A very good and prescient friend gave me a book I needed to read this Christmas. It is called Ahab’s Wife. Even though I am writing a book which involves the usage of classic characters, I don’t approve of books like this at all. It’s happening though more and more. Perhaps this is related to something critic George Steiner warned about: the weight of literary criticism might become to heavy for the dwindling works of literary quality. Like Broadway play revivals, maybe we have to fall back on the classics because we just can’t write them like they used to.
I really admired Wide Sargasso Sea, the first book of this type I tried. This was a prequel to Jane Eyre. As for Ahab’s Wife it can best be summed up as follows: “Reader, I married him.” Not only does Una, the main character, marry Ahab, but after the great white whale takes him down to Davy Jones’ locker, Ismael, who alone survives to tell the tale, becomes her second, no, third husband. Some critics have praised the book for its presentation of a feminine view of the whole whaling industry in general, and Ahab’s quest for revenge against the whale who took his leg. For about 400 or so of the 666 pages, the reader may very well be enthralled by the author’s characters and the unfolding plot. After a while it all falls apart. I cry foul though when dialogue from the great American classic novel appears either verbatim or with minimal change.
Sena Jeter Naslund may be capable of conjuring up some wild sea tales, and her protagonist can stand on her own two feet very well. The problem is Ahab sounding like a pale echo of himself, (though his “poor, cannibal me,” is endearing,) and Ishmael sounding off without his wit. When the passage, “Whenever I grow grim about the mouth; whenever it is a deep, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; whenever I feel like deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can,” flows in spontaneously from the great beyond, as an example of Ishmael’s conversation, I say the game is up. If you haven’t read Moby Dick, you will think Naslund a genius. When you see what shallow shoals you walk in, comparatively speaking, in the rest of the pages, you will realize that the above is, as Henry James like to say, THE REAL THING.
I think Naslund’s narrative might have been better without the scaffolding of Melville’s great whaling tale. Would it have stood up though? I can ask myself the same question is creating a story based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Next time out I will sketch this all out. There is a lot to be learned by reading AHAB”S WIFE.