'Epic Pale Whale Fail': Oswalt's Contribution To 'Moby-Dick'

Actor and comedian Patton Oswalt appeared at three Los Angeles library branches Saturday to read aloud from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and discuss its complexities with audience members. Host Arun Rath talks to Oswalt about his obsession with the white whale.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

From NPR West, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

It's one of the monuments of American literature, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." The Los Angeles library system posed a challenge to Twitter followers recently. Send us your best 140-character summary of the novel. Among the responses they received: Epic pale whale fail, Ishmael goes fishing with Ahab who has male fish issues and: We're going to need a bigger metaphor. Those three were submitted by comedian Patton Oswalt.

And today, his contribution grew beyond 140 characters. Patton has been barnstorming three L.A. area libraries today reading excerpts from "Moby-Dick" and leading group discussions about the book. It seems he's got his own obsession with the white whale. I spoke with Oswalt before he embarked, and I asked him why he wanted to do it.

PATTON OSWALT: The novel "Moby-Dick" is my Moby Dick, in that I've taken all these runs at it, but I've never actually managed to finish it. I've taken big bites, I've read excerpts. There are all these intriguing elements of it, but I've never captured the whole of it. So I thought this would be really fun to do, go to three L.A. area libraries and then talking with whomever shows up about - especially because the first library that I'm reading at is the Will & Ariel Durant branch, and they - there are some very extreme personalities that frequent that particular branch.

RATH: How so?

OSWALT: How do I put it? There's a lot of people in there that are clutching their manifestos. So they all - it is - I'm reading an excerpt of "Moby-Dick" in a room full of people pursuing their own psychologically damaged versions of Moby Dick. So maybe they'll give me the spark and insight out of left field that'll make me just power all the way through this novel once and for all.

RATH: So they think, like, this is all about class conflict or this is about sex or...

OSWALT: Again, that shows you what a great novel this is. It can serve anyone's purpose. It can serve anyone's agenda, and it can serve anyone's pathology, really. It's written through the viewpoint of a very damaged, lonely, moody guy that is just trying to fill the time in between his depressions, which I think for certain people, they're like, yes, that's - oh, my God. So...

RATH: Sounds like "Taxi Driver."

OSWALT: Yeah, exactly. And he - and it also implies that before going on this whaling voyage, Ahab traveled the world and convinced some very dangerous people that you shouldn't go talk to, to go: I need you to come up to New England, cold awful New England in the United States and get on my crappy ship, and we're going to go kill this whale. And it's not going to benefit you. I'm just in a really bad - and he somehow - he's like this Jim Jones, Charles Manson type.

It's like Jim Jones recruiting Charles Manson. That is what - that's what's going on on this ship.

RATH: What do you make of the fact that these are, like, these archetypical, like, American characters that...

OSWALT: Because the reason America became the superpower that it is, I'm convinced, is because it was - and someone else pointed this out to me, a comedian named Bob Somerby back in Baltimore. He goes: America was not founded by stable, emotionally even people. It was founded by religious extremists who didn't think that church was miserable enough in England. They wanted to make it worse.

So they got on these horrible ships, went across oceans that they thought were filled with monsters to another country where they thought the woods were filled with demons and then just kept pushing westward. Everything about America is dissatisfaction. We're being - we're driven by a foul mood, and we're driven by obsession. But that's, in a weird way it's why we rule the world, because we're the crazy, obsessive person.

You know, it's weird how you look at the quality of life in places like Sweden and Finland is better. And I think one of the reasons their quality of life is better is because they're like, we're number seven, and we're cool with that. We actually - because, Arun, it's like, if you're a driver for Domino's Pizza, that's a pretty cool job. But if you're the manager, you have ulcers and stress. You're constantly trying to meet these quotas, you know? And so Ishmael and Ahab are that in microcosm, basically.

RATH: Ahab is like the - a Domino's manager.

OSWALT: He is the stressed-out manager who is crushing up No Doz and snorting it so he can work two shifts. And he has drivers who won't listen to him, and he's screaming at everybody, and he has to meet that 30-minute limit everywhere. And they have all kinds of dumb promotions he has to keep on top of. It's a nightmare.

RATH: So what sections did you choose to read for your library reads?

OSWALT: Well, I'm going to read, obviously, the very famous opening paragraph, which the thing with the opening paragraph is, it's way more famous for its first line. And then people don't go into the - what the actual paragraph is, which is a pretty dark portrait of the guy we're about to spend 900 pages with.

It is, you know, everyone thinks Ishmael is this hardy New England sailor, like kind of a Matt Damon type, like, here we go. This is going to be really fun and upbeat. And then you read this first paragraph, and you're like, this guy's more like a Leonard Cohen or a, you know, this guy's really gloomy.

RATH: Do you want to read that for us because most people don't get beyond "call me Ishmael"?

OSWALT: I want to read this - yeah. Yeah. This is what happens after the sentence. And it's a - and by the way, the whole - the name of the chapter is "Loomings," for God's sake. So it's like a guy journaling in the morning and writing about his depression. So listen to this. And there's going to be a lot of people in a lot of Starbucks who listen to this going, oh, God, that's - that was my blog post yesterday.

This is a blog post. This opening is a depressed teenage blog post. Here we go: "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses," - this guy's like a goth. He literally is a goth - sorry - "and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;" - Ishmael, come on! - "and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand on me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street..."

I - it's - I'm sorry. Morrissey would read this and go: Dude, you need to turn a cartwheel, talk to some children. Sorry. "To prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this."

Oh, yes there is, Ishmael. "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the oceans with me." Ishmael, no they don't, dude, because they're not thinking of stepping into traffic, falling on a sword, shooting themselves, following funerals around and hanging around in front of coffin warehouses. Good God. Wow. Anyway, so that was - that was - that's - so again, OK, folks, there's your Ishmael. Go hang out with him.

RATH: And this is our narrator, and this is one of the less messed-up people on that boat.

OSWALT: This is the stable guy that we turn to, to tell us the story. Everyone else in the boat is crazier than him. Ahab's gone around the world and gathered up all these religious extremists, the Zoroastrians and stuff, that he keeps just chained or - not even chained. They just want to be down in the hold. Like, he's assembled this justice league of obsessives that he's going to unleash on the whale. So that aspect of it is what is going on underneath the planks, the deck of the Pequod. They hint at it. But it's pretty dark.

RATH: We were talking a bit before we started about how this book has just had such an amazing cultural resonance. My own favorite would be "Wrath of Khan."

OSWALT: Yeah. "Wrath of Khan" is "Moby-Dick" in space with Kirk is the white whale and Khan is, of course, Ahab.

RATH: And they pull lines actually straight out of the book that they get to...

OSWALT: Oh, he - yeah. He screams "Moby-Dick" lines at Captain Kirk.

RATH: That's right.

OSWALT: "From hell's heart I stab at thee." And then you said you had already seen "Wrath of Khan." Then when you read it, you went, oh, that's where they got this.

RATH: That's where they got those great lines for Khan.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: He ripped off Melville. What a great book.

OSWALT: Yeah, exactly. It would be really fascinating if some nutball over at HBO or Showtime, some obsessive, did a massive miniseries like a "John Adams" or a "Rome" but do - like, we're doing "Moby-Dick."

RATH: Who would you cast?

OSWALT: Ahab and Ishmael, let me think. Oh, yeah, easy, Seth Rogan and James Franco.

(LAUGHTER)

OSWALT: No. Let me think who I'd cast. You know who might be a really interesting - the go-to choice in my head would be Christopher Walken as Ahab. But also, Tommy Lee Jones would be really interesting. And then as Ishmael maybe - wait a minute. Paul Dano is Ishmael and Daniel Day-Lewis as Ahab. Good God. It's right there. It's right there.

RATH: That's comedian Patton Oswalt. He spent the day at various L.A. area libraries reading aloud from "Moby-Dick." Patton Oswalt, thank you so much.

OSWALT: Thank you for - this was great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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