Friday, February 18, 2011

100 Books - 11: Herman Melville's MOBY DICK: Ware Fanboys

Moby-Dick - Herman Melville - Public Domain

I'm kind of a fan of unreliable narrators. Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made the story all the more realistic and interesting; most of Faulkner's characters are off their rockers or children, and it's always fun to argue over whether or not Odysseus can be trusted as a narrator.

I mostly like unreliable narrators.

But Ishmael in Moby-Dick is not so much unreliable as he is irritating as hell. As I observed on Twitter last week, he's the annoying, over-enthusiastic hipster on the boat, and from the reaction that remark got there (and mine is a highly literate following), most readers are heartily sick of him long before the Pequod even leaves Nantucket.

What do I mean by hipster? It's a term that gets flung about quite a lot these days, but at base it refers to a person who comes from a comfortable, if not moneyed, background who affects the dress and frequents the hangouts of a working class he has largely imagined from reading too many other slummers' books about them at his liberal arts college. His enthusiasm for the manners, mores and for the inner life he projects onto the real working class is hilariously overblown ("give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!") and frequently he resorts to a sort of half-baked Walt Whitman as he celebrates the big burly guys he so clearly wishes he was. He affects to shun the mannerisms and accoutrements of his own class and smugly announces that those of the class he apes are better for the world, the environment, the economy, whatever he is pretending to care about that week.

So yeah, Ishmael is pretty much a textbook example, as he makes plain even before he finds himself snuggled up in bed with Queequeg, waiting until the next time the big Polynesian addresses himself to his "heathen rituals" before the little idol he's brought into the New Bedford inn where the pair first teams up. An obviously educated New England gentleman of a certain type, he has already spent many pages haranguing the reader about how sometimes a rough, hard-working life at sea is really the only cure for his melancholic ennui. Eyeballs, get to rolling. You'll have a lot to do through this novel.

Like most hipsters, though, Ishmael is not without his talents; "his" work is often extraordinarily vivid and readable, occasionally very punny, even funny, and there is, at the heart of his tale "as told to" Herman Melville, a riveting story of obsession, revenge and doom (and really, is there anyone left in the literate world that doesn't already know Ahab meets his death when he again meets the whale that originally bit his leg off?) The story often gets lost, though, for chapters at a time, as Ishmael shows off his tiresome erudition, his poetic "gifts," his deeply philosophical soul and his exhaustive knowledge of the whaling industry, knowledge that only a demented fanboy could ever be bothered to amass or think others would wish to share. This, too, is a very hipster trait: for whaling and whales, substitute Apple products (he even gets all indignant and defensive when an imagined interlocutor points out that his chosen industry/cult engages in a lot of questionable, even brutal, behavior. How very like a fanboy*).

If you can't tell, I feel oversold. My 30-some years of hearing about this book had led me to believe, among other things, that I'd see a lot more of Ahab, that he and his whale are the twin monsters at the heart of this story, the former more terrifying and awful than the latter. Instead, Ahab's barely there, his presence diminished to insignificance by that of Ishmael's ego, until the book is almost over and Starbuck is, rather abruptly, contemplating Ahab's murder. The scene itself is wonderfully dramatic and intense, but feels tacked on, coming after hundreds of pages of Ishmael imposing himself on the reader as it does.

All that being said, there are some rippingly enjoyable bits within this immense pile of verbiage. Captain Boomer's story and his banter with his ship's surgeon late in the book are an amusing breath of fresh air even as they sicken the reader; Chapter 122 is good for a belly laugh, and Tashtego falling into the severed head of the first sperm whale harvested is a welcome bit of ridiculous slapstick (one can hear the wet, squelchy sounds as he slides in and flails) -- and the daring rescue Queequeg effects would grace any action flick. There is also unintentional humor, of course, for the modern reader as Ishmael and company process a tub of spermaceti (not to be comfused with the male gamete; it's a waxy "unctuous" substance ["unctuous" is one of Ishmael's favorite words; I await the day it is used by one of his modern counterparts to describe the mouth feel of a Pabst Blue Ribbon] found in a cavity in a sperm whale's head), squeezing the goop and each other's hands within the goop, and exchanging sentimental looks. A fan of Camille Paglia, I was long ago warned about this passage and haunted by her comparison of it to a circle jerk. Bog help me.

On the whole, I find the idea of this book to be a great deal better than its reality. Those who like it have edited its tedium from their memories, I suspect, concentrating on those brief passages of brilliance it unassailably has, just as fans (and marketers) of Yellowstone National Park focus on the stunning highlights of Yellowstone Falls, Morning Glory Pool and Old Faithful and edit out the miles and miles and miles and miles of dense, dull stands of lodgepole pines. By their very nature, the long stretches of blather are forgettable; the promoter of book or park neglects to mention them when praising the experience to the newbie, and the newbie is left feeling, as I did, oversold on a book that has been inflated into a classic.

Perhaps, though, this book has a hidden value I've not accounted for: as a warning across the ages that if the Ishmaels of the world are given their day, we'll all be rolling our eyes.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm behind on my 100 books goal.

*Even more fanboy-ish: Ishmael had himself tattooed with the measurements of a whale skeleton he got to observe while hanging out with his good buddy, King Tranquo. While I know of some folk who've gotten tattoos of Apple's logo, I know of none who have had the tech specs of a device so emblazoned on himeself, and if you happen to know of one, please do not tell me about him. Quoth I on Twitter quite recently "Oh god. Ishmael is reading his tattoos to me. MAKE IT STOP."

1 comment:

  1. Hey Kate, there's an Easter egg reference to this post on my blog on August 26, 2012. Hope you enjoy it. A new dimension of Moby Dickishness.


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