Posts Tagged ‘Sean May’

Everyone is, or at least should be, familiar to some degree with the story of Moby-Dick – which the introduction to my edition describes as one of two great American novels, the other being The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which I should also get around to reading at some point). It’s the tale of mad Captain Ahab’s pursuit of and battle with the great, malevolent, albino whale, Moby Dick. (It’s hard to say why the title of the book is hyphenated but the name of the animal in the text isn’t – something to do with publication practice in the mid nineteenth century, perhaps.)

It’s the kind of book that has become far bigger than itself, in terms of its literary and cultural importance as well as the wealth of symbolism it invites the reader to discover. And it’s a pretty big book, too, although I read it in a dense, compact mass-market paperback format; besides which, being a fan of fantasy, I’m perfectly happy burying myself in volumes whose page-count can run into four figures. Further, while the book is lengthy, the chapters are short – often not more than half a dozen pages, frequently just a couple of pages.

This practice of short chapters is tied into the narrative format. Much of the early part of the book is a straightforward first-person narrative, where Ishmael recounts his arrival in Nantucket, meeting Queequeg, the ominous words of Elijah and the minister, and Ishmael and Queequeg’s recruitment to the Pequod and its setting sail. Thereafter, however, the flow of the novel becomes choppy – postmodern, even. Some chapters describe events on the Pequod, some narrate the private thoughts of Ahab or the mates, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, some describe the form and use of parts of a whaling ship and its boats, some are monologues by the characters or exchanges of dialogue, some deviate entirely from the story and give natural history lessons or tell the tale of another vessel that the Pequod happens to meet.

Throughout, there is an overall plot arc that takes the Pequod down through the Atlantic, into the Indian Ocean, through the vast archipelago of south-east Asia and into the Pacific. This narrative heart of the story is as unhurried as an ocean current, and it can be somewhat slow and ponderous. But the story is kept afloat by the continual undercurrent of foreboding (too many aqueous metaphors?). While there are a lot of chapters, I felt that each one added, if only marginally, to the ensuing climax of the book. The final confrontation between Ahab and his men and the white whale would not have had the same impact without all the chapters spent describing and categorising whales, explaining the use of the on-board smithy, detailing how spermaceti is removed from a whale’s head and so on and so forth. More pertinently, all the mishaps that befall the Pequod – Ahab’s peg leg getting broken, Tashtego falling into the Heidelburgh Tun, the madness of Pip, the mutinous unease of Starbuck, Queequeg’s sickness that is cured by his lying in his own coffin – lend the conclusion a grand inevitability, the reading of which inspired a kind of dark joy.

As you can guess at this point, I enjoyed it a lot. What stood out especially (besides the form), was the language – it was dense and verbose and, like ocean waves, swelled and rolled with majestic cadences reminiscent of the poetry of the time or of Shakespeare and the King James Bible; take this example from Chapter 111, ‘The Pacific’:

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potter’s Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

As for the meaning of the novel, there are many strands and many interpretations: the impossibility and danger of attempting to subjugate nature or pursue the divine or the cult of personality or of the ideé fixe; Moby Dick can be taken to represent nature or God or Man or an impossible dream. The novel is also perfectly suited to being read as a danger-filled adventure story, full of interesting facts about whales and whaling.

One hundred and sixty years after publication, however, you can’t help but wonder how much of the ‘facts’ in the novel are Victorian ignorance or romanticism. Whales are far from the vicious beasts that Moby-Dick implies; and the sperm whale is described as being the greatest ‘fish’ of the sea – but there is no mention of the blue whale. I think it’s advisable to take such parts of the text with a pinch of salt.

So Moby-Dick really is a great novel. It is not an easy read, but it is not nearly as difficult as one might imagine. The language is old-fashioned (even for the mid nineteenth century, I’m sure) and full of obscure words and references and out-dated ideas (the portrayal of non-white people was fairly cringe-worthy, for example), the narrative is sprawling, non-linear and mixes first- and third-person with a sprinkling of script, but it retains a powerful momentum and authenticity that little modern literature can match.

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The manuscript that I began at the start of the month as part of National Novel Writing Month has pretty much ground to a halt at a touch under 17,000 words. My first week back from China saw me writing every day and producing around 2,000 words a day. But on Friday I reached a bit of a crisis, as I could no longer see where the writing was going. Since then I’ve been going back to the (now legendary) drawing board to lay the foundations that should have been laid earlier. Today I mostly completed a kind of potted history of the world up until the point at which my story starts. In the next few days, I plan to brainstorm more of the details that will go into the story’s background – and which I will then sweep away with the first words of actual story.

What I wrote up until Friday had definite merit. In particular, I created four characters with diverse personalities and personal problems. Unfortunately, the whole work just wasn’t quite what I’d intended to write. It happens sometimes that your imagination takes you on tangents that may or may not work out. Also, I think the first character I made – and therefore the first viewpoint character – was a little too YA for my taste.

I now have a firmer basis to continue writing – or, more properly to start writing again, this time on version 2. I have plenty of ideas about the plot, but they’re all either vague or disconnected at the moment. Setting down a real plot, a series of causes and effects slowly building in intensity to the story’s climax will be another important task I have to undertake soon. It’s vital, because I need to know what I’m writing towards in order to write. It’s also incredibly difficult.

I think that conceiving a short story is like trying to visualise a small group of objects, like five apples, or a moment from a film. Trying to conceive a novel, or, worse, a series of novels, is like trying to visualise a million apples or every moment in a film simultaneously. Caveat scriptor, indeed.

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Last night I had a bumper writing session. I had dinner at a place near work and then went to Starbucks for about three hours. I wrote nearly 2,000 words on the ghost story I started earlier in the month. After a coffee and a tea, I didn’t sleep too well, but I’m very proud of the work I got done and its quantity.

At lunchtime today I got another 400 words done, bringing the total up to 2,600 or so.

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Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

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