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.