Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Too-Nice Whaling Life

Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund, Read by Laura Hickman, BBC Audiobooks America, 2002

It is a strange feeling to approach a novel with mixed emotions before you even start. On the one hand, who the hell was this Sena Jeter Naslund that she dare think herself worthy to go mucking about in the waters of the greatest American novel? On the other, my iconoclastic side that revels in deconstructing myths and tinkering with them for our further amusement was eager to see how she managed it.

Well, both sides of me said, this had better be good.

It is a strange feeling to exit a novel with mixed emotions even after you’ve finished. On the one hand, Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer is a book the size of which puts Melville to shame, though it falls short of that great achievement, even while it does expand the range of topics under discussion in novels for the time frame. On the other, Naslund performs an interesting, at times compelling, though ultimately dissatisfying resurrection of the mad old captain and his quarry.

We meet Ahab’s young pregnant wife Una in media res on a snowy night at the end of her confinement in an old Kentucky cabin. Her mother leaves for the doctor despite the six inch crust of snow, and the next time we see her is in memory. That very night, Una loses both her mother and her newborn baby, though she does gain two friends, one a runaway slave, the other a dwarf bounty hunter tracking her.

Later, Una will tell us in her narrative that these twin losses are where she had to begin her tale, lest the fear of approaching them in chronological fashion paralyze her telling before it even begins. And having set the stage, Naslund then backs up the narrative and takes us back to Una’s childhood in that same Kentucky cabin. We meet her open-minded mother and her embittered, overly religious father, one of the book’s only true villains.

Rebellious, Una is sent away to live with her aunt and uncle at a lighthouse where she quickly becomes a family favorite of her mother’s open-minded, iconoclastic Unitarian relatives. Her uncle loves her, her aunt loves her, their daughter Franny loves her, all of her challenging of authority disappears, everything is harmony.

Until, of course, she meets two young scientific minded visitors to the lighthouse, both of whom crave the sea life. As her teen years are upon her, Una falls in love with both of these young men, Kit and Giles, a kind of pairing of opposites who pal around together for adventure. Following their lead, Una signs up as a cabin boy aboard ship after disposing of her long hair and binding her budding breasts to her chest.

There is, quite simply, an enormous amount of plot to Ahab’s Wife. An incredibly eventful book, there will be at least three ships involved in this maiden voyage of Una and Kit and Giles, their first one sinking, as well as the too predictable stranded in a lifeboat cannibalism, and a final ship back to America sailing with Ahab. There will be three marriages for Una, there will be another child, there will be more death, there will be madness, and there will be the white whale.

We will also meet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglas, Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, and Henry James. We will discuss the nature of god, morality, the woman question, and abolition. We will learn about whaling, homosexual rape, cannibalism, figureheads, Unitarianism, astronomy, sewing, and such a whole host of other things it’s a wonder Naslund found the courage to ever stop writing this book. There are, in the last ten chapters, at least ten possible good and satisfactory moments Naslund could have ended Una’s story and it would have seemed complete. Nevertheless, she soldiers on.

As I began listening to the novel, I felt an impatience for the narration to get around to being all about Ahab, so much do I love Moby Dick that any aspect, any perspective on it is pleasurable. For our patience, we are given such delicious rewards, we lovers of Ahab, such as quotations from the man’s diary, and we see him about the ship pre-prosthetic and pre-madness, a sparkle of monomania about him, nothing in comparison to how he turns up in Melville, but recognizable here. And eventually, too, in his company, we will meet the whale.

It is a bit of a cheat though, to have Una be the very first to sight Moby Dick. She fails to call out for it, as they’ve bagged their last whale on the route home and as she finds the whole business of slaughter rather upsetting. It’s a bit of a one-upping of Melville, having this invented character be the first to clap eyes on his creation. But then again what author penning a prequel to one of the most famous of American novels could have resisted such a cameo?

As to Una, early on I wondered how much could one have to say about a character never on stage of the original novel, only mentioned two or three times in passing, not even provided a name by Melville? Naslund has no such impatience and takes her time following her own character’s path, and by the eighteenth chapter (out of 158), I had settled down to Una’s story which was interesting and well told in its own right, even if her husband should have never been the doomed captain of the Pequod.

The question, of course, is how much the book needs to live off the other one, and at times it seems as if Naslund’s goes too far in the direction of trying to catch Melville. Without necessity there are chapters such as sixty-eight that is written in stage directions, aping Melville’s turn at this style. In a later conversation with Una, Ahab recounts to her how a compass needle if charged by lightning can lose its sense of the pole and point wildly, another lifted element from Melville.

What’s interesting in all of this is how much at the beginning I wanted more of the Melville characters, then having settled down with the character of Una and her family and friends, that desire abandoned me. I enjoyed her own life and her own character. When after a period of her singular individuality, Naslund begins to apply the Melville, I resisted, not wishing for mere repetition.

At times this usage and borrowing has some interest. At a fancy dinner party near the book’s last chapters, Una meets Ishmael himself, and he relates the story of Steelkilt and the Town-Ho. Eventually, wanting to settle down to write his story, Ishmael (here given the proper name of David Pollack) moves into the house next door to Una, the two of them becoming good friends, then eventually lovers, married in a kind of union of souls. This can be seen as a kind of allegory for all of us who have fallen under Melville’s spell with Moby Dick. You feel upon finishing the novel a kind of intense holy communion has transpired, that something inside you has changed remarkably.

What’s just so maddening about Ahab’s Wife is how unevenly good it is; what’s so frustrating about it at times is how unevenly bad it is. For every moment of delight, such as Una’s meeting with Hawthorne in the woods outside Emerson’s home where the author is disdainful and dandyish in his lacey veil, there are moments of supreme cheesiness such as new babies being daubed with names like Liberty and Justice. Almost every single character is just so damn noble that it makes your teeth ache to read of how every single person, every single one, whom Una comes into contact with simply opens up, lets past prejudices fall away, finds much to love in the world.

There are, to be precise, three specific villains in the entirety of the novel, and that’s probably too strong a word for them. I don’t insist that books need men in black cloaks twirling moustachios in order to be gripping reads, but in such fine and elevated company, one quickly grows tired. In ascending order of villainy, we have Una’s father, who is more unhappy than vicious; we have Moby Dick, who is viewed only as a force of nature even after he dismasts Una’s husband; and Una’s first husband Kit, whose meanness is only a result of his insanity.

Whereas Melville’s novel sought to paint the world as having a kind of mythological significance, so saturated is the book with charged religiosity regarding even little things, Naslund takes the more materialistic tack of suggesting that all is world. While I’m sympathetic to that view philosophically, here’s it’s objectionable for two profound reasons.

One, there really is such a thing as evil in the world. Not evil in the grand and churchy sense of a red-skinned horned devil who tempts us to break commandments, but real vicious cruelty and wicked actions by human beings just like you and me. To paint every single person as striving to be as noble as they can be, just misunderstood or mixed up in their intentions, is willfully naïve and stupid. I have little respect for full grown adults who think such as that, and little patience when novels push that line of reasoning.

Which brings me to point two, a reiteration of what’s stated above. Evil isn’t a necessity in a novel, not for profundity nor for entertainment. But if you’re going to cram your novel full of well meaning folks who are all so high-minded and beneficent, then you may wish to familiarize yourself with evil for the sake of dramatic counterpoint. Such things lift a merely readable novel into the realm of compelling. While Naslund’s story may fascinate, it is Melville’s we will return to time and again

Laura Hickman continues BBC Audiobooks America’s long run of quality narrators out of the common run of audiobook performances. I’d certainly never experienced her work before, but she manages everything adroitly and with panache, letting her voice tread ever so close to the Arrggh! School of Piracy talk for Ahab while never stepping over that choice boundary. It’s one wise decision among many she makes in the pursuit of this novel, pacing herself well and giving us just enough characterization to differentiate, but not enough to call great attention to itself.

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