Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ken Kesey and Moby Dick

I haven't written about books for a while. That's because I'm in the middle of a mother of one, Ken Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion. It's brilliant, but long and not a quick read; plus, I'm busy starting a new job. If I ever get through it I'll write about it, but in the meantime it keeps reminding me of Moby Dick, so here's one from the vault, what I wrote about that when I read it a couple of summers ago, before I had a blog.

(Why does Notion remind me of Moby Dick? It's long and mad, written by a man who can write like an angel and is more interested in sweaty work than drawing-rooms; it's tackling the big questions of the author's America in wild-eyed, bare-knuckled fashion. Notion is rather experimental in its techniques; instead of stream-of-consciousness it's more like stream-of-consciousnesses, a whole town-and-country full of them, and I'm sure there are more immediate precedents: I haven't really dealt with the great Modernists, only read a little Joyce and Faulkner, but it probably picks up something from them: in its flirting with incoherence it's certainly of a piece with Kesey's beat compadres Kerouac and Burroughs, but it's less nihilistic than Burroughs and more novelistic than Kerouac. The introducer compares Kesey to Tolstoy, and it's true that here at least he's got the big soul of a 19th-century novelist. Ergo, Melville.)


Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. 1851. Penguin, 1992.

Ishmael sails on a Nantucket whaler. The captain, Ahab, is obsessed with a white whale that bit off his leg. He chases it halfway around the globe. The first mate Starbuck tries to reason with him, but in the end he pursues his vendetta until Moby Dick sinks the ship and kills everybody except Ishmael.

God damn is this a fantastic fucking book. I mean a brilliant fucking masterpiece, maybe the best novel I’ve ever read, certainly in the top five or ten. God it’s awesome. From the first word to the last, before he even says Call me Ishmael, it’s a total and complete majestic mindfuck.

I can’t believe I waited this long to read it.

It’s the pinnacle of American letters. No doubt.

I love everything about it. The wannabe Shakespeare rhetoric, the Whitmanesque flights of poetry and encyclopedism, the ominous eighty-odd epitaphs, the doomy atmosphere, the epic trappings, the sea-story of it, the weird philosophy, the unabashed exoticism of it. This is a novel, man.

My take on it, in a short paragraph, partially inspired by the intro by Andrew Delbanco: the Pequod is a community, and in a way it’s about the individual Ishmael submerging his identity in the community, which submerges its identity in that of its fearless leader. At the end they follow him to their deaths, but Ishmael is lucky, and is snapped back into his individual identity. Lucky or unlucky, take your pick. Meanwhile, what does the whale mean? It’s everything: it’s the entire struggle of life and history and fate and God and meaninglessness. The pasteboard masks: maybe life’s meaningless, maybe it’s suffused with meaning: we can’t know, but we have to grapple with it anyway, because the masks are there.

What I love most about this book (besides the language, which is good to the last drop) is how fucking weird it is. It’s disjointed, it’s digressive, it’s daring, it’s pretentious, it’s got almost no plot to speak of for the middle four hundred pages. But meaning follows form: that’s the point: the long, lazy, sea passage, where we lose plot, lose character, just think, just float, and isn’t that better than the poisonous melancholy of the beginning or the sucking vortex of the end? But can we avoid either?

I love this book.

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