Saturday, March 28, 2009

Moby Dick

Well, it's taken me some considerable time, but I've finally finished Moby Dick. Remarkable. I understand it wasn't greatly received on its publication and I can see why: in some ways it must be considered a complete mess, and the sheer experimentalism (is that a word?) and inventiveness of it must have been perplexing. The style shifts and changes throughout, as does its focus. Initally, it seems to be the (astoundingly homoerotic) story of Ishmael and Queequeg, but they fall out of the story almost completely (itself an interesting stylistic point, given that Ishmael is the narrator...)

As the story progresses, and especially as we approach the moment of destiny with the whale, the style becomes astonishing. At times it doesn't read as a novel at all, but rather a stage play, with stage directions and long soliloquys. Melville dispenses with narrative and description almost entirely, and the result is an intense focus on Ahab and his quest. It is powerful stuff.

It would never get published today, of course. That's quite a sobering thought, isn't it?


Brad Green said...

Why wouldn't it get published today? There are plenty of novels out that are dense and labyrinth-like and a stylistic challenge. Littel's The Kindly Ones, Bolano's 2666, damn near anything by Pynchon...McCarthy even. There's a different measure of mess in each of them. All published. All successful.

Even if it wasn't successful like the authors mentioned above, it'd get published in small press for sure.

The real question always is would anyone read it?

Tom Conoboy said...

Mmm, you might be right, I might be unduly pessimistic. Though Bolano was Chilean and made his reputation there first, while Pynchon made his back in the sixties, which were very different times.

I think, if it did get published today, it would look very different. All those long factual sections on the biology of whales and the history of whaling would be expunged, I'm sure. Mind you, that would possibly improve it.

It's definitely a novel to read for the ending. It takes a long time to get there but once it does it has set the scene brilliantly, so the battle between Ahab and the whale and the metaphysical context surrounding that are wonderfully handled.

Brad Green said...

Well, on second thought (if we discount the US small press entirely) maybe you are right. That Littel book was originally published in France, I think, and it wasn't till it garnered a significant readership that the US publisher picked it up.

But that's ok. The US publishing industry can hang its hat on Stephanie Meyers, right?

I'm making fun of things I really know nothing about, but I wonder how many "major" modern authors are US nurtured and grown?

Tom Conoboy said...

I suspect there may be a more vibrant literary scene, but it's not too visible. I posted a link a while back to the NY Times list of the best books of the past 25 years. It's a very conservative list. Toni Morrison is there at number one, but otherwise it's all old, white men: Updike, Roth, McCarthy. That's not to criticise those three authors, each of whom I've reviewed on here several times. But I'm convinced there's more going on in the US literary scene. Authors like Percival Everett, who I've also written about on here a lot, are producing exciting stuff, but it's not getting publicity.

I think one of the problems is that in the US I believe universities and colleges teach using the major anthologies - Norton etc, and so if a writer isn't in those he or she has little chance of being studied. It makes for a very static canon, I would suggest.