Sunday, 19 June 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The last existing photograph of Herman Melville on the eve of his 96th birthday, enjoying the aquatic style of living his whaling days had accustomed him to. The unusual bathtub was Melville's own invention and successfully reproduced the blowhole action of a breaching whale and/or porpoise.
Let me begin this essay by saying I've never had a more satisfying night of swatting silverfish than with this mighty classic. Forget the white whale. This book proves the written word is mightier than any plankton and krill sifting sea mammal. And I thought the Russian novelists took the cake in the silverfish killing department but I was mistaken. Melville clocks in at, oh, say, nine hundred pages and taken singly, it's just paper flapping in the breeze but together, they're the iron fist of the vermin killing world. Ahab should've been so lucky to have this thing to bonk Moby Dick over the head with, but of course they were both in the book so that would've made it an impossibility. Unless, of course, Melville wrote himself into the book writing the book, finishing it, sending it to the printers and then giving a copy to Ahab to hit Moby Dick over the head with, but, alas, Melville didn't do that and Ahab payed the price with a leg and then his life. But I've already said too much. Still, I haven't said enough so, on that note, on to the book itself. The two great misconceptions about Moby Dick or El Hombre Blanco Porco Giantissimo de Mer as he's known in the intellectual salons of Europe and the brothels of Tijuana, is that, number one, he's a whale and number two, the book is about his life and adventures. Well, people couldn't be more wrong on both points. To clear up the first point, Moby Dick was half whale, half giant squid as the photo below demonstrates. Ahab is in the foreground wearing an early version of the famous Nantucket seersucker slacks that hid his peg leg and as we can see, the two of them appear to be friends.
In fact, if you read the subtext of the novel carefully (you might need special glasses for this or lemon juice carefully dripped on to the right spots on the pages because Melville wrote sections of his great work in invisible ink and so many ideas and themes have been misconstrued or just plainly hidden in plain sight), you will find that, in fact, Ahab and Moby Dick were great pals but during a friendly game of Yahtzee, Moby Dick became overly excited with a good roll of the dice, grasped one of Ahab's legs with a tentacle out of sheer surprise, cut off the oxygen supply and presto, Ahab was getting fitted for a peg leg in no time. Being half mammal, half cephalopod, Moby Dick simply didn't know his own strength.
The accident angered the good townsfolk of Nantucket and Moby Dick was forced to go on the run, heading for deep open waters to put some distance between him and the crusty mariners who would strip him of his tentacles and blubber. As far as they were concerned he was just so much calamari and candle lamp oil. "Ahab," they all chimed in. "Are you going to allow him to get away with that, taking your leg and all," so Ahab was forced to head out to sea and hunt the beast he once called friend. Amazingly, all this takes up very little of the book and this is where I'm going to clear up the second misconception. If you dab the opening paragraph with lemon juice or have the special glasses you will read that one of the most immortal lines to begin a novel actually reads, "Call me Lipsey." That's right, Lipsey, as in Lipsey the porpoise, the main hero of the story and cetacean friend to all sea-going mammals as well as having a soft spot for cephalopods too.
The real-life Lipsey (who Melville based his fictional porpoise on), in his later years, sharing a joke with a group of Japanese exchange students studying sea mammal massage therapy. The punchline goes, "Dolphin-friendly, shmalphin-friendly, blow it out your blowhole, just bring me another tuna salad sandwich or I'll flipper you across the tuchas."
It is through the voice of Lipsey, that Melville shows his true brilliance. Centering on themes of alienation and abandonment, friendship and feuding, banishment and water buoyancy, Melville whaps the crap out of all of them like he's hitting dead fish upon a rock until new truths are revealed amongst the disintegrating and occasionally airborne guts. And he can do this for pages and pages at a stretch without catching his breath, much like a whale with a full blowhole but still plenty of submersible time left. At the heart of the story is Lipsey's overwhelming empathy for his fellow friends of the sea, even if that most human trait keeps him from leading a happy porpoise life because, as we know, and Melville was very aware of, even back in the day, is that porpoises are very judgmental, especially when they travel in groups, much like German or British tourists on seaside holidays.
Two German tourists enjoying a day at the beach, examining grains of sand under a spectronoscope to make sure the sand is soft enough for their well-cared for feet.
So, we have have two castaways so to speak, Lipsey, shunned by his fellow porpoises and Moby Dick, the result of a freak mating incident between a whale and a giant squid (it's very dark in certain parts of the ocean and sometimes creatures of different species latch on to each other for a little extra-curricular activity that is not exactly sanctioned by the laws of nature) and thus banished from his pod, meeting up and recognizing a kinship that, over the course of the book, strengthens into a bond of friendship until Ahab reappears and kills them both. Well, maybe I shouldn't have told you that. Anyway, a lot has been made over this Ishmael fellow and I can't emphasize enough how minimal this character's part is in the book. He might as well have said "Call me invisible," for all the effect he has on the plot. He spends most of his time scrounging for beef jerky and when he does have a thought or speak, it's only to talk about where he can find more beef jerky or did the second mate eat it or the third mate steal it or is there a hidden stash in the crows nest and, well, you catch my drift.
Ishmael's Beef Jerky factory in Shandong Province, China. For some reason the book is a big hit in mainland China and there are now over forty Ishmael Beef Jerky Kiosks throughout the country.
As for Ahab, besides the peg leg, which caused him great anxiety with women, especially during dance-hall parties (the waltz was his sore-spot but he could rumba like Don Ameche before his Cocoon days), he also had a large mole on his face that stuck out like a halved Tuscan meatball and I believe it was this unsightly facial blemish that sent him off to sea rather than the whole Moby Dick revenge motif. Melville doesn't make this clear but then he likes to build ambiguity into the text like a built-in dishwasher in a condo kitchen granite counter-top, perfectly flush so no edges stick out and the facade as sleek and smooth as a porpoise's underbelly. That's the kind of ambiguity I'm talking about. Remember too, Melville is a novelist who comes with all the fixings so throw in a little metaphor and a little simile on the word meat patty, toss in some grandiose themes of men vs. nature, men vs. men, men vs. themselves and men vs. ventriloquists (ventriloquism was only second to Peeping Tom-ism as entertainment in Melville's days), add some trusty harpoons named after the whalers' scrimshaw carving wives back on the rugged New England coastline and you have a book that will leave grill-marks across your brain complete with fat drippings and the resulting flare-ups that will burn the eyebrows right off a blubber-puss like Moby Dick, or Ahab for that matter, who was no looker himself. Which, in the end, wouldn't be a bad thing considering how things eventually do turn out.
An artist's rendition of Ahab just before setting sail to catch the great white whale, staring out to sea and contemplating his destiny that lay somewhere deep in his heart and as dark as thirty fathoms of seaweed strewn longing, revenge and death and not necessarily in that order depending on which side of the equator you live on and who tailors your pants.
Ahab nails a gold coin to the mast and then says that any man who sights the great white whale first shall earn that coin while all the other men will have to lick his mole. That sets off a mutiny and soon Ahab and Ishmael are cast adrift in a rowboat with only a days supply of beef jerky and Ahab's favourite harpoon, Eleanor Glox-Pus 9. As luck would have it, soon the two men spot the voluminous spout from the great blowhole of the giant beast and Ahab comes face to face with his nemesis and let me just say, Yahtzee isn't anywhere on the menu this time. The harpoon is thrown, penetrating the thick flesh of the enormous creature, but simultaneously, Moby Dick whips out one of his massive yet nimble tentacles, wrapping Ahab around the waist and pulls him off the boat, plunging him into the depths below. Above cumulus clouds look happy and puffy but this is all misleading, part of Melville's use of dichotomy, because below the waves it's no picnic or if it is, then someone forgot the condiments and so nothing tastes as good as it looks and death awaits so what's the point of eating anyway. I'll say no more except that Ishmael runs out of beef jerky before he hits Tahiti and, well, not even a monkey bride with a hefty coconut dowry can bring him back from the vortex of insanity that the lack of beef jerky has plunged him into.
Is this some form of a parable Melville wishes to leave us with or is he just toying with the parable idea to hide bigger stuff, much like one of those tents that comes in a compact nylon encasing but opens up to sleep six. Speaking of sleeping, this book will make you very tired because, what with the lapping of the waves and the endless hours spent at sea doing really nothing except looking for whales and hoping you don't have to lick Ahab's mole, it's a wonder anyone in this book stays awake.

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