Books

'Moby-Dick': Now We're Getting Somewhere, With The Gun And The Coffin

3D rendering of a sperm whale
iStockphoto.com

What we read this week: Chapters 96-110

What we will read for next week: Chapters 111-126

Marc: I would like to build an entire whaling expedition, from building the ship on up, from scratch. Do you know where I might find all the information I need to do that?

Linda: It's funny you should ask, because I was thinking of building a whale skeleton to precisely realistic dimensions.

Marc: Your plan sounds infinitely more sinister.

Linda: But I, too, think I have an idea of where I might get this information.

Marc: I like the part where Melville says that whales are big and therefore demand a massive, unwieldy book, which would not be the same with fleas. I can almost hear 150 years' worth of American writers cracking their knuckles and saying, "Challenge accepted!"

Linda: Well, to be honest, I finally started to get a sense this week of part of the reason, perhaps, that there's all this endless prattling about things he doesn't know anything about, from a storytelling perspective.

He starts talking about the Try-Works, and he's got himself steering, and then he gets turned around facing the wrong way, right? And all of a sudden, there's that explosion of prose, about "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness." And it began to occur to me that he's fully documenting the size of the whale skeleton because the actual story is too difficult to tell. Like, it feels like he's pantsing around because he is, and the story and the emotion of it are just starting to leak out now with these explosions of hollering, so to speak. Which is kind of consistent with the fact that the early chapters where he meets Queequeg are so much more casual and readable — he's much farther from the bad part of the story.The closer he gets to it, the more he stalls.

Marc: Well, that leads very nicely into the other thing I wanted to bring up, which was chapter 110, "Queequeg In His Coffin." Here you've got the narrator's best friend, to whom he formed a matrimonial bond in the opening chapters, and he's dying of Whale Fever or whatever, and Ishmael can't seem to give a solid [darn] about it. Just casually recounts the story with less emotion than he displayed when talking about a crazy person nailing a coin to a mast. Then Queequeg gets better and pretty much all Ishmael can say is that savages aren't malingering whiners like civilized men. Incident over!

So I'm trying to figure out exactly what was going on here, why to Ishmael Queequeg's possible death merited less emotion than the two of them simply going to sleep in the early chapters. The available options seem to be:

1) Melville sort of lost track of what he was doing in all of the nautical blueprints and render-your-own-whale-oil D.I.Y. chapters.

2) Ishmael realizes that he got married way, way too young and was shocked to discover that he was hoping to become a widow in order to get out of it.

3) Pip and Ishmael accidentally touched Yojo simultaneously, causing the two to switch bodies, meaning that at some point, dead-souled Pip started narrating the story without us realizing it.

4) What you said.

Linda: Well, having the guy start using his own coffin as a coffee table (or whatever) isn't exactly the most subtle foreshadowing of trouble to come that I have ever heard. I'll say that much.

Marc: Maybe it was all an elaborate scam to get free carpentry.

Linda: Speaking of free carpentry: how about that new leg?

Marc: "Make me a new leg." "What's wrong with the old one?" "Nothing, really. I have a feeling, is all. I'M THE CAPTAIN."

Linda: It's also quite a coincidence that he ran into someone who had an ARM eaten by Moby Dick. I have a theory that Moby Dick is trying to assemble an entire human body, one part at a time. When they meet the guy with the artificial head, you'll know I'm right.

After all, we learned here that Moby Dick can't actually eat a leg. So he's SAVING it.

Marc: He's deathly white, wrinkled and huge. Moby Dick is Frankenstein's monster! He's trying to build a friend!

Linda: He's assembled from parts of whales that were found floating in the ocean! This makes perfect sense.

On that point, actually: it was interesting, because I knew intellectually that you couldn't, like, keep your whales with you and bring them back to shore, but I had never really thought about the fact that you'd obviously have to have a massive furnace and an oil-rendering operation on the ship. Not to mention oil storage and maintenance.

Marc: Which you now know how to build.

Linda: And maintain. And test for leaks. When whaling comes back, I'm going to be all set.

Marc: You and a bunch of disgruntled seventh-graders.

Linda: We also have, in this section, the moment in which Ahab pulls the musket on Starbuck, if I was following correctly. Not that it's always easy to follow who, at any given moment, is talking.

Marc: Correct. When Starbuck had the audacity to suggest that they should consider making sure that all of the oil they've harvested thus far doesn't leak away to nothing. You know. Crazy talk.

Linda: And then Ahab pulled the gun on him, and then stopped to save the oil anyway. We know not why.

Marc: I'm beginning to think that that guy's not right in the head.

Linda: I think he might be ... MONOMANIACAL. You'll never guess how I reached this conclusion.

Marc: It was carved on the whalebone neck you got after the one you were born with was chomped off in action?

Linda: That is a very good guess. But I was referring to the number of times that the word "monomaniacal" and its variants are used to describe Ahab.

Marc: Fascinating!

Linda: I know it's surprising.

Marc: Next thing you'll tell me that Heathcliff was "brooding." Or that Edward Cullen was "perfect."

Linda: A full-text search I found online suggests that on this point, Melville might have benefited from a thesaurus.

Marc: And a red pen.

Linda: Looks like 15 times in the book. I can't GUARANTEE they all refer to Ahab, but I'm thinking most of them do.

Marc: One of them might refer to Father Mapple.

Linda: Sure. At any rate, at this point, Ahab seems to have a few problems.

Marc: Well, he's not man enough to pull the trigger, for one.

Linda: Well, he generally is experiencing some tension with Starbuck. And he can't find his whale. And he's worried about his leg.

Marc: He did seem to parry the cheerful embrace of the Missing Limbs Club.

Linda: It sounded like watching him climb up onto the other ship was, as they say, awkward.

Marc: Yes. "How about we throw you on a big hook instead?"

Linda: Their ship was not ivory-leg accessible.

Marc: I was going to make an ADA joke, but actually, you'd think that of all workplaces, a whaling ship would make sure to equip itself with conveyances appropriate for the one-legged. If only to clear them out at the end of the voyage.

Linda: Well, apparently, losing a limb while whaling is pretty common. Maybe they just use the hook for everybody. "Face me with your belt loop."

Marc: "This is really undignified, you know that."

Linda: It is not particularly appropriate treatment of the ivory-legged, no. As I said, that is awkward.

Marc: That's okay. Ahab really needs to be taken down a peg.

Linda: BOOOOOOOOO.

Marc: [accepts applause]

Linda: It was booing!

Marc: You are welcome, America.

Linda: I'm over here trying to explain how I learned to tolerate the dimensions of the whale skeletons because it has a story point, and you're making your pegleg puns.

Marc: It's called teamwork, Linda.

Linda: You know what's REALLY teamwork? Butchering and rendering a dead whale, that's what.

Marc: Well, you and the whale, certainly.

Linda: So we only have two weeks left. AND THEN IT WILL BE OVER.

Marc: Thank Yojo.

Linda: I'm really hoping this freaking whale shows up at some point. Now that I know it's a defense mechanism, I'm much more comfortable with Ishy's yakking, but seriously: the story is named after the whale. LET'S HIT IT.

Marc: Maybe it's like The Maltese Falcon. (Spoiler!)

Linda: "And so we beat on, boats against the complete lack of a whale. Forever. The end."

Marc: "Ishmael will return in... Oil's Whale That Ends Whale."

Okay, that one, I apologize for.

Linda: Now YOU'RE getting carried out on a hook.

Marc: But dancing!

Linda: And possibly saying "woop woop woop," I'm thinking.

Marc: Don't give away the act.

Linda: "The Aristocrats!"

Marc: With Gilbert Gottfried as Ishmael!

Linda: I think we have lost the plot. Though not that much more than Ishmael has.

Marc: Which is odd, because this book has everything you need for an exciting adventure: sailors, death-defying battles with nature, hooks...

Linda: ...bones, guns, artificial limbs, same-sex interracial interfaith romance, monomania, coins...it's got everything, it's true.

Marc: And its specs.

Linda: Well, over the next two weeks, we're going to finish this thing. Whales and all.

Marc: I shall save room.

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