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Issue 11: Vhcle Books – Moby Dick
 
 
 
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All the while, one has to suspect that Ishmael is not simply a projection of Melville's alter ego, but a masterful working of literary craft to expertly establish the persona of his protagonist, fully imbued with opinion and academic misinformation that might be consistent with the limitations of an educated whaler's logic. Neither an optimist nor a cynic, Ishmael is an honest man of clear conscience who carries a palpable but indescript view that life holds more sorrow and difficulty than joy. So, in the long view, Moby Dick is more of an exercise in the aesthetic of this worldview than a revenge story. And yet, its pages are filled with a dry, almost morose, unceasing humor. This, for me, is the human warmth that carries the story and brings us onboard, making the tragedies and losses that much more heartfelt.
 
So, what is it about this book that brings it such high regard? It is Melville's forward, unassuming clarity. But within that clarity is a man of incredible knowledge and experience. He never attended college, but the two years he spent at the Albany Academy in New York studying the classics embeds his writing into the long history of Western literature with many references to classical works throughout. And yet, he detested allegories. Moby Dick is certainly not one. However, the weaving of metaphors occurs on multiple levels, from the openly self-effacing metaphors like the coffin-turned-lifebuoy, raising the hackles and dread of every seafarer, to the far more subtle harmonic inferences woven into the roles of the characters like gear teeth enmeshed in interlocking forces. But make no mistake, Melville's characters are flesh and blood, and his skill at adopting distinctive dialogue to carnate his characters demonstrates his consummate human insight. And then there is the invisible pall of misfortune and calamity revealed in the inner thoughts of his sailors and in the overt symbols that speck the story. Moby Dick is no Sunday walk in the park, but it is a compelling, rugged, and rewarding novel.

 
 
 
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This article can be found in Vhcle Issue 11

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Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. His work can be seen at timsunderman.com. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.
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"CALL ME ISHMAEL." And so begins one of the greatest books in literature. Widely regarded as the best American novel of the nineteenth century, Moby Dick lives up to its reputation. It is a whaling adventure written in 1851 based on Melville's own whaling experiences in his early twenties.
 
The book itself is a massive tome of dense prose, and the storytelling does not lend itself to the cinematic style of pushing the story forward with every sentence. Rather, Melville seems more intent on expounding on the breadth and depth of the whaler's virtues, indignities, and travails than to simply spin a yarn. So he presents a great volume of short chapters, mostly three to five pages in length, to both fashion the narrative of events and provide exhaustive background to some of the finest details in the endeavor. You will find brief chapters describing nothing more than the cabin table, pitchpoling, squid, or a fossil whale. This style of writing is quite outside our familiar expectation of finding out "what happened next?" But what it does accomplish, together with Melville's immensely powerful command of language, is to build an enormous structure of bulk, content, and surface filigree that he is then able to wield like a crushing sledge in forging the gigantic drama that plays out.
 
The storyline is hammered to the cross of Captain Ahab's obsession to exact revenge on the white whale that took his leg. But Melville is wise to tell the story from the point of view of the deck hand Ishmael. The seething foreboding of the Captain's destructive path becomes far more forceful in front of the veil of his autocratic dictates. Ishmael is not content to simply tell his story, he vehemently argues the points of his narration such as the elevated status of the predatory sperm whale in comparison to the lowly baleen whales. He argues about the superiority of its oil and skin, even its countenance and its bearing. He waxes endearingly about the majestic beauty of the sperm whale while remorselessly bringing its destruction. Our modern sensibilities cringe at the thought of harpooning whales to the edge of extinction, and we wonder how this contradiction of admiration and plunder can stand. But, as with all books from another time or place, we must stretch to imagine the mentality of that time and the particular lens of perception that formed the understanding within that context. In fact, Ishmael directly addresses the possibility of hunting whales to extinction, and concludes, based on the vast herds of whale pods he encountered, that that would be impossible. Of course, history bears him out to be wrong.
 
 
 
 
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2013
 
Moby Dick
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AUTHOR HERMAN MELVILLE
 
 
 
 
 
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Moby Dick, March 2013 Vhcle Magazine
Issue 11, Vhcle Books
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REVIEWED BY
TIM SUNDERMAN
 
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