Books

Moby-Dick: In Which Whale Fatigue Becomes A Significant Challenge

Linda: I am experiencing whale fatigue.

Marc: You should probably switch to chicken, then.

Linda: YOU ARE NOT TAKING ME SERIOUSLY.

Marc: Oh, pish posh. You're more than halfway through!

Linda: When he told the really long story about what's-his-face the mutineer, and then there were like five chapters of "let me tell you how hard it is to depict a whale in a wood carving," I started to think, "Now I understand why people find this book a drag."

Marc: Yeah, this is the part I feel like you have to get through, rather than the part that carries you. Not so much the Town-Ho's story (must... be... adult...), which had the momentum of a solid (if digressive) narrative, but the "This will be the only book on whales that anyone will ever read, or have room on their shelves for" part. Which isn't over.

Linda: I just felt, with the story of the Town-Ho (hee hee), like I kind of ... got lost in the layers. "I will now tell you the story of the time I told the story of hearing a story that happened to other people, and in the middle of that story, I will, among other things, stop to explain several things, thus interrupting the story of telling the story of being told the story."

Marc: Yes, well. I think we can both agree that Melville isn't interested in leaving out details. I mean, the second paragraph of chapter 63, "The Crotch" ( remain... mature... ), begins "The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention."

NO. It doesn't. It really, really doesn't.

Linda: As soon as they killed the whale, which is supposed to be this massively suspenseful event, I thought to myself, "All storytelling momentum will now be interrupted while we explore in great detail exactly what happens to the whale's corpse," and that is EXACTLY what occurred.

Marc: Think of all the questions you would have had if he had left that to your imagination.

Linda: I just ... the descriptions of the shape of the bites the sharks take from the whale's body, I realize that it makes me seem impatient and like a bad reader, and it is for that reason that I am confessing in the first place, but it makes me feel like I am drifting ever farther from the STORY PART of the story.

Which is still what I am most interested in.

Marc: Well, not to be too much of a spoiler, but I believe there comes a point where he pretty much exhausts every "Did you know...?" about whaling and ship life and so forth, and all he has left is the story.

Linda: I keep feeling like maybe that's why he continues, basically halfway through the book, to tell me, "I'm telling you all this because it will be relevant to my majestic tale, once I stop pantsing around and decide to tell it to you."

The struggle continues, after the jump.

Marc: Could be. I agree it's not the most elegant or organic way of introducing this info.

Not to keep harping on this, but it would certainly be a lot easier to swallow (with or without baleen) without his "Everybody is stupid about whales but me" approach. In Chapter 55, he pretty much dismisses the concept of the narwhal out of hand as preposterous and believed only by uneducated morons who still believe in unicorns. And then he follows it up by mocking a scientist who's never been on a whaling ship and therefore clearly doesn't know sperm from spumoni.

Linda: I just ... I understand the appeal of the book. I do. I have enjoyed much of it. But there is this sense of ... first, Moby Dick is mentioned. Then you see a different whale. Then you meet people who have spotted Moby Dick. Then you get the red-herring squid. And there's part of me that, as Glen Weldon told me it would, is ready to get to the fireworks factory, already.

Marc: Boy, do I understand that.

On the other hand, there are definitely parts where Melville's writing really shines. Allow me, if I may, to direct your attention to this, from chapter 53:

"Because, in the case of pirates, say, I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on."

As Tracy Jordan would say: Wordplay!

Linda: I know. I noticed that, too. And I'm not saying I hate it, I'm just saying that at the moment, I am struggling with it. I had to read the entire Town-Ho story twice, basically. I kept losing track amid the digressions.

Marc: But he preserved the style he told it in Lima! "For my humor's sake"!

Speaking of his humor, let's also look at the opening paragraph of chapter 57:

"On Tower-hill, as you go down to the London docks, you may have seen a crippled beggar (or kedger, as the sailors say) holding a painted board before him, representing the tragic scene in which he lost his leg. There are three whales and three boats; and one of the boats (presumed to contain the missing leg in all its original integrity) is being crunched by the jaws of the foremost whale. Any time these ten years, they tell me, has that man held up that picture, and exhibited that stump to an incredulous world. But the time of his justification has now come. His three whales are as good whales as were ever published in Wapping, at any rate; and his stump as unquestionable a stump as any you will find in the western clearings. But, though for ever mounted on that stump, never a stump-speech does the poor whaleman make; but, with downcast eyes, stands ruefully contemplating his own amputation."

Lotta jokes going on here. The image of the boat being crunched (and the assumption — though not 100% definite — that the "missing leg" is on it somewhere).

The fact that the whales are as good whales as have ever been published (in Wapping, anyway).

The fact that his stump is, boy howdy, definitely a stump. (Which is related in a manner that could almost be used on Black Adder : "His stump was as stumpy as an excessively stumpy stump.")

The terrible, terrible pun with "stump-speech."

I approve of it all. Even if it suggests that even Melvishmael is so bored by this stuff that he has to make his own fun.

Linda: I am not denying the fun of parts of it. I am saying that it was a very long story to ultimately amount to "the one guy was a jerk, so Steelkit was going to kill him, but then Moby Dick ate him first. The end."

Marc: "So we are able to be happy about his death without those pesky moral qualms about actively murdering him."

Linda: "In some way, this will be relevant to my terribly tragic tale that I am going to tell you sometime in the second half of this book although GOD ONLY KNOWS when I am going to get around to it, because I haven't even detailed the managing of the whale corpse yet beyond lashing it to the side of the boat WHICH I AM PRETTY SURE is not the last aspect of whale corpse management that I am going to explain."

Marc: In the meantime: pun ho!

Linda: What did you call me?

Marc: We are trying SO HARD to keep this conversation aboveboard, people. Truly, our standards have plummeted.

Linda: I just feel like I am a bad reader.

Marc: I suspect that you are not the first person to object to the pacing and tangential detail of this book.

Linda: I just ... I don't want to be the person who only likes breezy, contemporary fiction, and I don't think I am. But I am fighting whale fatigue, I cannot deny it.

Marc: No, I understand. And there are times when I'm right there with you. Without meaning to bait actually English professors and literary critics, I can say that from my point of view, Moby-Dick is a deeply flawed landmark (or masterpiece, if you're so inclined). I firmly believe that it is simply too much book not to be. (Which is not the same as being too long.) I took great, if not consistent, pleasure out of reading it the first time, and there are passages that I believe are among the greatest in the English language. And ever since I finished it, I've been proud to display it on my bookshelf as a trophy.

I don't think I ever would have read it again (in its entirety, anyway) if not for this book-club challenge.

Linda: Yeah, I'm just frustrated. Because I'm trying to be ... you know, give-things-a-chance person.

Marc: Next book-club challenge: Danielle Steele's Star!

(Note to readers: this is not the next book-club challenge.)

Linda: I am concerned about my whale-adjacent stamina.

Marc: Well, you've made it over the hump, so it should be smooth sailing from here on out.

Wordplay!

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