I started this leviathan of a book three years ago. The first edition I had of it was a cheap, Barnes & Noble joke of a version. It was next to impossible to read due to the lack of references. The vernacular is old and the countries have changed names many times over. After becoming frustrated while still in Nantucket, I shelved it. While at the beach, as is it perfect to read at the beach, the pages began to fall out. I finally tossed it out of frustration. I knew there had to be more. My best friend told me this was really a novel worth reading. People who have read it said it is a monument to literature, unlike anything that came before it…..
I got the Norton Edition of Moby Dick and dug my teeth into it. I re-read all I had before, but with page notations and it made so much more sense. The biblical references were explained, as were coins, words, countries. It became an adventure and a book that was beyond educational. It was fun, adventurous and full of word play. Then, other things popped up. Moby Dick collected dust as other things needed to be read. Life was changing! Things were happening! It sat by my bedside for two years. Yet, I kept coming back to it….hoping this would be the time I would finish it. The point is that it is a quite exhausting read. It is a great deal of work to get through until the payoff.
I was on the phone with my friend Carl the other day and he referred to it as a cork ready to pop. And, did it do that indeed! I plowed through the last 140 dense, sweaty pages like a starving python in a cold place looking for warmth in prey. The book really can devour you as you devour it, but only if you let it. Melville breaks so many barriers. He trashes convention in narrative storytelling and told the story he wanted to tell. The lesson of Moby Dick is that you will never really find what you are looking for. If you obsess over something that is unattainable, it will drive you mad. That white whale is the analogy for everything you want but is unattainable. All that shit has been said before, but what Moby Dick did for me was prove that there is some sense of irrationality in what drives us to do anything. The ending may end up being a calamity, or it may end up being peaches…..rosy even. Moby Dick doesn't give us the rosy ending of misguided obsession. Obsession is a cruel, dark (even though here it is white) brooding thing within each of us. The point is can we control it before it breaks us and takes all we care about, even superficially, down with us? A book that can force us to ask that question, ponder on it, go off on random sidesteps of interest and return to the obsession is what makes it so unique and beyond that, realistic in its scope.
An entirely different beast of a book is Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. WOW! This was a perfect follow up to Moby simply due to its brevity at only 146 pages. I really ripped through this one. It has such a dark sense of humor and general foreboding through all of those short pages up until the 100-120 page mark where shit truly hits the fan. It is a sort of novella where you begin in a certain place and you know that place will, or its inhabitants will come back to haunt you. The book deals with cruelty and misunderstanding to such an extent it is almost nauseating. There is a good deal of repetition in this book, but it serves its purpose well. It also makes it very human, as we do things in such a repetitive nature as well. We avoid streets, people, places and things we feel as if could hurt us. Whether or not that pain we might feel is a reality or not, we do our best to keep our distance. I never thought of going through a daily existence as a board game until reading this. Yet, it opens just like that. There is strategy involved to avoid pain. Two turns forward, three back on the next roll. Five on the next and so on. But, as in most games, as is the case here (and in life), the strategy becomes a moot point. Sometimes things come to you and all of your devising gets thrown out the window…..
I sailed out right through the roof.
And hovered above it, looking down. Here was Rogan, checking his neck tattoo in the mirror. Here was Keith, squat-thrusting in his underwear. Here was Ned Riley, here was B. Troper, here was Gail Orley, Stefan DeWitt, killers all, all bad, I guess, although in that instant, I saw it differently. At birth, they'd been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life enders? In that first holy instant of breath/awareness (tiny hands clutching and unclutching), had it been their fondest hope to render (via gun, knife or brick) some innocent family bereft? No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light to bring forth the most violent, life-poisoning flowers, said water/light actually being the requisite combination of neurological tendency and environmental activation that would transform them (transform us!) into earth's offal, murderers and foul us with the ultimate, unwashable transgression.
On that note, I leave New York City with this: