Monday, December 21, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The digressive narrator

Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.

Thus begins The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And already, we find the great author seeming to break a basic rule, not just of fiction, but of writing in general. The crucial first sentence of the all-important first paragraph of this gigundous book, which we are about to commit ourselves to for the next, I dunno, thirty months--this sentence is misleading. For after lending his name to launch the whole enterprise, Alexey Karamazov vanishes from the narrative, starting on word 4; he is not the subject of the opening chapter after all. This must be the quickest swerve into digression in all of literature. By the end of the first sentence we realize we are in the hands of a gossipy and somewhat easily distracted narrator. A local citizen, he's given to making sweeping pronouncements about people in general, and his nation, despite what seems to be the limited scope of his personal experience: "he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it."

So, fine. We have ourselves an unreliable narrator. Yet this unreliability serves an unusual function in the opening chapter--rather than increasing our suspicion of the "truth" of the story, it does the opposite. How? By rambling, speculating, passing and then ultimately withdrawing judgment, the narrator serves to open the reader's mind and heart to the story that will follow. We've talked before about how various authors (Melville, Chekhov) establish the story's boundaries in the first paragraph. If you're going to go "way out there" later in the story, you have to run out and touch that outer limit right away, even if you're not going to spend a lot of time there till later. This narrator signals that he's going to be talking about the entire nation of Russia, not only a single province or family; but more important, he'll be diving deep into the human heart and bringing up that most elusive of treasures, forgiveness.

In the early paragraphs of this chapter, he delightedly harps on Fyodor's haplessness, viciousness, and stupidity: "a worthless, puny weakling, as we all called him"; "he was, in fact, an ill-natured buffoon and nothing more." But, just as this narrator can't quite hold to a single train of thought, he also cannot maintain a clear-cut opinion for very long. This is partly because (like Gogol's narrator in "The Overcoat," on whom he is at least partly based), he admits that much of what he is telling us is based on rumor. He has heard at least a couple of different versions of certain events. But this admission leads us to trust this narrator more, rather than less, because of this remarkable statement at the end of the chapter:

Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife's death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” but others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more na├»ve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

He admits to not knowing how Fyodor Pavlovitch reacted to his wife's death. But rather than throwing up his hands, as a contemporary ironist might have his narrator do, he decides that both could well be true at the same time--because human beings are complex. Even Fyodor, whom he's just said was "nothing more" than a buffoon, is indeed more than that, or at least was capable of being more. Just as we ourselves are.

The idea that all humans are capable of being better than we think we are is a critical thread in this novel, and in Dostoevsky's Christian faith. It's an exceedingly difficult notion to hold onto, which may be the reason this narrator is so digressive; he's falling into the trap of simplifying people and assuming the worst about them, but then he remembers and pulls himself out. As this first chapter signals, his struggle will be ours too. He has not only challenged us to remember the potential goodness of all the characters in the novel, but to become better people ourselves by remembering this. Here's one of the few cases in which it does seem possible that reading literature could lead to moral improvement. In his meandering way, this narrator makes the novel and the experience of reading it represent the author's best idea of what it means to human.

To sum up this week's lesson for writers: the "unreliable narrator" need not be just an intellectual game. Such a narrator can reveal the limits of factual truth in order to open readers to a deeper emotional experience than they might otherwise be prepared for.

This seems like a good a Christmas message as any to leave you with...Posting will likely be light or nonexistent till the new year. Have a happy and forgiving holiday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Take two

So I finished A Canticle for Leibowitz, and I would like to retract my first appraisal, in which I rather casually used it to represent all of "genre fiction." That was uncalled for. I now think the book can hold its own with anything we call "literary." And I really think you should read it, if you haven't already. Maybe you have. I tend to be late to these parties.

What I find most interesting about my changed opinion is that it falls in line with the argument I was trying to make in that earlier post: that determining whether a piece is "literary" or "genre" need not hinge on the function of character. Yes, CfL's characters are tools to advance the plot--or in this case the "theme," as Miller's plot is just the long spelling out of a philosophical conundrum--rather than the other way around. However, they are no more so than, say, Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov (or possibly anyone in BK). In the third section of CfL in particular, the characters are literally torn apart by their desire to love--and forgive--a God they are not willing to admit is seriously flawed (if he even exists). The questions, to me anyway, are as powerful and relevant as anything Dostoevsky wrote. I didn't get attached to Walter Miller's characters; but I was very moved by their struggles--especially at the end--which take place amid nuclear holocaust, and so are pretty damn relevant. I cared more about the outcome of these struggles than I often do in the character-focused domestic dramas that seem to dominate contemporary fiction. CfL takes on the biggest of all human ideas and refuses to provide easy answers. Also there's a lovely image at the very end, of a derelict sea plane, and big fish eating little fish--all diseased, mind you--and a shark swimming out to deeper water looking for food. Chekhovian, or even Melvillian.

I admit it: I'm a sucker for novels about religion. I was raised by secular humanists in a very Catholic town and still have a bad case of religion envy. (Yes, I know I was lucky in many respects--but you guys who had it jammed down your throats all those years: what a wealth of material you have! The imagery, the rituals, the lingering sense of the supernatural in everyday life! Not to mention the whole rebellion experience! Whereas I had...Washington Week in Review.) So maybe that accounts for some of my fascination. And I also gave Miller a pass for a somewhat tedious middle section. There's a little too much blah blah back-and-forth which began to feel like filler to me. But the last section really tied everything up--not in a tight little plot package, but poetically, with a series of striking events and images that would have been pure schlock in other hands (two-headed woman, spaceships, end of the world as we know it, etc.).

Anyway, a pretty impressive book, and an important one. If you ask me.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: A tale of two endings

There. We did it. We finished reading Moby Dick. That wasn't so bad, was it? I mean, if we were reading The Brothers Karamazov, which it kinda seems like we (I) will be doing next, we'd (I'd) only be halfway done. Fortunately, Borrowed Fire, like writing itself, is a journey, not a destination. So expect a leisurely crawl through BK, starting, oh, next week or so. We'll see what I finish first: BK or my novel.

Anyway, let's talk about the ending of MD. Or, rather, its endings. I'm certain there's an academic book out there about the double ending, which seems quite common in literary fiction. What do I mean by double ending? It varies. There can literally be two endings, as we have in Moby Dick--the Pequod's demise, followed by the Epilogue that explains how Ishmael survived (more on this in a moment). Or you can have the did-it-happen-or-not ending, as in H.G. Wells' "The Door in the Wall," which is intended to make us question the relationship between reality and fiction. In a variant of this ending, in "The Overcoat," justice happens in the realm of the fantastic, but remains elusive in the "real" world in which Akaky lives and dies. I recently took another stab at the possibly useless question of what separates literary from genre fiction, and at this moment it seems to me that it has less to do with relative emphasis on character, than with the role of ambiguity. Genre fiction, on the whole, eschews it. It may bring up difficult political or philosophical issues that it doesn't fully resolve, but the main purpose of its storytelling is to answer questions. Who did it? Do they catch that rogue shark? Does she escape from that awful basement, and how? Literary fiction prizes ambiguity, and the double ending affirms it by placing it front and center. Such an ending holds ambiguity up to the light so we can see its facets. The ambiguity derives from the acknowledgment of different levels of experience--fantastic (or fictive), real-world, personal, collective, intellectual, emotional, etc.--which occur at the same time, intersecting, colliding, and diverging.

So: the first and most obviously necessary ending is the final battle with Moby Dick, after which the Pequod and all its sailors (but one) are dragged by the whale into a watery hell. The whole bit's pretty impressive, I must say! Action packed! Gory (thanks to poor Fedallah in particular)! Foamy! All capped off with a stunning final image, followed--and blanketed, so to speak--by the biblical flood:

But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving a few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coincidings, over the destroying billows they almost touched;--at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

So, you know, that's pretty good. You've got your heaven and your hell; the sea swallowing the just and the unjust alike. And then the sea rolls on--it's already over (literally) this particular story. So why then do we need Ishmael's Epilogue? Melville / Ishmael asks the same question:

"AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE"
--Job.

The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth?-- Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee's disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

Of course, this ending takes care of the logistical question of how this story got told if everyone on board (as it first appears) perished. It also brings back the thread of Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg, which has been dropped for the bulk of the story. It's Queequeg's coffin, which he had made when he thought he was dying--but wasn't, yet--that saves his beloved Ishmael from drowning. It's a last gesture of love, though accidental, from the unmarked grave.

It seems the sinking of the Pequod and the image of the rolling sea was too "big" a place for Melville to leave the story. He wants to go out with both the bang of the great ocean, and the whimper of the single, radically alone human being. The rolling sea of five thousand years ago is stirring and appropriate, but that word "orphan" is a little harpoon in the reader's heart.

So, yes, writers, you can have it both ways. Try going for the double ending--with each one unfolding on a different plane.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Bad messages in Christmas carols: Rudolph and Rand

Last year, by way of holiday cheer, I examined the vexed issue of means testing and the giving imperative as manifested in "Little Drummer Boy." To launch this season's festivities, let's look at "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" and its Ayn-Randian implications.

To review:

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose
And if you ever saw it
You would even say it glows
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
"Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"
Then all the reindeer loved him*
And they shouted out with glee:
"Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
You'll go down in history!"
*Emphasis added.

First off: Notice how Santa lets his underlings bully Rudolph with impunity for an unspecified length of time and only intervenes when he wants something. Where was Santa all those months, even years, when Rudolph was getting his ass kicked on a daily basis? But now that it's foggy and Santa's headlights aren't working, it's all, Oh, Rudolph, you're so wonderful / talented / amazing, and it's high time you moved up in my organization.

And then notice: once he's singled out by the authority figure, suddenly "all the reindeer loved him." Perhaps this indicates that the other reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, et al) are a pack of mediocrities and followers who do only what they are told--while Rudolph is an individual. But it also seems that at the North Pole, love is purely a measure of one's usefulness in the Santasian service economy. Had Rudolph's nose not proven necessary on this foggy evening, after Santa has fallen down on the critical task of sled maintenance (shouldn't he have been prepared for poor visibility already? It's December, at the North Pole, for Chrissake)--the attacks on Rudolph would have proceeded indefinitely. So is the "love" of the bullying herd meant to be Rudolph's reward for putting up with the taunts of his peers? Is all right with the world at last? Is Rudolph now one of the crowd of his former tormenters, albeit a first among equals--who might join in (or lead) the hazing of the next funny-looking reindeer who comes down the pike?

The song does not specify. I believe we're meant to assume that Rudolph happily accepts the accolades, takes (and returns) the love as sincere, and guides the sleigh for the rest of his immortal life, even on clear nights. He forgives; but perhaps something has been lost in forgiveness--an opportunity to reassess the system in which he is now but a cog. Perhaps there ought to be a final verse in which Rudolph tells Santa, "You and your mob of antlered thugs can go wrap yourselves around a cellphone tower. I'm going to be a social worker!"

Friday, December 04, 2009

Wandering thoughts about books about men in robes

As I creep up on the end of Moby Dick, I find myself seriously contemplating The Brothers Karamazov for the next Borrowed Fire series. Contrary to my previous impression, MD is really not that long of a book...at least not compared to BK, which is 940 pages in my very tiny print version of the Constance Garnett translation (the same one they have on Project Gutenberg, so it's almost like a sign that I should do this). It would be quite a slog. But I found myself rereading "The Grand Inquisitor" section last night to help me figure out something for my novel...and, well, it's just freakin brilliant. "Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?" says the GI. Dostoevsky was a rebel against the God he loved and craved to believe in. That's why Alyosha Karamazov, the novice monk, is a sweetie but pales in comparison to his rebel brothers, who suffer so palpably.

Speaking of monks, it looks like I am finally going to finish Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I started about four years ago, then misplaced, then restarted on the plane to and from Cleveland. It's quite interesting, about the rediscovery, many centuries in the future, of atomic-age technology that ended up destroying the planet. As they did in the first Dark Ages, Catholic monks have been preserving technical books and diagrams, which they don't really understand; I've just finished the part where they finally manage to construct a generator to power a lamp in the library. (Leibowitz was a former engineer from the atomic age who repented and became a monk himself.) The writing is strong, witty, and compelling, and the characters are less flat than in other genre novels--especially in the first section, where we spend a lot of time with the charmingly meek novice, Francis. He has unwittingly discovered a cache of papers that will allow Leibowitz to be canonized, and we share his disappointment and cheer his patience as the hierarchy squabbles over what to do with the find.

But then at the end of section one, Francis is shot between the eyes and eaten by mutants.* (The eating part is not shown.) Centuries pass, and we meet a new batch of monks, still puzzling over relics and trying to form alliances with the "savage" clans prowling the blighted American landscape. (It is one of the other great joys of this book that the new Roman Catholic church is rooted in the American west, so the great centers of religious civilization aren't Rome and Constantinople, but Texarkana and Denver.) But the abrupt end of Francis teaches us not to care about these new monks. Even though Miller gives them reasonably compelling quirks and dialog, we now assume that any of them could get the ax--or the arrow--at any time. We realize the characters, for all the work that Miller puts into them, are just vehicles for the real subject of the book, which is the process of technological discovery.

Is that what makes Canticle, ultimately, a genre rather than a literary novel--this clear signal that character is a secondary concern? The quick and dirty answer is "yes"--genre fiction's about plot; literary's about character. But...that's a boring answer. Don DeLillo is considered a literary artist; yet he's always knocked for creating unmemorable characters who exist solely to express ideas. In his recent New Yorker story, that's certainly the case. Of course it's a story *about* overly intellectual college students, who are aware of and dramatize their own detachment from others. Maybe the self-awareness of the characters (and the author) about their condition gives the story more artistic ballast than Canticle. But I read both in a similar emotional state; a kind of warm, hmmm, interesting, what's-this-all-about feeling, with no real concern for the "people." Maybe DeLillo's a little smoother at integrating interesting ideas with interesting-enough characters.

Anyway, for ideas dressed up as human beings, you can't beat Dostoevsky. And DeLillo's story is called "Midnight in Dostoevsky," and it's kinda sorta about Dostoevsky...See, another sign...BK, here I come...?

*Or "sports," as Miller calls them. I spent about a week being fascinated by this term--is it a slur? Does the term of endearment "old sport" mean "old mutant"? Turns out it's a term from biology, and thus neutral in its implications, I guess.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Calmness

Hast seen the white whale? Yes, at last, we hast. The very thing we've been looking for surfaces in Chapter 133 of Moby Dick. Now Melville really has to deliver the goods, after four hundred fifty pages (depending on your edition) of buildup. We've already seen him come through once, reporting rumor after rumor about Ahab, then revealing him with a fireworks display of stunning metaphors. But the white whale is an even bigger deal. And to show the whale at all brings paradox--because the whale represents the unrepresentable. His appearance is bound to be a disappointment, and a failure of sorts.

So how does the whale appear? Melville could have had him shoot up out of nowhere and dash a hole in the Pequod--that would have been exciting. Instead, the whale's revealed gradually and softly. In fact the first hint of his presence is that most insubstantial of presences, a smell.

That night, in the mid-watch when the old man--as his wont at intervals--stepped forth from the scuttle in which he leaned, and went to his pivot-hole, he suddenly thrust out his face fiercely, snuffing up the sea air as a sagacious ship's dog will, in drawing nigh to some barbarous isle. He declared that a whale must be near. Soon that peculiar odor, sometimes to a great distance given forth by the living sperm whale, was palpable to all the watch; nor was any mariner surprised when, after inspecting the compass, and then the dog-vane, and then ascertaining the precise bearing of the odor as nearly as possible, Ahab rapidly ordered the ship's course to be slightly altered, and the sail to be shortened.

The acute policy dictating these movements was sufficiently vindicated at daybreak, by the sight of a long sleek on the sea directly and lengthwise ahead, smooth as oil, and resembling in the pleated watery wrinkles bordering it, the polished metallic-like marks of some swift tide-rip, at the mouth of a deep, rapid stream.

In contrast to Ahab's first appearance, borne on images of torment, Moby Dick's surrounded by a hush. He does not churn through the water; he seems to smooth and calm its surface--even as the tide-rip roars deep below. Shortly afterwards we get this fairly conventional cry (from Ahab): "There she blows!--there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" Then a lot of rushing around by the crew as the boats are lowered. Still, Moby Dick, like the waters above him, remains unperturbed.

Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows sped through the sea; but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam. He saw the vast, involved wrinkles of the slightly projecting head beyond. Before it, far out on the soft Turkish-rugged waters, went the glistening white shadow from his broad, milky forehead, a musical rippling playfully accompanying the shade; and behind, the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his steady wake; and on either hand bright bubbles arose and danced by his side. But these were broken again by the light toes of hundreds of gay fowls softly feathering the sea, alternate with their fitful flight; and like to some flag-staff rising from the painted hull of an argosy, the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale's back; and at intervals one of the cloud of soft-toed fowls hovering, and to and fro skimming like a canopy over the fish, silently perched and rocked on this pole, the long tail feathers streaming like pennons.

A gentle joyousness--a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.

On each soft side--coincident with the parted swell, that but once leaving him then flowed so wide away--on each bright side, the whale shed off enticings. No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes. Yet calm, enticing calm, oh, whale! thou glidest on, to all who for the first time eye thee, no matter how many in that same way thou mayst have bejuggled and destroyed before.

And thus, through the serene tranquillities of the tropical sea, among waves whose hand-clappings were suspended by exceeding rapture, Moby Dick moved on, still withholding from sight the full terrors of his submerged trunk, entirely hiding the wrenched hideousness of his jaw. But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight. Hoveringly halting, and dipping on the wing, the white sea-fowls longingly lingered over the agitated pool that he left.

Serenity, as the calm at the eye of the storm, is a common way of depicting ominous power. Still, it works here, especially because of the whale's effects on his surroundings. He casts a spell over the waves and the seabirds, making them not only calm, but joyous. The waves are suspended by "exceeding rapture"; the birds "longingly linger" over the spot from which dives. He's beatific. He's seduced nature, or rather "ravaged" it, as the reference to Europa and the bull suggests. Nature seems unnaturally happy, even drugged, and that's how Moby Dick lives up to his billing. The first jolt he delivers is our realization that he's not merely aggressive and violent. He alters things simply by passing by or through them, and makes them strange. This seems like a good way to depict awesome power: show the ordinary world changing in its wake.

For future reference: veggie turkey-like thingies

Slate's Juliet Lapidos wrote a helpful review of vegetarian turkey-like entities, including the infamous Tofurkey. Trev and I bought her favorite, Gardein, for our belated Thanksgiving with his family on Saturday. While the rest of the family had turkey, we heated up these little stuffed soy-twinkies and surrounded them with the usual sides. Report: not bad. Texture very convincing. Flavor somewhere between turkey and bacon. "Crust" so-so. Stuffing negligible.

Trev's mom did a nice thing and bought the Thanksgiving issue of the Vegetarian Times in preparation for the meal. The issue includes a section on vegetarian etiquette for Thanksgiving. One suggestion--do not make the roasted bird the centerpiece at the table. Cut it up elsewhere and pass the slices on a plate. Vegetarians have responsibilities too: for instance, do not say, "Ugh, a bird carcass! How can you be such monsters?" and so forth. The veggie stuffing from VT was excellent.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: How do you solve a problem like Ahab?

In every narrative that is even remotely conventional, there comes a point of no return. A decision is made; destiny is sealed; there's no going back to undo the circumstances that drive the story to its (let's face it, often terrible) ending. This point is also one of great risk for the story's credibility. Because, as a writer, you may have a perfect ending in mind--a great image, or an event that doles out justice with exquisite irony. But can you get there from where you are now? As you translate your outline, or series of "numinous images" (as Joyce Carol Oates put it in her recent talk at Stanford), into prose, you might find things are not going as planned. That is, you cannot quite cross that bridge to "no return," because, on close inspection, your plot is a tad illogical. In other words, you've raised the question, "Why doesn't she just...?" Why doesn't she just tell him the truth? Why can't he just take a cab home? Why, in Moby Dick, doesn't someone just kill or at least incapacitate the mad captain who is ushering the Pequod to certain doom?

It's a question that Melville must dispense with sooner or later. We have to see the confrontation between Ahab and the white whale; that's the whole reason this novel exists. We also have to see Ahab's insanity long before that, so we know how doomed this trip is. The crew members know also. The fact that they know increases the drama; we watch helplessly as they struggle with and tame their misgivings. Still...Ahab is one man, and an old one (with an ivory leg, no less). How hard would it be to take him out? Melville answers the question via Starbuck's interior monologue in "The Musket." Starbuck, watching Ahab sleep in his hammock, has Ahab's musket in his hands. All he has to do is shoot--or failing that, take him prisoner. The latter would seem a fine alternative to out-and-out murder.

Ha! is he muttering in his sleep? Yes, just there,--in there, he's sleeping. Sleeping? aye, but still alive, and soon awake again. I can't withstand thee, then, old man. Not reasoning; not remonstrance; not entreaty wilt thou hearken to; all this thou scornest. Flat obedience to thy own flat commands, this is all thou breathest. Aye, and say'st the men have vow'd thy vow; say'st all of us are Ahabs. Great God forbid!-- But is there no other way? no lawful way?--Make him a prisoner to be taken home? What! hope to wrest this old man's living power from his own living hands? Only a fool would try it. Say he were pinioned even; knotted all over with ropes and hawsers; chained down to ring-bolts on this cabin floor; he would be more hideous than a caged tiger, then. I could not endure the sight; could not possibly fly his howlings; all comfort, sleep itself, inestimable reason would leave me on the long intolerable voyage. What, then, remains? The land is hundreds of leagues away, and locked Japan the nearest. I stand alone here upon an open sea, with two oceans and a whole continent between me and law.--Aye, aye, 'tis so.-- Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?-- And would I be a murderer, then, if"--and slowly, stealthily, and half sideways looking, he placed the loaded musket's end against the door.

"On this level, Ahab's hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again.-- Oh Mary! Mary!--boy! boy! boy!--But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck's body this day week may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?--The wind has gone down and shifted, sir; the fore and main topsails are reefed and set! she heads her course."

"Stern all! Oh Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last!"

Such were the sounds that now came hurtling from out the old man's tormented sleep, as if Starbuck's voice had caused the long dumb dream to speak.

The yet levelled musket shook like a drunkard's arm against the panel; Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel, but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place.

"He's too sound asleep, Mr. Stubb; go thou down, and wake him, and tell him. I must see to the deck here. Thou know'st what to say."

In the end, Starbuck doesn't have it in him to shoot Ahab. That makes sense; we've seen that Starbuck is the least bloodthirsty of the whale hunters. But he also can't take Ahab captive because he thinks the sight, and especially the sound, of the old man "pinioned" and "howling" would drive him insane. However, surely that's better than the alternative, i.e. death for everyone.

In an extremely realistic story, this rather absurd explanation would be a problem. But MD is not pure realism. The white whale itself is a mythical creature that exceeds the boundaries of the animal form entirely. It's the natural world multiplied exponentially, but also something else that can never be defined. Same with Ahab. He's life itself, but he, too, is "extraordinary." No matter how tightly bound he is, Starbuck thinks, that "extra" in Ahab will never be contained. In fact, through containment, it grows even scarier. Starbuck's sanity--and his fear of that thing in Ahab--means more to him than his life, and others'.

Now, is that satisfying? Are we willing to sail on with Starbuck and Ahab and face the white whale? Well, sure. In the first place, it was never up to Starbuck to stop the story's trajectory; it has always been too relentless. It also appears that Starbuck was lost even before this section began--what he's already seen of Ahab, and the universe, has made him willing to trade life for a few more days of not looking into the void. Starbuck has seemed the sanest of all the characters, so if he can't help, no one can.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The center of the Milky Way

A stunning, hugely informative new composite image from the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra observatories. There is a whole heck of a lot going on in our galactic center, including a super-massive black hole.

This makes me think, again, about the Wow Signal. It came from the Sagittarius region, which is kinda, pretty much, where the black hole is. Those things emit scads of energy.

Like the tag says, Extremely Amateur Astronomy. Please consult Phil Plait (who mentions nothing about the WS) for expertise.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wow Signal

So here's how one learns new / old information in the age of the Internet. Inspired by this beautiful Sagan / Hawking mashup, Trev and I re-watched our 25th Anniversary Cosmos DVDs. When we got to the segment on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, Trev moseyed over to the SETI site and found this tidbit about a thing called the Wow Signal. Turns out that in 1977 a researcher at Ohio State detected, via OSU's radio telescope Big Ear, a strong signal that bore several key indications of extraterrestrial and artificial origin. He was so impressed he wrote "Wow!" next to the code on the printout. Many attempts, over many years, to detect this signal again have failed. So it could well be some kind of anomolous, natural energy burst. Besides, if aliens were trying to contact us, why wouldn't they repeat the signal?

Well, in 1974, the Arecibo Observatory zapped a message out toward M13 (which will take 25,000 years to get there). And they only did it once.

Note: the Wow Signal is also the name of a band.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is life?

Into the home stretch with Moby Dick...and I'm struck this week by how much the book has to say about characterization. Although if I'd taught it in my "Imitation of Life" class, I don't know if we would have had room for anything else (especially on the quarter system). Perhaps I'll use excerpts in the future. Anyhow, last week, I suggested that Ishmael, as a semi-embodied character /narrator, or an embodied (dis)-embodied (oh, post-structuralism, will you never release my brain from your tentacles?) narrator-device thingamajig...here's the point: "Ishmael" is a fundamentally different kind of character than Starbuck, say, or Ahab. The name "Ishmael" does not represent something that we would ever mistake for a living person. This week, we discover that Ahab is the opposite of Ishmael in this sense: Ahab--so he claims anyway--is life itself.

We learn this during a thunderstorm right out of a Gothic novel, with the ship as the lonely castle, complete with the looming forms of scary black men (the harpooneers), their teeth and tattoos illuminated by lightning. Ahab pops up on deck to do his Victor Frankenstein impersonation.

"Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whenceso'er I came; whereso'er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there's that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee."

[Sudden, repeated flashes of lightning; the nine flames leap lengthwise to thrice their previous height; Ahab, with the rest, closes his eyes, his right hand pressed hard upon them.]

"I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now do I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!"
The Frankenstein parallels here are really quite interesting, though they are not actually my focus in this post. Maybe another time I'll talk about the business of breathing life / fire into one's "child," the "unbegotten," and who makes whom. I guess this indirectly bears on my point, though, which I will now get to.

In "Imitation of Life," I wanted to ask how authors portray life itself. Not how they create verbal imitations of "living beings," but life--"the life force," if you must. It seems to me that Ahab, here, provides a pretty good answer. The force becomes evident in contrast, in defiance, especially against overwhelming power. Life comes through, even comes into being, in opposition to this book's conception of God: "I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here." Personality--life--comes into relief in the face of impersonal, incomprehensible power. The conflict makes Ahab mad, and it's his rage that makes him more vividly alive than any of the other characters. Rage distills him. We feel Ahab's full commitment to his quest; his racing pulse, his bulging neck tendons as he yells, the pain that (we learn elsewhere) still surges through his phantom leg. And he makes a convincing case here that the best way to worship an indifferent God is to defy him. If God gives us life, the way to accept that gift--to live most fully--is to resist the implacable force to the end of our days. Ahab resembles Milton's Satan, a far more compelling character than God.

Anyway, if you're worried that your characters seem a little "dead," try giving them an overwhelming force to defy. Hopeless rage gives them energy, and also makes them seem both honest and brave.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: What is Ishmael?

This week in Moby Dick, we are given something like an answer to a nagging question. What is the deal with Ishmael? Up until now, I've mainly considered him as a Nick Carraway-style narrator, an actual person who's present at the events he's relating, though more observer than participant. However, in the history-and-anatomy-of-whaling passages, one senses a different narrative voice, an old guy hunched over dusty tomes who might as well be Melville, or "Melville"--since Ishmael mentions, in passing or possibly in jest, that he's "unlettered." So far I've fudged the matter, calling the narrator Melville / Ishmael, or dismissing the question in favor of the larger problems of the moment. But in "A Bower in the Arsacides," we are forced to confront the issue.

Hitherto, in descriptively treating of the Sperm Whale, I have chiefly dwelt upon the marvels of his outer aspect; or separately and in detail upon some few interior structural features. But to a large and thorough sweeping comprehension of him, it behoves me now to unbutton him still further, and untagging the points of his hose, unbuckling his garters, and casting loose the hooks and the eyes of the joints of his innermost bones, set him before you in his ultimatum; that is to say, in his unconditional skeleton.

But how now, Ishmael? How is it, that you, a mere oarsman in the fishery, pretend to know aught about the subterranean parts of the whale? Did erudite Stubb, mounted upon your capstan, deliver lectures on the anatomy of the Cetacea; and by help of the windlass, hold up a specimen rib for exhibition? Explain thyself, Ishmael. Can you land a full-grown whale on your deck for examination, as a cook dishes a roast-pig? Surely not. A veritable witness have you hitherto been, Ishmael; but have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone; the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and under-pinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan; and belike of the tallow-vats, dairy-rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.

Ishmael goes on to say, in his defense, that he once dissected a young sperm whale that was hoisted onto the deck. But this hardly seems to explain the vast scope of his knowledge, as he clearly recognizes. In fact, he seems to toss this whale "cub" at us as a joke and a tease--how do you know so much about the world? Well, I saw a NOVA special once. The teasing, for that's what I think this is, goes on. "And as for my exact knowledge of the bones of the leviathan in their gigantic, full-grown development, for that rare knowledge I am indebted to my late royal friend Tranquo, king of Tranque, one of the Arsicides." Apparently on a visit to this island, Ishmael toured the complete skeleton of a whale that had washed up on shore. The skeleton (like Pip) has undergone a wondrous transformation:

The ribs were hung with trophies; the vertebrae were carved with Arsacidean annals, in strange hieroglyphics; in the skull, the priests kept up an unextinguished aromatic flame, so that the mystic head again sent forth its vapory spout; while, suspended from a bough, the terrific lower jaw vibrated over all the devotees, like the hair-hung sword that so affrighted Damocles.

It was a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen; the trees stood high and haughty, feeling their living sap; the industrious earth beneath was as a weaver's loom, with a gorgeous carpet on it, whereof the ground-vine tendrils formed the warp and woof, and the living flowers the figures. All the trees, with all their laden branches; all the shrubs, and ferns, and grasses; the message-carrying air; all these unceasingly were active. Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!--pause!--one word!-- whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver!--stay thy hand!-- but one single word with thee! Nay--the shuttle flies-- the figures float from forth the loom; the fresher-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world's loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar.

For all I know such a "bower" does exist, but the way Melville / Ishmael describes it, it's anything but real. Yet it is here, amid enchantment and divine mystery, that Ishmael proposes to undertake that most rational of activities, measuring the whale's skeleton for his future readers' edification. The priests object--"Dar'st thou measure this our god! That's for us"--but Ishmael takes advantage of a comical skirmish among them to complete his task. OK, maybe even now, we still believe him. But then there's this, at the end of the chapter:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing-- at least, what untattooed parts might remain--I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

Now Melville's just having us on. We can no longer be expected to believe that Ishmael's an ordinary person. Of course, no one on the Pequod is, as our narrator is at great pains to tell us (the blacksmith, the carpenter, the deranged drowned child who's still alive--every character has a bizarre tale). But Ishmael is something else entirely--a blank page who wanders through the book "composing" himself at will. Sometimes he looks rather like a person; sometimes he sounds like one voice or another. Like the whale, the narrator's "exposed" in this passage, and also hidden. We think we see the apparatus that keeps him together, but the trees are waving, the light is flashing, and Ishmael vanishes in a magical, joking blur. You can call him Ishmael, but that container really does not hold him.

Jonathan Culler's article "Omniscience" takes on the problem of what the so-called "all-seeing" narrator is. How embodied does a narrator have to be--how present? How much of a person can a narrator be, before real human limitations get in the way of telling the story? These can be tough questions for writers to solve. Melville's solution is to have Ishmael appear and disappear as a character, and call his own reality into question. This gives Melville the option of showing the thrilling, and often deeply moving personal experiences on board the whale boat, as one can do with a conventional first-person narrator; at the same time, Ishmael can go anywhere and see anything. Who went down to the depths with Pip's immortal soul and saw, with Pip, God's foot upon the treadle of the loom? Well, Ishmael did. He can do that. This is Nick Carraway as a ghost, or demon.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Get over yourself, English major! But not completely

An interesting discussion is going on over at Nathan Bransford's blog. Bransford's an agent, and he wrote a post on Tuesday reminding all of us English major types that when we write query letters, we need to Knock Off the Analysis Already. Agents don't want to read queries that talk about all the high falutin themes (love, loss, evil, capitalism) you "explore." They want to know what happens in your story. The plot. Even if your book is literary. So, I knew that, but I do need to be whacked with that reminder now and then.

But then a bunch of commenters wrote in to say that they *only* wanted to be storytellers, entertainers, light fun fluff-makers, and anyone who deals in themes at all is a pompous ass (I paraphrase). So Bransford has written another post re: no, literature is not really that democratic, and trying new, difficult stuff is good. Only, sometimes, really tough stuff doesn't sell. It's the usual problem. You are most lucky if you are good at writing gripping plots that just naturally throw off sparks of meaning as they barrel forward. If your gifts and / or ambitions are more complicated, then you have some choices to make.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Castaway

So after several more gruesome whale slaughters, gruesome diggings around in dead whale's bodies, gruesome (although bizarrely, darkly funny) accidents in which a harpooneer falls into the head of a whale carcass that he's emptying out, and lots of whale anatomy lessons, I have arrived at what is probably my favorite passage in the whole book. People, Moby Dick is not a walk in the park! It challenges the head, heart, and stomach all at once! But I forge ahead because literature is ennobling, and because just as I'm about to give up, another stunning passage comes along.

"The Castaway" is another small story about a literally small character, which focuses the novel's cruelty and beauty to an unforgettable point. I am talking about the story of Pip, the African American child who's found himself on board the Pequod and has lately been pressed into service on the whale boats. Lowering for whales being, as we've seen, an alarming experience, Pip develops a tendency to jump out of the boat at the wrong moment. Stubb tells him that the next time he does that, they will leave him behind.

But we are all in the hands of the Gods; and Pip jumped again. It was under very similar circumstances to the first performance; but this time he did not breast out the line; and hence, when the whale started to run, Pip was left behind on the sea, like a hurried traveller's trunk. Alas! Stubb was but too true to his word. It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day! the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater's skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip's ebon head showed like a head of cloves. No boat-knife was lifted when he fell so rapidly astern. Stubb's inexorable back was turned upon him; and the whale was winged. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.

Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea-- mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.

I will leave it to others to work through the multiple layers of Melville's lyrical racism--though that racism is part of this chapter's poignance. Pip, here, is Everyman and Other at the same time; I suspect a white child in the sea would not have generated the same creative dissonance for Melville. But just picture this: "the intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity"! Who indeed can tell it? Then comes this:

But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

Like the slaughtered whales, Pip is both ruined and deified. I can't decide whether to mourn or celebrate Pip's apparent insanity; in Melville's increasingly carnivalesque world, we're often doing both at once. Maybe his ascension by descension is supposed to be recompense for Stubb's (and Melville's?) cruelty to him--though Melville tells us that Stubb never meant to leave him out in the water for so long. In any case, this vision of Pip's sea change is visually and aurally beautiful. The road to hell may be paved with adverbs, as Stephen King has said, but has there ever been a better-chosen adverb than "jeeringly" here? Also, there's an amazing rhythm and alliteration to the whole passage. Just for instance: "He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it..."

So (as we land with a thud back in our practical world, in which we must extract a useful lesson from our reading), what can other writers learn from this passage? Well, the matter of "compensation" can be an interesting one to explore--a character who experiences terror or alienation or loss receives (courtesy of the author) some kind of surprising compensatory gift. (This gift may be better for the narrative than for the character himself.) Also, the excellent adverb is a ticket to heaven. Also, Pip saw God, or at least part of him, when his soul traveled to the depths.* So, writers, where do you think God resides (at the bottom of the ocean)? What's around him (coral insects)? What is God doing (weaving)? You don't have to worry about what God actually looks like if you build a convincing and amazing world around him.

*Again, Melville gets great mileage out of letting the soul leave the body and roam about--as Ahab's does at night on the deck of the Pequod.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Literature and the compassion deficit

I've been thinking a lot lately about the need to show compassion, or "mercy" as Steve Almond puts it,* to the fictional characters one creates. I've been trying to do more of that, after receiving critiques from readers that they could not relate to some of my characters. As students from my class, "Imitation of Life," know, this whole issue is an obsession of mine. The class itself grew out of the frequent comment one hears in fiction workshops, to wit, "I didn't like this character." Meaning the story needs fixing.

But it's not just writing students who say such things. Michiko Kakutani recently eviscerated Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Chronic City. Among her objections was that the main character "expects his friends to stay up all night listening to his stream-of-consciousness rants." Kakutani does not want Perkus Tooth as a friend! What a burden he would be! Whereas Gregory Cowles's review in the weekend NYT Book Review takes these "dorm-room" style rants as satire, which, I suspect, is how they were intended. This is not to say Kakutani is wrong to dislike the book. I'm I am saying that tastes differ, and expectations about what readers can and should seek from literature differ. So Lethem did not awaken mercy in Kakutani. Cowles either did not expect that awakening, or he found it in recognizing Tooth's foolishness. He did not disengage because Tooth was annoying.

Still, in consciously trying to be merciful to characters I'm satirizing in my own work, I am finding that the work becomes more complex and subtle. So this has been a good experiment thus far, and I'm learning lots. In fact, I expect this is ultimately the way to go. So why am I still resistant to the relatively simple, and it would seem moral, guideline of showing mercy? Because I still don't believe characters are equivalent to people. And if readers are seeking to find mercy in themselves, or in the world, as they are reading, what does that say about the real world? In other words, are readers turning to literature to experience the compassion that they do not experience in life? Why can we not turn to each other for compassion, and seek different experiences in literature?

But it's not for me to judge people for what they seek when they read. And perhaps what many really want from literature is something more complicated than "liking" characters or having good feelings about them. Perhaps they seek emotional challenge--to have mercy awakened for characters who are not so easy to like, and to see how that feels. It may be too risky to feel compassion for chronic complainers, freeloaders, abusers, and worse in real life. Then those people attach themselves to us, wear us down, and do considerable damage which we are well advised to avoid. So we seek guidance or practice in dealing with such people in literature, a way to go through the complex emotions and reassure ourselves that we can be merciful--even if we aren't as merciful as we'd like to be in our everyday lives.

Also this concept works better if we think of "character" in very broad outlines. It's not just representations of recognizably human beings, fitted with bodies and stamped with first names and surnames. Character could include tone and voice, so even if one's work is more abstract, it could still awaken mercy for conditions or experiences.


*H/t Kim Wyatt. Actually Almond is saying writers should awaken mercy in their readers, which implies the author is feeling it when she is writing. Here's one place Almond made the statement, a 2003 interview with Bookslut. The rest of the interview is well worth reading.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The world upside down

Well, it's happened. I've been dreading this. In Moby Dick this past week, I had to read the harrowing chapters in which a whale is graphically killed. I was much less of a softie, apparently, the last time I read this; I don't remember being particularly bothered by the cruelty on display. I guess I had my own problems back then, and / or I was just too taken with all the collapsing metaphors and writing (on) the body jazz that I just thought, "hmmm, interesting." This time I told myself I would skim the whole business and then look for something beyond it to write about. What made me most afraid, I think, was my memory (which must have really been of the workings of my own detached mind) that Melville was terribly clinical about the event. That he saw whales as inscrutable monsters, metaphors for the impenetrable cruelty of the universe--so he was only worried about what happened to the men on the hunt, so vulnerable, out in their little boats, to these forces.

Not so. If anything, "Stubb kills a whale" displays the cruelty of the hunt for all to see. The whale's torment goes on for pages, and ends thus:

And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view! surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!

"He's dead, Mr. Stubb," said Daggoo.

"Yes; both pipes smoked out!" and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made.

"His heart had burst!" is right out of a sentimental novel. And even the enthusiastic hunter, Stubb, is struck into (brief) contemplation of what he's done. When we first see this whale, his spout is compared to "a portly burgher smoking his pipe of a warm afternoon." "But," Melville adds, "that pipe, poor whale, was thy last." It is telling that by the end of the hunt, Stubb sees the same connection himself.

Before this chapter, much is made of cannibalism as a metaphor for the human--and animal--condition. In the chapter "Brit," Melville says:

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

We then get a discourse on the tangled harpoon line, leading to the conclusion that "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks..." In retrospect, having read the murder scene, this all seems like rationalization. Are men really no different from the whales they murder? Is the sea really just as cruel, and the whales cruel (at least in the case of Moby Dick)--so that there is no individual motive or responsibility when humans kill whales? I realize I am reading with my PETA glasses on here. But still, the way Melville plays up this whale's humanity, and the fact that even experienced whale-men never quite get used to this act, seem to mean something. This scene is a horror.

It's also clear that Melville thinks it's a horror because of what happens next in the narrative. Immediately after the whale dies, Melville takes two brief chapters to describe some technical aspects of the hunt: "The Dart" and "The Crotch." He introduces "The Dart" with dry pedantry: "A word concerning an incident in the last chapter"; "The Crotch" begins similarly: "The crotch alluded to on a previous page deserves independent mention." It is as if he, like Stubb, like the readers, all need to step back and contemplate what we've made (because we've made this corpse too, if only in our imaginations). It's too much to keep going forward right now.

But then things get really weird. Stubb, as per his ritual, wants to feast on a stake cut from the carcass. As he's munching away, sharks come to take their share of the dead whale lashed to the ship's side.

Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship's decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other's live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and though, were you to turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be pretty much the same thing, that is to say, a shocking sharkish business enough for all parties; and though sharks also are the invariable outriders of all slave ships crossing the Atlantic, systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere, or a dead slave to be decently buried; and though one or two other like instances might be set down, touching the set terms, places, and occasions, when sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whaleship at sea. If you have never seen that sight, then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating the devil.

Sharks as devils following sea battles become dogs at the dinner table; at almost the same time we're talking about slave ships--and why sharks follow them; then back to hilarious feasting, jovial spirits; then the devil once again. "If you were to turn the whole affair upside down..." Melville says, and that's exactly what he's doing here. Turning the world over, and over again, till we're all thoroughly disoriented. This is not the sort of mystical mirroring of mind and nature one finds, say, in Thoreau. All this inversion takes place on the same plane, the plane of the real world. This world is upside down, because of this killing. Things get stranger still, as Stubb calls out the old black cook, Fleece, and demands that he preach to the sharks--not to stop them from eating, but to get them to do it quietly. This Fleece does, not happily. Why preach to sharks? Who knows? It seems to be a whim of a discombobulated Stubb, or some kind of oddball punishment. Stubb complains to Fleece that the steak was too tender and suggests he won't make it to heaven for denying it. Fleece, goofy old black sage that he is, sums up the upside-downness:

"Wish, by gor! whale eat him, 'stead of him eat whale. I'm bressed if he ain't more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself," muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock.

In The Secret Agent, Conrad created horror with mundane sounds. Here, we get horror through the flipping and rolling of the world. Everything's simply crazy; so is everyone, including the narrator, who suddenly starts studying gizmos on the boat as a way of gathering himself. These seem like good ways to portray a truly awful event, its prelude and its aftermath.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: There is no earthly way of finding out

This week in Moby Dick, Melville grumbles about the lousy state of whale-painting in the mid-nineteenth century. Basically, as far as he can tell, there are no good representations of whales in the world. From seventeenth-century engravings to Chinese cups to oil-dealers' street signs, artists have spectacularly failed to "catch" the whale. Even scientific drawings get it wrong: "Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and those are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hulls and spars."

For Melville, the whale presents a special problem for the author: it's a real animal; yet almost none of his readers have actually seen one or even an accurate picture of one. The author cannot count on a few telling details to conjure up an image in the reader's mind. The problem is also an opportunity (as are all problems, if you read management-training books, which I have; which is to say I read one a long time ago)--the whale's body is where fiction meets science, god meets flesh. The whale pushes earthly powers of representation to its limits.

At these limits, Melville (or Ishmael? Who can tell?) seems to throw up his hands once again:

For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Melville was an imaginative guy, but he did not foresee Jacques Cousteau. Today, I'd expect few among us to say that we have no "tolerable idea" of what a whale looks like. Even though all I've ever seen with my own eyes amounts to this--



--I have no trouble picturing "whale" in my mind's eye. In today's imagination, thanks to film and TV and super-duper underwater photography, the whale has been normalized. It has also, fortunately, been (mostly) saved from extinction.

Because of these technologies, we have now become "fastidious in our curiosity" about pretty much everything in fiction. We demand to know exactly what every object, person, animal, and setting in a story looks like. Authors must create credible imagery, because today's readers are much more familiar with the flora and fauna and activities of the world, even in those parts that are very distant from us. And if we're not familiar, we can pretty easily look these things up. This pressure sometimes leads to episodes such as the one in Ian McEwan's Saturday, when we get umpteen pages of full-on brain surgery that feel, to me, more like "proof of research" than a contribution to the story.

"Show don't tell" means visual showing above all. Precise visual detail is required in fiction (as I read in some how-to-write-a-novel book, whose name or author I cannot remember now) because of film and TV have become our dominant modes of storytelling. Readers' imaginations have been so shaped by moving images that fiction that deviates from this structure now seems "wrong." I also remember Zadie Smith remarking in an interview that she had discovered, to her chagrin, that her novels contained "commercial breaks." It's the same for a lot of us who grew up watching television; I have no doubt that my sense of narrative rhythm, and my desire to put *** between paragraphs at certain points, is driven by a subconscious voice intoning, "and now a word from our sponsor."

But what would it be like, as authors, to reject--just as an exercise--this tyranny of the visual? I'm not saying don't do your research (although I am saying: don't go whaling). Is it even possible to disentangle ourselves from the movie / television / YouTube complex and structure stories on some other principle? What is different about books that were written before these things colonized our collective gray matter? Are we even capable of understanding, let alone writing stories without that filter?

I'm not at all sure, which is a little scary. But I am going to be more conscious of where film or TV or the Internet is shaping the way my stories unfold--or my expectations for others' stories. I'm a little too used to thinking I should see a story, when maybe I could experience it in some other way.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Looking for Shane McGowan

Via Jerry Stahl's "Junky List" at The Rumpus, I guess I'm glad I found this. A further pursuit of links gives one to understand that the Pogues will be at the Warfield on October 13. One is tempted...but will Shane be there? It is not entirely clear. The last time I saw the Pogues at the Warfield--which I'm horrified to realize was in 1991--he was not. His replacement was an interestingly self-effacing Joe Strummer (I suppose one would have to expect self-effacement after being parachuted in at the last minute to sing songs he probably didn't know as well as, say, "London Calling"--which they also did). Anyway that was all fine, and I'm especially glad I got to see Joe because that was the only time I ever saw him perform live; but I didn't also expect him to *die* eleven years later whereas Shane MacGowan would still be alive and kicking. I am glad to report, however, that this is the case, though I cannot confirm with absolute certainty. At Hardly Strictly on Sunday, when Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains announced they had a "surprise" in store for us, I sort of hoped they were pumping Shane with whatever fluids he required in a tent in the back, and that he would soon leap up on stage, as several other amazing people did during that concert. However, the surprise was actually either 1) Tim O'Brien (the mandolin player, not the novelist) or 2) that Sting was almost going to show up but didn't. Anyway that was all fine also. The Chieftains were fantastic.

So what is this post about? I suppose it's the incredible resilience of certain constitutions, the fact that dental hygiene is not correlated with musical genius...and *holy shit that was 18 years ago.*

Monday, October 05, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Stubb's Exordium

This week in our slow progress through Moby Dick, I'd like to take another look at Melville's methods of characterization. In "The First Lowering," he uses dialog in a fascinating way to portray the minor character of Stubb. But Melville is doing more than telling us about this one guy--the characterization is really of the man in relation to his crew, what happens between them. Partly because Stubb is a minor character, this portrayal serves to tell us something about humankind generally. These revelations themselves are rather unexpected, especially in the context of the full-on pursuit of a whale:

"Pull, pull, my fine hearts-alive; pull, my children; pull, my little ones," drawlingly and soothingly sighed Stubb to his crew, some of whom still showed signs of uneasiness. "Why don't you break your backbones, my boys? What is it you stare at? Those chaps in yonder boat? Tut! They are only five more hands come to help us never mind from where the more the merrier. Pull, then, do pull; never mind the brimstone devils are good fellows enough. So, so; there you are now; that's the stroke for a thousand pounds; that's the stroke to sweep the stakes! Hurrah for the gold cup of sperm oil, my heroes! Three cheers, men--all hearts alive! Easy, easy; don't be in a hurry-- don't be in a hurry. Why don't you snap your oars, you rascals? Bite something, you dogs! So, so, so, then:--softly, softly! That's it--that's it! long and strong. Give way there, give way! The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull. Pull, will ye? pull, can't ye? pull, won't ye? Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don't ye pull?--pull and break something! pull, and start your eyes out! Here," whipping out the sharp knife from his girdle; "every mother's son of ye draw his knife, and pull with the blade between his teeth. That's it--that's it. Now ye do something; that looks like it, my steel-bits. Start her-- start her, my silverspoons! Start her, marling-spikes!"

Stubb's exordium to his crew is given here at large, because he had rather a peculiar way of talking to them in general, and especially in inculcating the religion of rowing. But you must not suppose from this specimen of his sermonizings that he ever flew into downright passions with his congregation. Not at all; and therein consisted his chief peculiarity. He would say the most terrific things to his crew, in a tone so strangely compounded of fun and fury, and the fury seemed so calculated merely as a spice to the fun, that no oarsman could hear such queer invocations without pulling for dear life, and yet pulling for the mere joke of the thing. Besides he all the time looked so easy and indolent himself, so loungingly managed his steering-oar, and so broadly gaped-- open-mouthed at times--that the mere sight of such a yawning commander, by sheer force of contrast, acted like a charm upon the crew. Then again, Stubb was one of those odd sort of humorists, whose jollity is sometimes so curiously ambiguous, as to put all inferiors on their guard in the matter of obeying them.

It's a remarkable achievement, in the middle of an action sequence (the maritime equivalent of a car chase), to bring out the subtle interplay of "fun and fury" in Stubb's tone. Almost any other author would have all the boat captains simply yelling "Go! Pull! Faster!" at their crews, and we readers would likely think that was fine. This is not the time for individuation. But the more I think about Stubb's use of "curiously ambiguous" humor to motivate his crew, the more realistic it seems.

This is one of those times when I'm reading a novel and feel certain that some actual experience of the author's is breaking through the fictional veil. Occasionally that is a bad feeling--as if the author has failed to sufficiently distance himself from that experience, so it sticks out in the narrative as a kind of unpolished lump. But here, I'm just sensing Melville's extremely close attention to real human behavior. He's not just observing Stubb's tone, but the practiced skill with which he deploys it; we understand how Stubb has, over many years, honed the fun / fury contrast to the precise razor's edge that will get the results he wants. The tone is as precariously balanced as the whale boats, and its goal is to keep the men off balance. Stubb knows that off-balance men are obedient men. They get and appreciate his humor (in what, after all, is a life-threatening situation), but they, like the reader, sense its oddness in this context. They obey him not out of fear of punishment, but of the unknown. Perhaps he is not quite in his right mind; but they have no way of knowing, and they are in no position to try to find out.

In a sense we have here the Pequod in miniature, but instead of Ahab at the helm (he is commanding his own whale boat at the same time as Stubb), we have someone else. Stubb is strange in a different way from Ahab: less threatening, perhaps, and more cunning...but when one's in the middle of a roiling sea, harpoons flying, do those distinctions really matter? Everyone, Melville seems to suggest, is under the sway of these odd, complex, funny and furious forces whose motives we can never quite discern. We obey these forces because we can't make sense of them.

This whole scene also just seems like a slightly more watery version of the typical workplace. The boss in Office Space, for instance, is also a manipulator. Of course he's portrayed as the devil, whereas Stubb's more ambiguous; and the boss is passive-aggressive where Stubb is over-the-top aggressive. Still, both have crafted a distinctive style of verbal manipulation ("Um...yeah...I'm gonna need you to come in on the weekend...") that makes their characters indelible.

So the take-away for this week is to think about how people in real life manipulate others, and how complex those strategies of manipulation can be. We can translate those interactions into our fiction, showing both sides of the equation: how one character deploys verbal power, and how and why others react to it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Whooping Imps of the Blocksburg

Argh, I have gotten no further in reading Moby Dick. So I am actually going to backtrack and talk about a passage that comes before the one I discussed last week. This one is from the infamous "Whiteness of the Whale" chapter, which I love but about which I don't have a whole heck of a lot to say--other than it falls into the strategy of verbal / intellectual barrage, through which Ishmael / Melville attempts to "get" the whale. To summarize, "The Whiteness of the Whale" asks why the white is the color (if it is indeed a color) of both holiness and terror. Seems to me the answer is that holiness and terror are closely related experiences; the whiteness of both points to--and is derived from--death. Done: next question...? Anyway, once again, by the end of this chapter, we are no closer to the whale, except in the sense that we have now read further in the text, and so we are closer to the part in the book where the thing itself is going to have to make an appearance.

Still, there is some great writing in this chapter (as everwhere) and I don't recommend skipping it. I was particularly struck by this line:

Or, to choose a wholly unsubstantial instance, purely addressed to the fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tales of Central Europe, does "the tall pale man" of the Hartz forests, whose changeless pallor unrestingly glides through the green of the groves--why is this phantom more terrible than all the whooping imps of the Blocksburg?

Let me begin by saying that I have no idea whence any of these tales derives. I don't know who this tall pale man is,* nor can I begin to credibly imagine these whooping imps--though I am picturing a bunch of garden gnomes hopping furiously up and down. However, my interest here is in the sound of the words.

I remember reading Paradise Lost as an undergrad, and much being made of the way Milton juxtaposed Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, particularly when talking about Satan. For instance:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshon the wealth of ORMUS and of IND,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showrs on her Kings BARBARIC Pearl & Gold,
Satan exalted sat....

The collision of "exalted" and "sat" is meant to mock Satan--the flatness of "sat" undercuts the of grandiosity of "exalted." (As we all know, this trick didn't work; everybody likes Satan better than God in PL, including, according to Blake, Milton himself.)

So back to those imps. As poor a folklorist as I am**, I am an even worse linguist. So I really can't pick apart the origins of the words Melville uses in the passage above. Still, the sound of them reminds me of Milton's collisions. The part of Melville's sentence devoted to the pale man is graceful and alliterative ("glides through the green of the groves," plus those repeated r's); the second part, wherein the imps whoop, is choppy to the point of being funny. In this case the smoothness of the pale man's movement--echoed by the words--becomes more ominous in contrast to the bumpiness of the words at the end. Compared to the pale man, the imps look and sound (sorry, I can't resist) impotent.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, writers should "try to assemble words in a beautiful fashion." He points to a passage from E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime to show how a great writer puts together word upon word, sentence upon sentence, to create music. Writers are composers. (Interestingly, one of the commenters on this post even talks about Moby Dick in this light.) In music, it's often the contrasts between sounds, the disruptions of a seemingly perfect rhythm, that make it compelling.

So this week's lesson, an oldie but a goodie, is to listen to what we write.

*A person with less intellectual forebearance than I possess might leap to point out that the "tall pale man" may be a version of Bigfoot.

**Except when it comes to Bigfoot.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on E. L. Doctorow

Yes. Writers should "try to assemble words in a beautiful fashion."

Inventions That Would Almost Work: Hair Magnet Exer-Suit

This is a padded full-body suit made of a revolutionary, highly static-y material. Put suit on and roll across floor and / or furniture to collect cat hair and strengthen core muscles. Launder suit to dispose of cat hair. Repeat.

ITWAW is brought to you by a restless, slightly underemployed writer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: Ahab's Soul

This week, we'll have another look at characterization in Moby Dick, courtesy of Ahab. First--and forgive me for stating the obvious with a sense of great discovery--I've been struck by how much Ahab and the white whale are the same character. Melville hits this idea pretty hard in these early-to-middle chapters: both are scarred (by each other), both have wrinkled brows, both are associated with the shape of a pyramid (the whale has a pyramid-shaped hump, while Ahab, in Stubb's dream, is a pyramid that Stubb is kicking).* Both are driven by some unfathomable force, and become that force, sucking in and destroying all around them. Ishmael expends almost as much effort trying to "get" Ahab as he does the equally opaque whale. In Chapter 44, "The Chart," he takes another, so to speak, stab at him.

Often, when forced from his hammock by exhausting and intolerably vivid dreams of the night, which, resuming his own intense thoughts through the day, carried them on amid a clashing of phrensies, and whirled them round and round and round in his blazing brain, till the very throbbing of his life-spot became insufferable anguish; and when, as was sometimes the case, these spiritual throes in him heaved his being up from its base, and a chasm seemed opening in him, from which forked flames and lightnings shot up, and accursed fiends beckoned him to leap down among them; when this hell in himself yawned beneath him, a wild cry would be heard through the ship; and with glaring eyes Ahab would burst from his state room, as though escaping from a bed that was on fire. Yet these, perhaps, instead of being the unsuppressable symptoms of some latent weakness, or fright at his own resolve, were but the plainest tokens of its intensity. For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab's case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. Nay, could grimly live and burn, while the common vitality to which it was conjoined, fled horror-stricken from the unbidden and unfathered birth. Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself. God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.
I can't think of a contemporary novel that depicts the soul this way. In this stunning sequence, Ahab's soul is given agency and material reality. I love the idea that the tormented soul is seizing the opportunity of sleep to try to escape the circumstances it's trapped in. It can't quite make it; the soul is stuck with the body and its deranged mind, just as the sailors on the Pequod are stuck with Ahab. But it makes a run for it, dragging the vacated-looking Ahab with it.

These days I think discussions of the soul in literature are out of favor, except in a sort of meta way. We're all past the mind / body split, and we--that is to say, I--don't accept the existence of a "soul" distinct from our physical selves. However, what possibilities are open to us as writers if we re-inhabit that split for the sake of our fiction? If we make the soul a kind of character within the character--and put those two characters at odds? At a minimum, this gives a twist to the usual "inner struggle" or "inner conflict" that interesting characters are supposed to experience. The soul here has a physical presence, literally giving the struggle a new dimension. The connotations here are not overtly religious; but something more than Ahab's sanity is at stake, it would seem, if his soul is running amok in the night.

*Another great way, if not overused, to depict characters--one has a dream about the other. If the dream is weird enough, it gives a nice shading to both dreamer and dreamee.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: The Unfinished

In this week's writing lesson from Moby Dick, we are once again confronted with pedantry. I suggested a few weeks ago that Melville gets away with extended pedantic rants, even on page one, through sheer enthusiasm and judicious use of the second person. However, in Chapter 32, "Cetology," we are in a whole new realm of dust and dryness.

Already we are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon we shall be lost in its unshored harborless immensities. Ere that come to pass; ere the Pequod's weedy hull rolls side by side with the barnacled hulls of the leviathan; at the outset it is but well to attend to a matter almost indispensable to a thorough appreciative understanding of the more special leviathanic revelations and allusions of all sorts which are to follow.

It is some systematized exhibition of the whale in his broad genera, that I would now fain put before you.

And "put it before" us he does, over several, I hate to say it, tedious pages. I kind of skimmed them. This is not to say these pages are without interest; there is the irresistible (to Derridians and post-post-triple-double toe-loop-Derridians) intertwining of the whale with the book:

First: According to magnitude I divide the whales into three primary BOOKS (subdivisible into CHAPTERS), and these shall comprehend them all,
both small and large.

I. THE FOLIO WHALE; II. the OCTAVO WHALE; III. the DUODECIMO WHALE.

As the type of the FOLIO I present the Sperm Whale; of the OCTAVO, the Grampus; of the DUODECIMO, the Porpoise.

And there's the horrifying juxtaposition of real fondness for at least some of these creatures with the cold-blooded calculations of the butcher:

BOOK III. (Duodecimo), CHAPTER 1. (Huzza Porpoise).--This is the common porpoise found almost all over the globe. The name is of my own bestowal; for there are more than one sort of porpoises, and something must be done to distinguish them. I call him thus, because he always swims in hilarious shoals, which upon the broad sea keep tossing themselves to heaven like caps in a Fourth-of-July crowd. Their appearance is generally hailed with delight by the mariner. Full of fine spirits, they invariably come from the breezy billows to windward. They are the lads that always live before the wind. They are accounted a lucky omen. If you yourself can withstand three cheers at beholding these vivacious fish, then heaven help ye; the spirit of godly gamesomeness is not in ye. A well-fed, plump Huzza Porpoise will yield you one good gallon of good oil. But the fine and delicate fluid extracted from his jaws is exceedingly valuable.
Nevertheless, what is this "systematized exhibition" doing, plopped down in the middle of a narrative that has, like the Pequod, just now gotten underway? Is there some value in disrupting narrative momentum and taxing the reader's patience like this?

Thematically speaking, yes. In many senses the author of the novel is more Ahab than Ishmael. Like Ahab he seeks to get at the whale by any means necessary; he corrals it and aims at it every verbal weapon he can think of--straighforward narrative, theater, and now scholarly discourse. This latest stylistic shift also adds to the growing hodge-podge effect of the narrative, which I find appealing, even though I was glad when this particular part was over. While the voice in this section is still pretty dry, the overall sense is of an already oppressive desperation: we can't get (i.e. undestand) the whale; we will never get the whale.

And then there's this little outburst at the end:

Finally: It was stated at the outset, that this system would not be here, and at once, perfected. You cannot but plainly see that I have kept my word. But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
As I've said before, I'm a big fan of these authorial yelps. And what yelp is closer to the heart of a struggling novelist than "Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"? You said it, dude. But what's also fascinating here is the announcement that this whole enterprise is incomplete. We're looking at the frayed edge of the fabric; if we pull one of the threads, the whole novel might unravel. Melville's almost daring us to do it.

So what's the point of that, and how might other writers put such a ploy to good use? A lesser author might use it as a cheap way out. Yeah, there are crappy parts here, but I was rushing, and everyone knows it's impossible to finish anything anyway. But the meticulousness of this section in particular shows that the author is in fact trying his damnedest to "get" the whale. The slap-dash aesthetic of the novel (created by all the different verbal styles, as well as this and other outburst of despair) is a result of over-work, not sloppiness. So, in short, a section that is radically different in style, not only from the rest of the novel, but from the novel genre, can work even if it bogs down the narrative--if it furthers the novel's tone. Plot can wait. Character can wait. Desperation is what's most important here, and it probably helps if the reader starts to feel a little of it too--Good god, get on with it already!