Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Moby Dick; or the Whale by Herman Melville


They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp--yet all these ran into each other in one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.



So what can a schmuck such as I say about Moby Dick, the great American novel, that hasn't already been said? I really don't suppose much. You know the story, so I shan't split my lungs with blood and thunder with a long summary: A young narrator describes his voyage on the Pequod, a Whaler out of Nantucket. Sperm whales are the target, and the ship's resident monopode, Captain Ahab, has a personal vendetta against the leviathan that mutilated him. The insanity of Ahab's crusade eventually leads to the demise of craft and crew. Moby Dick is one of those stories that everyone knows by the age of 10, it's become a sort of American fairy tale.

What amazed me about Moby Dick was that even though I had foresight of every major plot point, Melville still managed to blow me away through his mastery of the written word. I've read a bunch of classics before and, more often than not, they fail to live up to the hype. For me, Moby Dick lies with Great Expectations as one of the rare examples of a classic that seemed just as good as everyone told me it would be. Choosing the sample passage for this review was a crapshoot. Usually as I read, I mark a passage that strikes me as particularly well-written. By the end, a good book will generally have 4-5 passages I deem noteworthy. My copy* of Moby Dick is so marked up with pen and highlighter that it looks as if I was trying to proofread it. There are so many perfectly constructed sentences and paragraphs that I want to commit to memory.

In discussing the story with a friend the other day, it struck me that Moby Dick is very much a man's book. Not in the sense that woman can't comprehend it as well as men can (even though they do have a brain a third the size of ours, its science). It's that this story and its entirely male cast are so infused with the male ethos that I think a Y-chromosome is necessary to experience the story as Melville intended. The unrelenting fury of Ahab's revenge, the limitless energy it delivers him, Ishmael's wanderer's spirit. It's just... maleness. Maybe that's sexist. I've done everything I could to keep this paragraph from being chauvinistic, but I suppose it is what it is. In the great words of Jay-Z, Ladies is pimps, too. But there are reasons why I like Die Hard and my sister likes Sex and the City. We're just built differently, body and mind.

Like I started the review with, there's very little insight I can make into this novel that hasn't already been made. But I'll say this, if you've never read Moby Dick unabridged, do so. It's a daunting book, with a reputation for befuddlement. It really is, I think, the greatest American novel. Melville can wow you with his prose even in describing the migration patterns of the Pequod's quarry.

Highlights: "Oh, many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend." The first page's descriptions of every man's subconscious draw to the sea, Melville's thoughts on paying and being paid. The entire god damn book.
Lowlights: All of the awesome double-entendre inherent in a book about hunting sperm whales.

* I remember now that it's actually a friend's copy, so I hope they doesn't mind the notations.

Addendum - I'm making it a point, henceforth, to include relevant hip-hop lyrics in the rest of my reviews.

12 comments:

MegDC said...

It is a mind-blowing book, isn't it? If any of your readers is inspired to give it a try, they can find help with the vocab at powermobydick.com (a site made by a girl, incidentally).

Jim said...

haha

Elizabeth said...

I read this last year but was too lazy to review it. It was fantastic. I kept hearing (pre-reading) how tough and dull the sections about whaling were, but the prose in those sections (not to mention the ridiculously complex metaphor Melville makes with whaling) made those parts pretty indispensable.

Elizabeth said...

Aaaand... that was brent.

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Not going to lie. I was one of those people who just could not appreciate it the first time reading it. Of course I was 16 and did not have my current respect for classic literature, so maybe I will have to give it a try again. But honestly, 3 pages describing a pot. Excessive.

Jim said...

Ishmael is nothing if not verbose. There are some passages that are unnecessarily lengthy, but in most cases (as Brent alluded to) the most random, seemingly insignificant descriptions and expositions are the best showcases of Melville's writing.

He goes on for like 4 pages comparing young, bull whales to drunken, lusty college boys and its hilarious.

Christopher said...

A+ for monopode

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Haha yes Jim. Verbose would be the right word. I can not lie thought I did connect fairly well with the main character. It was just the monotony of some of the passages began to get to me. Will have to give it another try though.

Jim said...

Chris, I sat at my keyboard for like 10 minutes thinking... monoped? monopod? monopode? monopede? Until I finally cracked and went to dictionary.com

Meagan said...

thanks for the vote of confidence jim. but you're probably right.

i've never read this book. just the Spark Notes ;)

(Chris is throwing up in his mouth)

Jim said...

Wow I thought MegDC was you Meagan. My mind is blown.

Nathan said...

I know, right?