My book club met last night for the first of two sessions on Moby-Dick. For this one we read only about half way through, so a lot of our discussion either began or ended with some variation on “I wonder where this goes.” Does the novel as a whole uphold Ishmael’s endearing open-mindedness – or, for that matter, does Ishmael himself continue in the same tolerant spirit he initially shows towards Queequeg’s “Pagan” predilections? Does Ahab’s single-minded quest for the white whale turn out to be in any way noble, or is this model of ruthless heroism thoroughly undermined? When we finally see Moby-Dick for ourselves, what picture do we get, to put up against those described in Chapters 55-57? How far can — or should — we read the novel symbolically or allegorically? What theory of fiction makes sense of the novel’s extraordinary blend of realism and prophesy, concrete detail and metaphorical reach — what kind of book is it? Will there ever be an important woman character (we’re guessing not), how far is women’s absence part of what, for some, has defined its story as great and universal, and what does that mean about the American literary tradition or cultural imagination? What is it about this book, anyway, that accounts for its having been invested with so much cultural significance? And so on.
We’re pretty unlikely to answer these questions in a really substantial, much less very original, way over a couple of dinners. (However, if you want to talk about seafaring, there are worse times and places to do it than at Shuck Seafood on a foggy Maritime night. The food was so good and the atmosphere and service so pleasant we might do our follow-up Moby-Dick meeting there too!) I’m not going to hazard any answers here now, either. What I wanted to comment on at this point is just a feature of our Moby-Dick discussion that seemed to me different than some, maybe most, of our other bookish conversations. I can’t remember another book in which it wasn’t so much general opinions that differed but the specifics that won or lost us as individual readers. One of us, for instance, particularly loved the details about New Bedford and Nantucket life but was impatient with the “digressions” that impeded the story of the Pequod’s voyage; one (the scientist) was fascinated by the taxonomies of the “Cetology” chapter and Melville’s obvious interest in replacing (or maybe supplementing) myths about sea monsters with whatever facts could be gleaned, often at great cost, about actual whales; one was won over by the humor, such as the good-cop bad-cop scene with Peleg and Bildad in Chapter 16; one (you’ll never guess which) kept bringing up some guy called Carlyle. Moby-Dick offered every one of us something to fascinate or frustrate, and while there was some overlap (interest in Ishmael’s narrative voice, for instance — though again, some of us loved it while others were impatient with it), it sometimes seemed as if we’d all been reading different versions of the novel. (We all brought literally different editions, but that’s a separate issue.)
This dispersed effect no doubt stems from the book’s chaotic-seeming and inclusive structure, which has led critics to call it things like an “intellectual chowder” or a “magnificent mess” (that’s Nathan Philbrick, in Why Read Moby-Dick). It seems to be built on a premise of embracing capaciousness: it includes everything Melville finds interesting or significant to his subject, rather than pursuing an aesthetic of elegant perfection. This blotchiness could easily be seen as a fault. (I’d love to know what, if anything, Henry James said about Moby-Dick, given his dismissive view of Middlemarch‘s formal construction. No golden bowl here — more an ungainly pitcher!) It’s certainly risky: surely no self-respecting MFA instructor would dare encourage anyone to write such a book! But I think our group’s diverse responses point to one aspect of the book’s greatness: there was something in it for — and against — all of us. It’s not one thing: it’s all kinds of things (though it’s not everything, though Philbrick’s little book suggests he might think so). The challenge for a first-time reader is dealing with the bits that don’t immediately suit: we all admitted to having skimmed one part or another, but, again, not usually the same parts. Listening to people pointing out the aspects that most interested them made me want to reread: it made me aware, not just of the book’s mulititudinousness, but of my own limitations (which, in the context of Moby-Dick, are many). That can be off-putting, but it’s part of Melville’s magic to have made it inspiring instead.