whaling vessel where the activity is mundane and distracted by other things. the suddenly the action is frantic and so very much "in the monmet".

Teresa C. said...

Oh yes I like Ruth's comment about the non-story parts being related to off time on the ship. I like the distractions in MD because they are part and parcel of the universe Melville creates; it's as if he had to fit a little of everything in this book (e.g. religion, science, human nature, politics). It's a collage. I agree Melville's structure makes it more difficult to read than GE--I sometimes avoid picking up MD because I know it takes more effort on my part whereas I'm eager to pick up GE because it immediately sweeps me away. But after reading MD multiple times, it is one of my "desert island" books whereas, although I'm very enjoying GE, I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about it after multiple readings.
All that having been said...I'm up to chap 40 in GE and am loving it. As Dawn has pointed out Dickens is a master-writer. One thing I admire is his way of using shifts in viewpoint to convey emotional shifts such as in the scene of his sister's funeral when the viewpoint suddenly shifts to " And now the marshes lay clear before us...." That shift caused me to catch my breath. I may go ahead and finish GE before I turn back to MD because at this point I'm finding it difficult to switch back and forth.