Sunday, November 22, 2009

Autumn of Dick - Week 6 - Chapters 54-63

This week's reading alternated between beautifully written and, frankly, rather suspenseful chapters about the hunt for Moby Dick, and dull, rambling, plot-less chapters which describes whales to the reader and attempt to convey exactly how large and dangerous they can be.

I'm perfectly willing to grant Melville a little leeway here - when Moby Dick was published, a significant percentage of America's population was involved in maritime industries, but if you weren't, how would you ever know what a whale looked liked, or how one behaved, in the era before television, and National Geographic? But even so, a couple of chapters seems as if it should have been enough. Do we really need the chapter-long analysis of different famous paintings of whales, with detailed summaries of the accuracies and inaccuracies of each? Or the analyses of the liteary and artistic representations of whales in American, British, and French cultures? If Monty Python made a movie adaptation of Moby Dick, this section of the novel is where they would randomly cut away to a group of pissed off-looking sailors, pirates, and perhaps even the White Whale himself shouting "Get on with it!"

The same goes for the chapter about brit.

Then, I got to thinking about the 'hysterical realist' novels by contemporary authors I enjoy so much. Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, etc. all use a similar technique - how many characters in their novels work in a bizarre or obscure occupation, which requires ten pages of non-fictionesque prose just to supply the reader with the appropriate context? What Melville is doing is substantively similar, he just goes on a little too long, and his writing, though stylish enough, is sufficiently dated that these descriptive sections drag on, and don't snap along like, say, the section on Infinite Jest that is entirely about the exercises tennis players use to stay sharp between matches.


Ellen said...

I think your theory about the hysterical realists is sound. I don't want to believe it, because I can't remember being that bored in books by the authors you mention, but maybe it's in the context. Still, it's kind of disappointing to think about people reading INFINITE JEST as a cobweb-filled classic in 150 years.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, I have always wanted to like Melville but he's a long journey for me. I do, however, love Rushdie and I don't mind the 'hysterical realism' when he uses it.

I enjoyed reading :)