Sunday, February 28, 2010

Me v. Moby: Part Four

3:41 p.m. I have returned and am ready for Ahab’s first on-page appearance.

3:52 p.m. The first words out of Captain Ahab’s mouth: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb.”

Tell Dan Brown that this is how you foreshadow.

3:56 p.m. Melville mostly lets other characters describe Ahab, instead of allowing Ahab to reveal himself. Normally, I don’t care for that tactic. It errors on the tell side of “show, don’t tell.” But who cares when Melville does it this well?

Stubbs’ (the second mate’s) description of Ahab: “I guess he’s got what some folks ashore call a conscience.”

That’s a good line in any context.

4:05 p.m. I reached the chapter, Cetology, which Garrett Morrison warned me about. Consider me braced.

4:13 p.m. Beautiful phrase: “To grope down in to the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing.”

4:29 p.m. I’m relieved that Melville occasionally interrupts his scientific dissertation on whales with actual writing.

Melville’s assessment of the name Killer Whale: “Exception might be taken to the name bestowed upon this whale, on the ground of its indistinctness. For we are all killers, on land and on sea; Bonapartes and Sharks included.”

4:35 p.m. I can complain about Melville’s need to describe every room in every inn and man on the Pequod, but I must acknowledge that he understands pacing. Yes, he devoted a chapter to chowder; but it was only three pages. He slows his momentum with his obsessive descriptions but never for too long.

But Cetology—the chapter, not the study of whales—is egregious. In a book that limits most chapters to three or four pages, Melville dedicates 12 pages to list the myriad of whale species. Meanwhile, the story grinds to a halt.

There is no mention of Ahab, Stubb, or Quee and Ishmael only exists as the narrator. For 12 pages, the story ceases to exist and you are reading an article of National Geographic. Melville’s categorization is interesting and occasionally funny. But it isn’t the story that I’ve already spent more than six hours reading today.

The narrative voice also changes. Ishmael disappears, and he is replaced by an unacknowledged Melville. This wouldn’t be a problem at the beginning or the end of the story, but it’s a distraction when thrust into the middle.

OK, enough complaining. Sadly, I write more when the story bores or upsets me. When it’s good, I’m too busy reading to complain. I’m ready to get back to the story. I hope Melville is too.

-Jason Lea,

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