Sunday, June 21, 2015

Moby-Dick Days

My love affair with Moby-Dick began in kindergarten. That sounds like the start of an awkward joke, but it’s true.
        My mother was a fan of “accelerated learning.” She felt that kids should start reading much earlier than the school system recommended in the 1960s, and I was her guinea pig. When I was three, she stuck flashcards all over the house, labeling every object—sofa, lamp, wall—and drilled me on them constantly. The next year, she hired a local woman to tutor me in reading the usual first books, Dick and Jane–type stuff. (I vaguely remember one called Nose Is Not Toes.) So by the time I started kindergarten, I could read pretty well. That put me way ahead of the other kids, since at our school they didn’t teach reading until the first grade.

The trophy book
Frankly, having an academic jump on everybody else made me into a little monster. I lorded my reading abilities over the other kindergartners, reading signs out loud and haughtily carrying books around. At recess, I’d sit reading whatever I could get my hands on—ham radio magazines, dinosaur books, lists of the kings of England; didn’t matter. In the school library, I walked past all the kids’ books and went right for the grown-up novels, checking out whatever was big and intimidating-looking. And the biggest, fattest book, weighing in at more than 500 pages, was Moby-Dick. All through kindergarten that book was my constant companion. I checked it out over and over, just to have the satisfaction of walking around with it under my arm.
        Trouble was, I never read it. I couldn’t read it, even with my accelerated-learning super powers, because that book was hard. I kept looking at the first page and could never make heads or tails of it. “Call me Ishmael”? Like, he won’t even tell us his real name? And what was up with the long sentences and turned-around, foreign-sounding language? It wasn’t like any other book I’d seen. I skimmed forward a few chapters, and they didn’t even go to sea for, like, 100 pages.

Call me bored
Fast-forward—gulp—almost 50 years, to a couple of months ago. I was sitting in a theater one night during a dress rehearsal. This is part of my job; I have to go to a lot of these rehearsals, and this one was taking forever, with very long intermissions and pauses to fix things. I’d brought my Kindle, loaded with literary journals and a few classic novels for just such emergencies. During an especially long wait, I turned it on and saw I had Moby-Dick on there. I had to laugh—I’d forgotten that I’d downloaded it months earlier as a joke with myself. I thought, what the hell, I’ve got all this time on my hands. Let’s see if I can get past that first page. Here we go again: “Call me Ishmael...”
        And you know, not only was I able to get past that first page, but I loved that book. I went home and read some more, and stayed up reading it every single night at bedtime for the next 50 nights.*
        I will say now, having finished that big book, that I’m glad I didn’t try to read it at a younger age. Even more glad that I wasn’t forced to slog through it for some class, though I often wished I had a fellow reader to talk things over with. Years ago, I think I would have been impatient with all the poetic language and the crazy-quilt mix of tones and styles. But now I was loving it so much that I started tweeting a line from it every day (@writersisland), a fun project that made me comb through it looking for snippets under 140 characters (a real challenge with Melville, who did go on).
        More than anything, I was surprised at how readable and entertaining it is. Like…well…a whale, it’s this big living, breathing creature, turning and glinting and diving for hours and breaching up, marvelous, where you least expect it. I can genuinely say I’ve never read anything else like it.
        Here are other things that surprised me:

Illustration for 1902 edition:
"Moby-Dick swam swiftly round
and round the wrecked crew." 
It’s a ripping yarn.
As in, a page-turner, a potboiler, an action-adventure that actually left me gasping sometimes. Okay, not every page—it starts off slow—but once you’re on the ship and the hunt begins, it unfolds and unfolds with the dangerously obsessed captain and the very nice first mate who tries to talk some sense into him, and an extremely motley crew caught between them. Plus, sharks and squids and cruelty and peg legs and near drowning and actual drowning and wrecked boats.

It’s an encyclopedic tour of the whaling industry, circa 1850.
Seriously, if you want to know how whales have been portrayed in classical literature, how blubber is boiled and what it’s used for afterward—even how the boilers themselves are made—or what the inside of a whale’s mouth looks like, what’s lurking in its gut, or how the sinews of its tail are constructed, it’s all in this book. In vivid, sometimes stomach-churning detail, told by an extremely entertaining tour guide.

It’s like a zig-zagging conversation with your crazy uncle.
You know, the one who served in France in the army and tells you minutiae about the experience every time you see him. But every little thought leads him off on some digression—like, he’s telling you about this chef he met in Lyons, which gets him talking about escargot, which takes him to how snails are raised, which leads to the Fibonacci sequence, found in natural objects ranging from nautilus shells to pine cones to pineapples, but the nautilus part is disputed, which leads him to that trip he took to Vanuatu in 1964, where he went snorkeling and met that woman he left his wife for. And what was he talking about? Oh, France. That uncle.

Style-wise, Melville threw in everything but the kitchen sink.
I sometimes found myself sitting there, reading this thing and thinking, “Did he even have an editor? Who would have agreed to all this?” We’ve got a chapter told entirely in internal monologue from the point of view of one of the mates, then another, and then we never hear from them again. And one chapter is all Ahab muttering to himself. Then your chatty tour guide is back for 20 chapters or so. This thing would get boiled alive in a college creative writing workshop.

We never get to know Ishmael.
I love this device. Ishmael, who tells this story, is a fly on the wall the whole way. Somehow he’s privy to conversations he shouldn’t hear and other people’s thoughts that he couldn’t possibly know. We never figure out how much he’s making up, or where exactly on the ship he is, or what exactly his job is. It reminded me of another wonderful mysterious narrator, the one in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In Midnight, the narrator is the author, John Berendt, telling this crazy true story of his friends and neighbors in Savannah. But he moves so deftly through the events that we barely see him. He’s there, but the book is not about him. Ishmael, similarly, always seems to be listening at the door. By the end you’ve heard this great tale, and then you’re like, Wait, come back—who are you?

It made me laugh out loud.
Actual, explosive guffaws. Many of them. Melville would have made a great dinner guest; he’s wry and arch at the most unexpected times. He manages to lampoon the wealthy, the ignorant, and the gasbags that seem to come with every profession, all while making you slightly seasick with all the details about sails and cargo and blood and boilers. That is a fine line, and he walks it.

It reads like freakin’ music.
Time and again, I had to stop and reread a sentence because it was so beautiful. I read entire chapters out loud, acting out all the parts as if I were making an audio book. The language is so theatrical that you can’t help rolling it around in your mouth. Again, this probably works better now that I’m older, since my head is now filled with a lot of Shakespeare, whose influence on Melville is unmistakable. But Melville infused the language with his own idiosyncrasies, which ended up sounding alternately like the Bard without line breaks and then like the Bible through some sort of warped looking glass. Dude could write.

"Boats Attacking Whales," 1839
It’s sad in unintended ways.
For all this book’s beauty, you can’t read it from a 21st-century perspective and not feel queasy. Melville was a product of his time, and his descriptions of people of color are not kind—they’re savages, they’re ridiculous, they’re inscrutable. Even the harpooner Queequeg and Pip, the cabin boy—both crucial to the story—are childlike characters who never really develop into three-dimensional people. And to those who say Melville was some sort of early environmentalist, I don’t think so; he touches lyrically on the havoc man was wreaking on the natural world, but in the next turn he brushes it off. Even in his most soul-crushing scenes of man’s cruelty to whales, to dolphins, to anything that moved or might be regarded as food or fuel—there is endless stabbing and cutting and bleeding in this book—the men doing it are often painted in a heroic light. At one point Melville says there were too many whales to ever fish them out; they had places to hide (under the ice sheets, he said), and there would always be plenty of them. And true, the harpoon-and-rope whaling of Melville’s time, deadly as it was, had its limitations; he probably couldn’t have foreseen the destruction brought by 20th-century mechanized whaling, which nearly wiped out whales everywhere. I kept thinking that Melville’s bravado-tinged-with-melancholy felt like just the kind of thinking that’s hurtling us toward the end of the world. Whales had products that we wanted for convenience and industry; they were big business, so we killed them for it. Much like how wolves got in our way, so we killed them for it. Above the storytelling, above the feverish genius of Melville’s writing, there hangs this grand tragedy that humans were bringing down on themselves and everything around them—and which continues today.

Sperm whale. (Photo: Tim Cole, NOAA)

* I know this because the Kindle keeps track of what percentage of the book you’ve read, not page numbers, and I found that 2% was about all I could handle in one night. That’s only about 10 pages of the printed version, but if you’ve read it, well, you know—it’s dense. Like dog years.

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