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The Great Book Adventure: Moby Dick – Part Two

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Whether it be in writing or in any other part of life, nothing so irritates me as someone stubbornly refusing to play to their strengths. I, for instance, am not a guitar player, nor will I ever be. Oh, I have a guitar, and like to play around with it every now and again, but I will never be any good. I know this, I accept this, and I certainly won't be exposing other people to my "music." How I wish Herman Melville would have thought the same when he sat down to write Moby Dick.

I touched on this in Part One, but Melville just seems hell-bent on putting on this professor hat and lecturing to the reader on some aspect of whales or whaling. The story will be moving along at a brilliant pace when, suddenly, a chapter will end and the new one will feature the ins and outs of how whale ships exchange news. In another place, he will go on about misconceptions landsmen have about whalers, and in another place he stops everything to tell a story Ishmael heard from another whaling ship. None of these diversions, at least insofar as I can tell, have anything to do with the main thrust of the novel. When one of these chapters strike, it's like turning the page into a different book. The tone changes, the chapters are often longer, and it is dreadfully boring. Imagine if Dan Brown had stopped everything in the Da Vinci Code to ramble on about the chemistry behind the types of paint in the Mona Lisa. Not secret chemistry either, just plain old recipes for making 16th century Italian pigments.

When he's on his story, though, the author is positively masterful. After cruising a bit, Ahab relents a little in his single-mindedness and allows the men to lower away in chase of whales other than Moby Dick. The first time this happens, a whale is spotted and the men are swinging the boats out when Melville ends a chapter with this: "But at this critical instant a sudden exclamation was heard that took every eye from the whale. With a start all glared at dark Ahab, who was surrounded by five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air."

That's the sort of cliffhanger ending that makes you stay up way past your bed time. J.K. Rowling especially cost me hours of sleep pulling tricks like that. This instance, however, is one of the few times I can remember a canon author using what seems like such a tried and true method. Thankfully, Melville stays focused and we find out that Ahab has been keeping a secret crew of vaguely Middle-Eastern/Asian whalers. The chase which follows is well written and exciting, even though they don't get the whale (which I thought was a nice touch, especially so early on). In other places, like chapter 51: "The Spirit-Spout," Melville tightly wraps the novel in the mystery inherent in the sea. When he wants to, he can be a positively engrossing storyteller. I think the fact that he is so good in places makes the snooze-fest chapters that much harder to bear.

Something which caught me completely off-guard, although I guess I should have been expecting it, came when the Pequod's crew actually catches a whale. It wasn't just that they killed a whale, but it is the sheer violence with which it is described that turned my stomach. The scene created such a visceral reaction in me that I almost put the book down entirely. This was a cultural clash waiting to happen. After all, I grew up in a world in which whales were something to be saved. To Melville and his audience, whales were monstrous fish. They were giant mackerel which could capsize your boat right before they sucked you down to a watery death. This is a fundamental shift in perspective which, frankly, I'm surprised didn't come up sooner. Be that as it may, the scene still ranks up there for me as one of the cruelest passages of writing I've ever read.

The crew has been chasing a sperm whale, and has finally brought it to heel. After one of the mates, Stubbs, works the whale through with his harpoon, the beast dies: "At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea." This, after the build up, in which Stubbs was "churning and churning" his harpoon in the whale's side, was tough to take. The graphic cruelty reminded me of the rape scene in The Kite Runner.

I don't think Melville was trying to be sensational. It is clear halfway through the book that he definitely holds the whaling industry and its practitioners near and dear to his heart. He researched their world intensively, and I think he is dedicated to presenting a complete and honest picture. In the above instance, he just found a more dramatic way to do that than droning on about "erroneous pictures" of whales. What I don't understand yet is why, if he loved it so much, he would center his story on a Captain so over the top. That Ahab will find Moby Dick, I have no doubt. Exactly what that confrontation will mean, however, gives me good cause to read on.

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