Friday, April 11, 2014

Walter Mosley: Little Green (2013)

I'm not a hundred percent sure what I think of the latest installment of Mosley's Easy Rawlins series.  The biggest surprise might just be that he titled it after a Joni Mitchell song:  and I doubt it's coincidence, given what Mitchell has said her song means, and that much of this book turns on an unacknowledged son of Mouse's. 

I've written repeatedly that I'm mostly interested in the historical commentary these books offer:  each book carefully shows Easy interacting with historical and cultural trends specific to the year in which the book is set, making the series an ongoing commentary on black life in LA in the mid-20th century.  On that level, Little Green falls down a little bit.  It does the work - it has Easy moving among hippies and finding that the counterculture too contained racism, even as it held out the hope of moving beyond racism.  But I don't find it making any points in that regard that Cinnamon Kiss hadn't already made.  Perhaps since this is a reboot, Mosley felt he had to retread a little of this territory in order to provide a jumping-off point for the next installment.

Reboot.  I use that term guardedly.  Of course he's not nullifying any previous storylines, not reintroducing characters as if they've never existed before.  It's not a reboot in that sense.  But there's a lot about this book that suggests it's meant as more than just a continuation of the previous book, more than just picking up where that one left off. 

And that's to Mosley's credit.  At the end of the last book he killed Easy off, or nearly so.  Bringing him back with a trivial explanation would have been forgivable, but he doesn't do that.  The whole book is really about Easy's rebirth.  For most of the book he's struggling with the physical aftereffects of his near-death and subsequent coma;  he's kept going only by a strange concoction provided to him by Mama Jo, the shamaness who followed Easy and Mouse to SoCal years before.  And that concoction - made of God-knows-what, maybe even dead white men (there's a hint in that direction at the end) - seems to trigger a spiritual and emotional rebirth as well.

Which means that this book has much in common with Gone Fishin'.  It's as much about backwoods mysticism as mystery-solving.  Ever since he brought Mama Jo to LA this has been a trend in these books, but never has it been as front and center as in this volume. 

The result is a book that feels less like a meditation on history than a meditation on death and rebirth.  This is myth-making.  Which suggests it really is a reboot.  It leads me, at least, to expect the series, and its protagonist, to be a bit different from here on out.  I mean, I may be wrong.  But this feels like a transitional book to me.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Crow (1994)

So let's recap.  Superman comes out in 1978 and invents the modern superhero film.  But its sequels nearly kill the genre.  Batman comes out in 1989 and rejuvenates the superhero film, establishing it as one of the pillars of Hollywood blockbusting.  Ever since then, superheroes have ruled our world.

But it's a little more complicated than that.  The '90s saw quite a few superhero movies, but precious few were about the real gods.  It wasn't really until the 2000s that the real, old-school, iconic characters started to make it to the screen - your Spidermans, your Fantastic Fours, your X-Men.  Instead, in the '90s we had a studio rush, not to the classics, but to the contemporary comics.  '90s alternaheroes were better represented in theaters than their more famous predecessors.  I don't know why that is.  And I certainly don't begrudge them or their fans the jollies this phenomenon offered.  But it does give the superhero film a somewhat odd generic trajectory.  The Image and Dark Horse heroes of the '90s, and even some of the Marvel and DC print titles, were in large measure responses to, critiques of, the canonical heroes of previous decades.  Taking the films in isolation, what that means is that we get the deconstruction of the superhero film almost before it's fully constructed as a genre. 

The Crow is a perfect example.  The concept is perfect for the '90s.  It's a blank-meets-blank genre-mixer:  superhero story meets horror story.  Pure pulp joy, that.  And as an action movie that goes all in on goth atmospherics and doomy aesthetics, it both flatters the alternative aspirations of its audience while satisfying their very mainstream needs.

Is the Crow a superhero?  Good question.  He kicks ass like a superhero - the movie's rhythms are those of a superhero movie, its action sequences are those of a superhero movie.  The horror trappings can't disguise this.  And as a superhero, he's one of the greats - great origin story, great powers, great weaknesses, great mythic overtones.

With one problem.  Unlike all the others, he's a single-serving superhero.  Once he has avenged the death of his girlfriend, he's done.  He goes to meet her.  His is a story with a definite beginning, middle, and end.  Which makes his story that much more satisfying.  But it of course created problems for the filmmakers - sequels essentially had to make Crowness a transferrable quality.  Which is not a bad idea for a superhero...but which was clearly not a concept that was contemplated for this movie. 

Which means that in this movie we get to see the superhero stop being a superhero.  The god dies.  This takes us out of superhero territory - when Superman abdicates, we know he has to come back.  But the Crow, at least as Eric Draven, won't.  I think that's where a lot of this film's power lies.  It has an ending.  It's not about immortality, strange as that may seem in a film about a guy who comes back from the dead.  It's about death.  There's the horror, and more than that the goth, sensibility for you.  It's fundamentally at odds with the superhero sensibility, which is, body counts aside, about immortality and invincibility.  Superheroes are about being.  But the Crow is about doing.  And once he's done, he's done.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dennis Lehane: Mystic River (2001)

I lived in Boston (well, just across the Charles from it) for the better part of a decade in the early
2000s.  I was aware of this book then - saw the movie, in Boston, when it came out - but never read it.  Never read anything by Lehane until last weekend.  I was in the Amtrak station in Philadelphia, trying to find something to read on the six-hour ride up to Boston, where I'm at for a little while.  This was there.  I bought it

I had a complicated relationship with Boston.  I find I'm not the kind of person who can be happy just anywhere;  but then, neither am I someone who's miserable anywhere, either.  I mean, I know that true happiness isn't really place-dependent, and in fact I had lots of good things happen to me in Boston, lots of moments of intense pleasure and yes happiness.  I mean, I met my wife there, we started our life together there:  it will always be special for me for that.

And yet I never loved Boston, not like I loved St. Louis, where I lived before Boston, and not like I love Eugene, where I live now.  I sometimes liked it, often disliked it, and sometimes loathed it with a white-hot passion.

Mystic River comes close to nailing the reasons why.

Part of it is the insularity.  Lehane does a masterful job in this book of delineating a neighborhood-based, ethnicity-based, class-based clannishness that's obvious everywhere in this city, but that an outsider can never hope to understand.  I won't lie, part of why I was never able to come to terms with Boston was this feeling that I could never be part of the place, never be seen as anything but an intruder.  Fine:  that's true of any settled community, to an extent.  But I met lots of people in Boston - people in official positions, people whose job it was to help outsiders integrate into the city - who took pleasure in rubbing your face in it.

Insularity?  Hostility.  What I learned after a while was that people here treat each other more or less the way they treat outsiders.  There may be an inner circle of community - in the book, people who come from same part of the Flats, the same few blocks - where people accept each other, look out for each other, but it's not a very wide circle, certainly not anything like as large as a city.  The result is that everybody's default response to everybody else is:  Fuck you.  Fuck you for intruding on my day.  You need me to do my job and help you?  Well, fuck you first, and then we can see about the rest.

The insularity would go down a bit easier if you got the sense that it was protecting some marvelous warm center.  But another thing Lehane's book suggests is that it's not.  The Flats sucks.  Life there is full of drunkenness, violence, and mutual exploitation.  If you can come out a winner in that, like Jimmy, you can enjoy the warm glow of family love and community respect - but only if you're willing to pile up the bodies and tolerate the stench.  All that unites this community is shared misery, right?  The Red Sox thing, an entire city defined (until recently) by the shared experience of sucking.

That's what hides inside the wall of hostility.  But what's outside is self-evidently unpleasant, too.  I mean, this is a city with amazing history and culture, and some nice natural-world advantages:  rivers, a harbor, islands.  But overall it's one of the ugliest places I've ever been.  The infrastructure feels like it's held together with chewing gum - the T? a sewer with rails.  There are piles of random shit everywhere, construction projects left half-finished, junk in every island in the middle of the road.  Everything's broken, and to fix anything takes at least a decade.  It's dysfunction at its most belligerent.  The book captures that, too, with its stagnant, toxic waterways hiding God knows what failures and malice.

It's a brilliant book.  Depressing as hell.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Herman Melville: Mardi (1849)

Finally made it through Mardi.  It's as bad as everybody says.  In fact I'm not sure I have an original thought on the book:  it seems to me that the conventional wisdom has it about right.  I.e., the first hundred pages or so (depending on the edition you're reading), where the narrative is concerned with the narrator's jumping ship and fleeing in an open boat, is great:  all the adventure of his first two novels, told in a prose that has finally found its stride, Melville's heroic gait.  And then it all goes south.

Yes, it turns into an allegory, wherein a fictional Pacific archipelago named Mardi is made to stand in for the entire world and all its history, philosophy, religion, art, and politics.  Allegorically:  meaning that each island visited stands in for a real-world country and/or concept in a one-to-one relationship.  And all of this is loosely enveloped in a quest, as the narrator, who pretends to be the demigod Taji, which is the only name we know him by, seeks Yillah, a white woman raised from infancy in the Pacific Isles who he rescues from a priest who is planning to sacrifice her; Taji kills the priest, and later Yillah disappears without explanation;  the quest finds Taji seeking the vanished Yillah among all the islands, while himself being pursued by the three sons of the priest, bent on vengeance, and the three siren representatives of a mysterious queen named Hautia, who is seeking Taji for reasons unexplained.

The allegorical content of the book is admirably discussed here.  In the abstract, it sounds like it might actually work.  I have no objection to Melville trying to encompass the entire world in his archipelago, and thereby in his book - it's exhilarating to witness his ambition, and revealing to see how he defines the entire world - what he finds worth encompassing.  The problem is, it's a damn unreadable book.

I think its flaws can be best discussed under two broad headings.  The book fails as a narrative, which renders its allegorical ambitions inert;  and its allegorical ambitions themselves are fatally flawed, although perhaps in a way that was inevitable given the time and place Melville was in when he wrote.

As a narrative.  It's a Fantastic Voyage story at heart, right?  A tour of imagined Pacific Islands, where he's given himself permission and space to make them as fantastic and varied as he might wish.  And yet he's committed to his Pacific Islands setting, and he doesn't imagine any of these islands or their peoples as being much different from Nukuheva or Tahiti.  Which means that at a purely narrative level it's a monotonous voyage - another tropical paradise, another feast of breadfruit and yams - and at an allegorical/satirical level it's anchored to an absurdity so great as to be almost offensive.  He meets all these chieftains who are supposed to represent John Calhoun, or the King of England, or the Pope, but they're all described as bone-in-the-nose tattooed tapa-clothed savages.  This is Melville at his worst - in Typee and Omoo he was committed to seeing his natives as fully human, and as in fact noble savages, a riposte to Western civilization, but he was never above a cheap savages joke;  here he's abandoned the attempt to present South Seas societies in any real way, and is instead only interesting in using them to comment on his own, and so is merely exploiting their difference in the crudest way.

As a narrative, more.  It's loosely organized as a quest, but his heart really isn't in it.  Not at the narrative level.  The object of the quest is fairly ill-defined - Yillah, to be sure, but what does she mean?  Taji is obsessed with her, but he's instantly obsessed with her - before he even sees her he's obsessed with her.  And there's not too much interaction between them.  If I had more confidence in Melville as a storyteller at this point in his career I'd suspect he's playing a modernist game with us, and intentionally presenting Taji's obsession with Yillah as the very type of unreasoning desire, and Yillah as the object of that desire, meaningless in itself, functioning only as a thing to be wanted, a thing whose main function is to be absent, precisely so that it can be sought.  Maybe.  But the quester himself is notoriously ill-defined, too.  As roving-narrative gives way to allegory, Taji all but disappears - for chapters at a time he might as well not even be present.  Most of the book consists of banter among Media, a king who has undertaken to escort Taji on his quest;  Babbalanja, a philosopher;  Mohi, a historian;  and Yoomy, a bard.  Taji hardly even speaks in these exchanges.  If Yillah functions as mainly thing-to-be-sought, Taji functions mainly as seeker, but since he's as sketchy a presence as she is an absence, the whole quest fails to engage the reader.  And so we're trapped on a boat with these four garrulous guys, and one cipher.

As a narrative, more still.  The quest itself - Melville doesn't even bother to make it make any sense.  Yillah disappears, and right away Hautia's minions appear, taunting Taji with hints that Hautia holds some secret knowledge and that Taji should come see her.  Any questing knight worth his armor would make Hautia's court his first stop - it's obvious that she holds the key.  But Taji spends two thirds of the book ignoring these hints - Hautia is literally his last stop.  This makes no sense.  But neither does it create suspense.  It just suggests that Melville, at this point, is not interested in his story.  Only his allegory.

As an allegory.  I'm going to go psychoanalytical here.  It's pretty clear that Hautia is meant to represent Sex, the Eternal Feminine, Romance, Seduction.  So is Yillah, on at least one level, which is why it's so obvious to the reader that if Taji wants to find Yillah he needs to talk to Hautia.  So why does he avoid doing that for so long?

And indeed he avoids sex, the feminine, romance, seduction for most of the book.  The whole world that Melville would encompass here is devoid of sex.  It's essentially a man's world, but it's also a world that is very diffident about the flesh.  It's not a big, bawdy, rambunctious, Rabelaisian satire, although I think it wants to be;  it's a very Victorian, very American satire.  No sex, please.  No bodily functions except gluttony and violence.  (And watching TV in my Philadelphia hotel room last night I'm reminded that nothing changes:  you can show gallons of blood, beheadings and point-blank shootings, on American TV, but all the "fuck"s are censored, and God save us from a nipple.)

In short I think Melville's revealing more than he realizes in having his quest avoid Hautia for so long.  Sex - in the sense of any serious encounter both of the male with the female, and of the mind with the body - is something Melville's, and America's, lingering Puritanism simply cannot contemplate.  And so we get a world-encompassing archipelago that excludes most of what most of us spend most of our time thinking about, or sublimates it into endless, endless, endless bloviating on matters of spirit or mind.

Without sex, the allegory of human pursuits is incomplete, and unconvincing.  And what Melville gives us in its place is stultifying.  Babbalanja the philosopher goes on at such tedious length about such obvious points that he's just unbearable;  from the other characters' reactions, it's clear that Melville means him at least partly as a satire on prolix philosophers, as a kind of Polonius-in-the-boat, but it's also clear that Melville is using Babbalanja as his own mouthpiece, and means us to pay attention to his words.  So reading this book is like being trapped with Polonius for four hundred pages, with a commentator who keeps saying, "no, pay attention, he's got a point." 

But if you're interested in Melville, it's essential.  As a spectacle it's unmatched - a novelist letting his imagination run free, a stylist finding his sense of beauty, a literaturist identifying his themes and concerns, an American transcendentalist trying to do it in the pages of a fiction.  Melville doesn't get to Moby Dick without passing through Mardi.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Shadow (1994)

I think the emblematic moment for The Shadow is the first scene in the nightclub, where Lamont Cranston meets Margot Lane.  It's a nicely designed set, art deco like much of the movie, and Alec
Baldwin is pulling off the mysterious-playboy thing reasonably well, and Penelope Anne Miller likewise with the femme fatale.  But as their Scene begins, the music, which up to this point had been a pleasantly old-fashioned big-strings score, switches to sub-David Sanborn smooth jazz.  Typical cheesy romance soundtrack circa 1994.

If the Shadow is a superhero, he's a very old-fashioned one - a generation before Superman and Batman, two or three before Spiderman.  Does he even have superpowers?  In some versions he can "cloud men's minds," achieving not just a degree of mind control but also invisibility;  that's the version the film follows, which certainly qualifies him.  But remember:  Batman doesn't have any superpowers.  Just a willingness to pose as a superhero, and the strength, tech, and craziness to pull it off.  Even if that's all the Shadow has, he still qualifies - but barely, because he's doing it in a pop-culture world that's just barely conceiving the superhero.  The Shadow is half superhero and half ordinary (extraordinary) crimefighter.  He's the pulp roots of the superhero.  With a nice touch of the noir - it's his own personal acquaintance with "the evil that lurks in the hearts of men" that gives him his power.  He's a reformed sinner, and so he knows how to deal with sinners.

Does the film get that?  Not really.  It's light and frothy and superficial, and it only barely nods in the direction of the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.  It's not interested in really plumbing the depths, really exploring the darkness.  It's content to give us a twinkly-eyed head-fake in the direction of the darkness, while really putting its energy into the shiny surfaces of the pulp's action orientation.

Rather than bring the "evil that lurks in the hearts of men" to life in a way that would feel evil in the '90s, they make it a period piece, playing up the roaring-'20s style.  Giving jaundiced '90s viewers a look at darkness as imagined in a less cynical age - or darkness as a cynical age imagined a less cynical age imagined it.  In other words, I think the various holes and absurdities in the plot are meant to suggest a certain gonzo naīvete in the pulps, too:  if this is Genghis Khan's grandson (i.e., Mongolian, by way of a China-based empire), why is he in a sarcophagus sent from Tibet?  And why does it have a Latin inscription?  Et cetera.  The film is full of ridiculousness like that (another fave:  why does the Tim Curry character just happen to have a big tank handy that he can fill with water at a moment's notice to drown Alec Baldwin?  I mean, what other reason does he have for owning such a thing?), but I think we're supposed to enjoy all that as being evocative of the adventure-at-all-costs mentality of the pulps.

But you know, I can go along with that.  A movie that took the Shadow seriously would have been interesting, but a committed, well-done throwback could have been interesting too.  In fact, my gripe is that the movie doesn't go far enough.  It's not ready to go full-on weird period-piece - it also wants to be a big mainstream mid-'90s superhero blockbuster franchise-building film with the Slurpee cups and the Happy Meal toys and all that shit.  So it's not going to risk having Alec Baldwin and Penelope Anne Miller flirting to, say, "Begin the Beguine."  They're going to give us smoove jazz. 

So it's too '90s steroidal to satisfy the pop-culture-antiquarian crowd, but of course, the popcorn-munching 15-year-old boy is just mystified.  Who the hell's the Shadow and why should I care? says he.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Herman Melville: Omoo (revisited)

I hardly remembered Omoo at all, it turned out.  It left only a vague impression on me the first time
through.  I think, revisiting it, that in part that's because the book itself isn't as impressive as the first one.  Not as interesting a read, certainly;  not as vividly realized;  and not as passionate.

He's intending it, I think, as a mirror image of the first one.  If in the first one he's presenting himself as a disaffected castaway from Western civilization, willing and able to appreciate utopia among the cannibals, here he's presenting himself as cast out of that paradise, wandering the wastelands of civilization again.  The wholeness of purpose of the earlier book is replaced by an aimless fragmentation in the later. 

Cast out of paradise.  Of course it's his choice:  he wants to leave the Typee valley.  That was always his intention.  But his stay drags on so long, and he writes of it in such luminous terms, that the reader is left to wonder if he really wants to leave (he=author, he=reader).  It's only his discovery that the Typees are, in fact, cannibals (and only in a limited, highly ceremonial, almost respectable way) that decides him to leave.  And this discovery is presented in a tone more tragic than horrific:  it's as if he's discovered that paradise has in fact no place for him.  Not that he's discovered paradise to be less than paradisiacal.

And so he goes a-wandering again.  Which is what the title of the second book means:  omoo=wander, he tells us.  But he goes wandering as someone deeply marked by his experience of paradise (in the second book he's even known as Typee, as if his knowledge of the place has made him part of it, even as he's cast out of it), someone with its perfection as a standard by which to judge civilization's imperfections.

For that's what the second book's about, no doubt.  He's still in the islands of the Pacific, in Tahiti most of the time, but he makes it clear that unlike Nukuhiva, these islands are far from untouched by Western civilization.  Most of them are under its political sway - Tahiti has just been usurped by the French, even as Nukuhiva itself had been as the earlier book got underway, but while he was able to escape the French to the Typee valley earlier, now there's no escape from them, no part of Tahiti that he can find that is unspoiled by Westerners.  And it's not just the French, of course:  he's constantly reminding us that British missionaries ruined Tahiti first, and that the Americans are at this very moment ruining Hawaii.

And it's not even just the white man's baleful influence on the Polynesians that dismays him - although his fervor in denouncing that is one of the book's saving graces.  What white men do to each other is just as bad.  What was missing from the last book is present here, a detailed depiction of life aboard a whaler, and inasmuch as that's a microcosmic society, it pretty clearly represents a doomed, damned civilization.

That's all in there.  The conceptual framework is all in place, and on that level I find the book very satisfying.  But it's not as interesting to read.  Part of it might just be that Melville was rushed - the prose isn't as carefully balanced, as polished, as good as in the first book.  It reads like the work of an author in a hurry, or perhaps bored by his story.  But part of it might be the inevitable consequence of this framework, as conceived by this author.  To make this kind of disjointed, disenchanted narrative work would have required the talents of an author with a more consistent, committed comic touch than Melville has, and maybe a greater love of wandering.

It could be that he's holding back.  I've just started Mardi, and while I do expect it to get sloggy, as all reports agree it does, so far it reads like an author liberated - he's committed himself to the exhilaration of myth and deep thought.  The systematic nature of Typee (as much ethnography as narrative) may have satisfied that urge within him, and triggered the passionate writing therein;  maybe the decision to observe only in passing in Omoo, or to concentrate on narrative over analysis, left him bereft of true inspiration.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Herman Melville: Typee (revisited)

Mardi has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, and I finally decided I'm going to read it. But first I wanted to re-read Typee and Omoo, since Mardi continues on from them.  This actually makes my third time through Typee;  not many books that aren't in my line of research have I read that many times.

It never fails to entertain, this book.  Even though the narrator's situation is static for most of the book, and the writing is given over to descriptions and ruminations of a naturalistical, anthropological, political, and almost philosophical nature, the book is always lively, vivid, and eminently readable.  Its aspirations to scholarship make it deeper than a mere sea-yarn, but it never loses its sea-yarn urgency.  A curious hybrid, Typee.

What struck me most this time through was how little time and energy Melville puts into convincing his readers that he was justified in jumping ship at Nukuheva.  It seems to have been common enough - even from the internal evidence of his narrative what he and Toby were doing was unusual but not unthinkable, and whalers short of men seemed to know they could pick some up among the deserters in the Pacific islands.  Nevertheless it's clear that Melville signed a paper saying he'd serve on his whaler, and he was breaking a contract by absconding;  he knew that if he was caught before his ship gave up looking for him that he'd be taken back by force, and that the French navy occupying parts of Nukuheva wouldn't consider it an injustice worth intervening in. 

He presents himself to us from the outset, then, as someone breaking faith with his employer and his shipmates.  So one might expect him to go to great lengths to justify his behavior.  And indeed he does mention the harsh discipline, short commons, and bleak prospects that obtained on his ship.  But all of this is dispensed with in a single, short chapter, most of which is taken up with general descriptions of the hardships of the whaler's life, as opposed to particular indictments of the Dolly and its officers.  All he really says in his own defense is that "in all contracts, if one party fail to perform his share of the compact, is not the other virtually absolved form his liability?"  I.e., he considered his captain to have been cruel and unfair enough to justify Melville in breaking his contract.  And he expects us to believe him, with only the most cursory of evidence.

I think Melville is willing to be seen as a deserter.  He could have made himself out a victim, but instead he lets us see him as someone who just runs away.  Which puts his adventure in the Typee valley into a new light, for me.  He's not presenting this as a series of tragedies (out of the whaler's frying pan into the cannibal's fire) so much as a choice that led to unexpected but not wholly negative consequences.

Because of course life among the Typee is presented as utopian:  it's an ideal society (except for the unpleasant custom of delectating upon ones defeated foes), and one perfectly hospitable to the narrator (except that they won't let him leave).  All of Melville's naturalistical, anthropological, political, and almost philosophical descriptions and ruminations are devoted to delineating this utopia.  And of course the pretense is that he found it by accident.  But the weak defense of his desertion suggests that on some level he is, and is willing to be seen by his readers as, someone who's looking for utopia, willing to find it here.

I think of Melville back home in New York, writing this book, conscious, as he must be conscious, that he's explicitly rejecting Euro-American civilization's claims of supremacy, and all the religious and military domination justified by those claims.  He must have been perfectly willing to define himself as an outsider in American polite society:  there's something pugnacious about this book.  And that starts with his desertion from the Dolly.  He's deserting American society and all its legal and ethical trappings when he deserts his ship.  He's willing to enter the noncivilized world and stay there for as long as it takes him to find something better - a better ship, ideally, but maybe a better society. 

Outsider status permeates every aspect of this book, though.  It starts with the narrator making himself an outsider to his ship's company by deserting them.  For the bulk of the book he's an outsider in Typee - as welcome as they make him, he never even contemplates the possibility that he might one day belong among them, even though late in the book he presents us with the specter of a Euro-American who has become naturalized into island society.  From the moment-of-narration standpoint, as one who has returned to America and elected to tell his tale, he's setting himself up as an outsider to those institutions (the missionary and military apparatus steadily spreading through the Pacific) he criticizes, and to the society whose values they epitomize.  But then isn't he already an outsider before he ever writes the book?  He's an educated man laboring on a whaler - he's a sailor capable of the most informed and refined reflections on his condition - and then he's a member of polite society who has been salted by life as a common sailor, and then life among the cannibals.  Nowhere has he fit in.  And he's fine with that.

The first move of Melville's literary career was one of desertion.