Herman Melville: The Bright Young Thing/Upstart in contemporary American letters and his alleged magnum opus ‘Moby Dick or, ‘The Whale’’

I’ve recently attempted to read Moby Dick, a novel which despite its recent publication, has already been hailed by critics as a classic, appearing as it does (at least in my edition) in a Penguin Classics cover, a tasteful caprice reserved usually for 1) actual classic texts which have accrued enough regard over time to be regarded as indispensable, or 2) opportunistic singers who enjoy holding beleaguered publishers in a post-print era to ransom for their turgidly written score settling autobiographies. Forgive me if part of me recoils from this trivialisation of what a ‘classic’ is, and if I require a century or so of a grace period before I’m comfortable with the delineation. It is always a disquieting experience to have such a recent novel tipped as a mainstay in one’s lifetime, it sets a worrying precedent, perhaps I’ll be spending the rest of my life reading only contemporary literature, but I was determined to figure out what all the fuss was about so I sat down to read Moby Dick.

First of all, and this may account for the raucous applause that greeted Melville when he burst from quiescent anonymity onto the literary scene this year with his six-hundred page novel (a length which suggests Melville is pitching for Jonathan Franzen-type respectability via girth), this text is committed to upholding the pretence that the last one hundred and fifty years of American literature simply has not been written. In an introduction to the text, Melville provides a sequence of quotations from scripture, philosophy and poetry that take whales as subject matter, in an obvious and egregious plundering of the methodology of Mark Z. Danielewski in House Of Leaves, based on introducing as many literary antecedents as possible, to simulate the experience of a digital hypertext on the page. Such well-worn postmodernist jazz hands won’t cut the mustard with even the most naïve illiterate. Secondly, Melville also robs Thomas Pynchon blind in making use of self-consciously antiquated syntax and appeals to the reader, those who have read Mason & Dixon (that all-too exclusive sub-coterie of a sub-coterie) will groan in recognising Melville’s unrepentant cribbery and for thirdly, worstly, Melville opens the text with an extended digression on a piece of visual art:

“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast…there was a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.”

He follows a muddy description of the painting with a sequence of opinions about the painting that are spoken allowed, unsignposted, perhaps giving the reader an insight into the fundamentally over-determined, irreducible and endlessly referential nature of art itself? Old hat. I put it down after four-hundred pages, Melville will have to drop the plagiarism and tryhard spectaculars of ‘device’ before he gets me to take him seriously as a contemporary American novelist.

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