Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

"Can I be so changed ? Look at me. Or is it I who am mistaken? -- Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant, of Wheeling, Pennsylvania ? Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man I take you for."

"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."

"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy. Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened."

Last year, I decided to tackle Moby-Dick, the quintessential huge American novel. Despite its reputation for being difficult and frequently dull, I didn't find it to be either, particularly. Sure, there were diversions aplenty, but when it came down to it, Moby-Dick could read as a great adventure story, albeit one of intentional ambiguity at points. I loved the book but knew next to nothing about Melville's other work, so when I saw a rather handsome edition of The Confidence-Man, I knew I had to give it a shot.

The story takes place on a riverboat populated by a wide variety of people, from clergymen and beggars, to carpenters and misers. In their midst, however, there are con-men of all shapes and sizes, willing to use any deceit or means necessary to relieve the innocents of their hard-earned cash. And that's it. The plot basically begins and ends there.

Of course, in practice, it isn't so simple. Far from being Melville's version of that Simpsons episode where Bart and Homer become grifters, The Confidence-Man is written like a track meet—that is, with plenty of baton-passing. Most chapters focus on the interaction of two or three people, and, at the end of each, the omniscient narrator follows one of the participants as he moves to another part of the ship and interacts with another of the passengers. Most of the characters are unnamed, and are referenced primarily by a visible attribute, i.e. the lame beggar, the man with the yellow hat, the student with the book. Using this device, Melville pulls a confidence game of his own, keeping the reader off balance and not sure exactly who is who. Is there a compelling reason that the man with the yellow hat cannot also be the lame beggar or the student with the book in another guise? In reading about The Confidence-Man after finishing it, I learned that there is really no consensus on just how many confidence men are on the boat.

That brings us to the idea of confidence, which is itself both an explicit and implicit theme of the novel. The plot itself necessitates the theme to some extent, but throughout, characters grapple with questions of identity and trust. Can a man be both good and evil? Can he hate Indians and yet love his fellow man? And can anyone really be trusted at all? Over and over, the marks themselves are assailed with pleas to simply place their confidence in the man before them, to give money to some cause or time to some effort they know little to nothing about, but Melville steadfastly refuses to give any real closure. Are the men who give to grifter for a seemingly good cause better off than those who refuse to trust anyone, or are they fools who would have done well to have a little more skepticism?

On the front cover, The Confidence-Man is touted as “the great metaphysical comedy” but you'd be forgiven for missing that. There are some humorous bits, but the overall picture is dark and confusing. The Confidence-Man resisted my attempts to draw any solid conclusions from it, but then again, maybe that's the point.


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

After Moby Dick I had pretty much sworn off Melville but this has been the only other thing by him that I have been tempted to read. Your review makes me thinking I should give him another chance. As long as he doesn't take 3 entire pages to describe a pot... we should be fine.

Nihil Novum said...

The book is pretty short (less than 300 pp, I think), but I thought it was a really tough read. I liked it, but it was one of the toughest books I've ever finished and enjoyed.

I loved Moby-Dick, so take my opinion with a grain of salt.