Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Moby Dick

Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Read: 2 October to 4 December 2012
4 / 5 stars

I am terrified of large aquatic bodies. Just.... scared shitless. Remember that inspired-by-true-events flick a few years ago about the couple on a cruise who resurfaced from their scuba adventure only to find that their ship had chugged right along its merry course without them aboard? Yeah, I saw a trailer for it in the movie theater and almost caused a public scene because it's not every day a person has a whole new worst fear forced upon their consciousness for obsessive, terrified consideration. The idea of looking around and seeing nothing but water and sky disturbs me me almost as deeply as the possibility of drowning does (you should probably know that my own wildly vacillating attitudes toward death reach panic levels when I dwell too long on what it would be like to drown).

So, no. I am rapidly approaching my third decade of existing and have never once even considered reading Moby-Dick. I always figured any sort of cultural or literary touchstone contained within Herman Melville's whale of a tale could be gleaned from the bevy of succeeding works that have doffed their caps to it in affectionate allusion. I mean, I was positively sick about The X-Files as a wee, impressionable lass, and in what contemporary bit of entertainment has a major character's backstory been more flecked with the flung spume of the Pequod's final voyage than that of Special Agent Dana Scully? I was certain that I absorbed all of this book's important messages without having to slog through what I figured had to be a most assuredly dry novel of high-seas antics.

Except that once I finally started reading Moby-Dick, I had to keep reminding myself that this story is 161 years old because it is the textbook definition of a timeless tale. The themes Melville tackled as the human constants he knew them to be just surprised the hell out of me from such an aged classic.

Any narrator who can step back from the action to act as a faithful recorder -- an unbiased camera zooming in on all the intersecting threads that weave a tragic tapestry, driven to commit his experiences to immortal inscription not by ego but rather a need to ensure that the cautionary tale and its key players live on -- wins me over every time. Ishmael, whose desire for knowledge and feelings of being apart from human society only further endeared him to me in a fit of kinship I so often feel with fictional characters, imposed so little of himself and his point of view on the story that I would occasionally forget both he and his intent to counter some deep soul-aching absence with oceanic travels were among the Pequod's crew. His willingness to abandon his own under-informed prejudices once he began to understand Queequeg's alien ways and the ensuing fraternal bond they share is a lesson for the ages, a promise that moving beyond exhausted tolerance toward exuberant acceptance is more than worth the necessary shift in perspective. It is that very open-minded curiosity Ishmael embodies before he even gets a chance to show off his sea legs that solidifies his merit as the trusty lens through which the goings-on of Moby-Dick can be viewed.

As for the civil savage himself, I think my husband's summation of the harpooneer works better than anything I could conjure on my own: "Queequeg is the shit."

And all the whale biology stuffed between accounts of life in search of Ahab's White Whale? I. Was. Enthralled. Marine-mammal biology isn't really something that I've been all that interested in unless there was a grade on the line but, damn it, learning about every inch of the whale from tail to tip and inside out just fascinated me. I'll never look at Shamu or his brethren with the same cooing regard ever again: Them fishy bitches be scary, yo. There's something to be said for knowing the enemy and, good Lord, did Melville ever demystify the whale's inner and outer workings while proving that this is one giant beast who deserves awed respect.

I can't believe how many beautiful, perfectly wrought metaphors and symbols Melville shorehorned into a book that is only superficially about whaling. I can't believe how this is a revenge tale that can actually rival the Shakespearean canon in its scope and fervency and misinterpretations and nihilistic body count. Most of all, I can't believe how much I enjoyed the face off a book that ended by forcing me to witness one of my deepest-rooted, longest-running fears. Kudos to you, Melville. And kudos again.

(The obligatory dick joke is how I blew my load about halfway through this review. Just in case you're wondering.)

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