Thursday, June 25, 2009

Moby Dick

Herman Melville (1819-1891)

Alright, I read this a while ago so the plot details are not as fresh in my mind as I like. I do know one thing, there's a lot about whales. A whole lot. Whatever you want to call them: whales, leviathans, the great fish or any other of the numerous names Melville gives the big sea creatures, you'll learn about them in Moby Dick. And this is the problem. The story is awesome.  Ishmael is a great narrator. He's funny, he can spin a great action scene, he's a great relator of character and scene, he gets himself into dramatic situations, and he's got pretty much every different conflict you could want. His buddy Queequeg is maybe the coolest guy we've encountered in the classics so far. So Moby Dick is a masterpiece, right? A work of "can't put it down" literature to rival anything else I've ever read? Nope.
Quite simply about 45% of Moby Dick is really really boring. Our boy Ishmael decides he needs to prove he knows about whales and boy does he ever. We learn about every kind of whale, where they live, how to hunt them, their anatomy, and on and on and on. It just gets to be way too much. The character studies of Captain Ahab, Queequag, and the rest of the crew are brilliant and engrossing, but when they're separated by fifty pages about whale blubber you tend to get bogged down. But there is a lot of good.
Through the relationship between Queequag and Ishmael we get a look at mid-19th Century race and class relations. The book is genuinely funny at some points. Ahab is a fascinating (if over the top) character. The sea and the whale are front and center characters. Ahab's quest for the whale is all consuming and consumes the reader. I read the novel as a narrative about a guy chasing a whale at the expense of everything and everyone in his life, not as some metaphor for our desperate chase of the unattainable. Why do I not delve into these philosophical questions? Because Melville tells me not to!!

"So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory."

So maybe this is why we get so much info on whales, because otherwise people wouldn't believe a word of it. I also appreciate Melville saying this is NOT an allegory, it's about a guy chasing down an asshole whale. If you're a good enough writer (Melville is) then you don't have to shoehorn metaphors and symbolism into a novel, they just happen because we can relate to the experience of the characters. 

Rating 6.5/10: Too much whale talk = too boring for me. Let me edit this thing down to a tight 400 pages and we can talk. I like Melville's short stories better. 

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