Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return of Ahab

I'm a slow reader, in every sense of the word. Maybe it's my training as a poet, but I read virtually everything carefully and deliberately. Word by word. I like to think this allows for a heightened experience of any work of literature, but it also means that I just don't get to as many books as I would like to. (Well, who doesn't feel that way, no matter how fast they read?) It also means that it may take me many years to finally read a book that others discovered long ago. I mentoned in an earlier post how much I enjoyed and appreciated Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. But the sad truth is I didn't read it until at least 10 years after its release. I find myself in a similar situation with Sena Jeter Naslund's fascinating Ahab's Wife (1999), a work of historical fiction (sort of) that I've only just gotten around to as part of my regimen of literary historical fiction. (Since that's what I'm trying to write.) It's an audacious book, thrilling in how the author is able to curry into the novel's world characters from out of canonical literature (i.e. Melville's Moby Dick), actual history, and her own imagination. I can only compare it to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime in how determined Naslund is to link together in one narrative just about everything of note that happened at one place in a given historical period (in this case, Nantucket Island in the decades leading up to the Civil War). And then she does Doctorow one better by also incorporating Melville's character's into the mix. It's both historical fiction and metafiction at once. And a whale of a tale, if you'll excuse the bad pun.

One certainly sets a great challenge for oneself when one decides to incorporate Frederick Douglass, Maria Mitchell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, and Ralph Waldo Emerson into the same narrative that already has introduced us to the infamous Captain Ahab, to Starbuck, to Queequg, to Daggoo, and to so many other characters from the legendary Pequod. Naslund's protagonist, an "immigrant" from the woodlands of Kentucky, even comes to know (quite well) the mysterious Ishmael. It's a dizzying and delightful high wire act. Not everything works, but the reader can only applaud Naslund for trying. And there are even moments when her sonorous writing approaches Melville's. I recommend the book to any enthusiast or admirer of Moby Dick. You won't be offended or disappointed. In fact, I expect you'll be intrigued by how able Naslund is at keeping Ahab's fundamental sternness and aloofness and obsessiveness while at the same time making him seem a real person, someone with whom the narrator can fall in love. Naslund does not alter Ahab out of all recognition in order to make him more palatable. He remains Ahab, after all--and yet we get to know him so much better. I dare say old Herman himself would approve.


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