Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, November 5, 2012

Melville's Too Hard? (Part 3)

The day arrived--27 April 2001--the day I was to lead a discussion at the Hudson Library about Ahab's Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund's 1999 best-selling novel about the woman whom Melville barely mentions in Moby-Dick.  And I had a problem: I thought the book sucked.

I had very much wanted to like the novel--and was thinking it might be all right.  Louise Erdrich had blurbed the paperback, "An intense treat, powerfully written ... one of the best contemporary novels I have read in years."  And on the front cover--this from the L. A. Times: "Beautifully written.  Lyrical ... alluring and wise."

That's pretty promising.  And I was thinking this, too: What a great idea for a novel.  Naslund certainly did not invent the taking-someone-else's-story-and-doing-something-different-with-it genre.  Shakespeare did it, among a few hundred others.  And some of you may remember The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Greg Matthews' 1983 attempt (a not very successful one) to capture the voice of Huck and coax it into telling what happened after Twain's novel had ended.  (Among other things: Prostitutes happened.)

These days, such works are everywhere.  I just read a new novel called Iago (yes, that one), and on my stack, waiting to be read, is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim.  But Naslund's book appeared in 1999--ahead of the flood of works that adapt/spinoff/pervert.

The first few pages were promising, too.  The narrator is Una (Ahab's wife): "His ghost rides by in black," she says; "standing at his knee, the whip, its lash dangling like a thin banner."  Okay.  But very soon the sentences started to cloy.  "But each day of her presence was licked by light, glowed like mellow gold."  A bit much?  And: "The conversation had been all sunny and generous, and here was this dark and inappropriate cloud."  And so on.  Soon, I was writing "Duh!" in the margins.

And a bit of sensationalism: murder, rape, cannibalism, smallpox, suicide, dildos.  (Not a candidate for the Family Channel.)

The story goes ever ever on.  Una seems more like a disciple of Gloria Steinem than a credible 19th century woman.  We go through her life, her marriages.

And at the end?  Ishmael returns.  Meets Una.  Electricity.  A visit to the bedchamber.  And this: "From the first night in my bed, we had known the depths of each other; my body had whispered to me as his had to him: This is marriage.  It needed no courtship."

Oh, and she names Ishmael.  (Remember: In Melville he says only "Call me Ishmael.")  I ain't telling you what it is!


So the Big Day arrived at the library.  I was prepared.  I'd read all of Naslund.  I'd re-read Moby-Dick.  I'd visited the principal sites in Ahab's Wife.  I had handouts.  I had a slide show.  I had a lesson plan on a yellow legal pad.  I had key passages bookmarked.  I had questions: What did you expect when you started the novel?  What did you get?  How do you feel about adapting classic literary works?  That sort of thing.

The session was scheduled for 10:00 a.m.  I started on time.  There were five people there, and one was the librarian.

Five people there.  One was the librarian.

(I just repeated that, in case you missed it.)

Five people there.  One was the librarian.

But they were nice; the time flowed all right.  I got my $50 check.  No one had really loved the book, so it wasn't too awkward when we started talking about its problems.

Five people there.  One was the librarian.

TOMORROW: Reading the rest of Naslund.  And ... the day I met her ...

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