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This 1851 novel (full title: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale) is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest American novels. Some even regard it as the greatest novel in the English language, regardless of nationality. But it is an intimidating piece of work. My copy of it has probably sat on the shelf unopened as long as the next person’s copy. I made it through War and Peace while still dithering over whether to bother with Moby-Dick.
It is common knowledge that Melville’s great tragedy of the whaling captain obsessed with avenging his leg on the albino sperm whale that severed it is a ripping yarn. But it is also, per common knowledge, a tremendously serious book, fraught with melodramatic soliloquies that test the reader’s vocabulary and comprehension to the limit. It is vastly long in proportion to the amount of story in it, and full of compound-complex sentences that go on so long that the author often has to repeat bits of them to remind himself of what he was getting at (and sometimes he clean forgets). In it there are passages of transcendental prose-cum-poetry in the spirit of Whitman, Emerson, or Thoreau, separated by dissertations on whales and whaling. Thanks to the Quakerish Nantucket dialect in which most of its characters speak, the book also boasts a high concentration of Thees and Thous, to say nothing of Yes. Schoolteachers are likely to shrink from it because of its pre-Civil War depiction of slavery, its stereotyped Indian, African, and Pacific Islander “savages,” and its unconcern for the possibility that whales were being hunted nearly to extinction.
And like more literary masterpieces than you would probably guess, it’s a very imperfect novel. I’ve never known a book to get off to such a waffling, undramatic start: pages and pages of quotations concerning whales. Somewhere about Chapter 3, Melville introduces a character in a way that suggests he will be important later; the next time he mentions the guy, around Chapter 23, it is only to admit that he has no significance. It is meant to be the first-person narrative of a character named Ishmael, but many of the most powerful scenes and pieces of interior dialogue could only be known to an omniscient narrator. In fact, Ishmael turns out to be such an insignificant character in it that when he isn’t presenting symposium essays based on his whale research, you almost forget that he exists.
Plus—I don’t mean to harp on something I have already mentioned, but it’s a fact—of the 135 chapters in this book, only about 25 chapters really move the storyline ahead. I suspect that’s a generous estimate. (I could go back and count, but I won’t.) Many of the chapters that do touch on the main attraction do so only lightly, presenting a sliver of plot cushioned on a thick puff of lyricism—Captain Ahab’s morbid imaginings, first-mate Starbuck’s prayers of mounting desperation, second-mate Stubb’s reckless whimsies, cabin-boy Pip’s insane ravings. Melville devotes the rest of his thought-space to refining his portrait of his setting and fending off critics who are skeptical of its realism.
The genius of this is that it creates an impression of space, or the passage of time, filling up the gaps in the thin and broken narrative thread as the whaling ship Pequodsails from Nantucket across the Atlantic, rounds the Horn of Africa, passes across the Indian Ocean and through the Sunda Strait, and finally catches up with its quarry in the midst of the wide Pacific. By the time the Pequod all but circumnavigates the globe, you feel you have gone all the way around the world of knowledge that has to do with whales: their anatomy, their social habits, and the anatomy and social habits of the ships that hunted them. Yet there are also times when a grumpy reader may be provoked into wondering why, if the author couldn’t keep his mind on his own story, I should be expected to do so.
I’m not saying it’s not a great novel. It is definitely a great novel. But it also risks becoming a perversely boring one, the bulk of it being a scholarly digression like the last section of War and Peace. If you find the information Melville gives you about whales interesting—and eventually, even I did—you may not be so much bored as irritated by the slightness of the actual story in the scheme of the novel. In other words, it’s an “imperfect masterpiece.” It makes you wonder: if something so profoundly imperfect can be held, with considerable consensus, to be at least one of the top handful of novels in our language, why so many seemingly “perfect novels” fall short. Evidently it is the novel’s very imperfection, its reckless disregard for what makes conventionally readable prose and predictably enjoyable fiction, its whale-like wallowing in huge questions of the nature of existence and man’s place in it, the agonizingly inevitable doom of its central character, and its final dizzying rush to the doom of all its characters but one, that distinguish it above so many safe, snug contenders.
In spite of all I have said about the book majoring in the details of its backdrop and the inner turmoils of Captain Ahab, it does leave behind powerful impressions of several other characters. The first subject it portrays in painterly detail is Queequeg, with whom the narrator contracts an eyebrow-raising same-sex “marriage” long before the time when such things were widely accepted. (Middle-school-aged boys with a nose for the prurient will sniff out more than a few howlers in this book.) The earlier chapters present a broad gallery of distinctive characters in the tradition of the picaresque novel, such as Captains Peleg and Bildad, who own the Pequod; Fedallah, the captain’s ill-looking and ill-fated Zoroastrian confidant; and the preacher whose interpretation of the biblical Jonah gives a quick insight into the whaling culture all by itself. All this is besides the unforgettable images that crowd the final few chapters, from the grief of the ship-captain who fears he has lost his son to the fulfillment, point by point, of a prophecy of Ahab’s doom in which all but one member of the Pequod’s crew shares.
My journey around the world with Ishmael and his shipmates was finally not a result of cracking that book that had stood on my shelf for so long. I owe it to the audiobook narrated by Paul Boehmer who, unless I mistake, is an actor best known for his numerous guest roles on Star Trek (including, for my money, one of the best Borg drones ever). He is truly too gifted to waste on TV guest roles, having the ability to modulate his voice to become so many different characters, from the haunted Ahab to the haunting Fedallah, from coarse Stubb to cultured Ishmael. With his help I learned that it isn’t really all that intimidating a book after all. Some of the sentences may be hard to get through in one go without fluffing the inflection, and the storyline goes behind the curtain for quite a few chapters, yet even in its prosy moments it is a closely-argued book and one that gets its point across effectively. I set aside several more immediately appealing books so that I could focus solely on this one—a choice I owe not to my own self-punishing stubbornness but to the book’s deeply engaging strangeness and steadily building atmosphere of dread. Even after returning Mr. Boehmer’s recording of the book to my friendly public library, I feel a misgiving that I may read this book all over again. It tried to bore me, it did its best to frustrate me, at times it seemed intent to shake me off with its obscurities, but in the end, it pierced me, and its harpoon stuck.