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Have You Seen the White Whale Wednesday

What I've Finished Reading

"I am talking about you and me. I am saying that, right now, sitting by this lake together, we both would earn our scarlet A's. And deserve them."

"But we're both men."

Hawthorne smiled mirthlessly. "That is not lost on me."

I had some advance warning that The Whale: A Love Story: A Novel wasn't going to live up to its promise, but the idea of a novel about the relationship between Melville and Hawthorn during the writing of Moby-Dick was too tempting, and anyway, I read all those Most Comfortable Man in London books set in a carefully over-explained and present-palatable nineteenth century; how bad could it be?

It turns out the answer is "pretty bad!" In the abstract, it's a smart move on Mark Beauregard's part not to attempt any kind of Melvillian pastiche (he does paste in some actual letters). But the writing is too amateurish to stand on its own. It's full of earnestly overwrought dialogue tags and cartoony spit-takes (at one point, "[t]he Melville women's mouths all dropped open at the same time.")

"I cannot go to Boston for Thanksgiving, Lizzie," Herman finally said, interrupting his mother in the middle of a sentence. "I must stay and work on my book."
"But you surely won't write on Thanksgiving Day?" said Lizzie, genuinely shocked. "What possible difference could a day or two make in the writing of a book that has already taken close to a year?"
Now, it was Herman's turn to be surprised. "What difference could a day or two make in the writing of a novel?" Herman said. "Are you joking?"
"No," said Lizzie. "Are you?"

The Whale suffers not only by comparison to Moby-Dick, which would have been perfectly understandable, but also to every other book I have read this year. Most of these books have had their flaws but all of them have been comparatively. . .adult, I guess (this sweeping category includes a YA novel I haven't written about yet, a children's book in which a little girl rescues a fallen star and puts a Band-Aid on it, a silly detective rom-com with only one fully functioning character, an incredibly dumb but good-hearted thriller, and JUSTINE by Lawrence Durrell). I don't think there's anything wrong with it not "sounding" like a 19th-century novel, but I'm a little baffled by how author Mark Beauregard could have done the research necessary to write this book and still managed to write it the way he did.

Even if the writing were a little better, the book would still suffer from a bad case of the anachronisms. In part, the two problems are linked: characters tend to think and talk as though someone were painstakingly transcribing a TV show, but there's a deeper misunderstanding of, or indifference to, or difficulty imagining how things might have been different in the past. It's easy to fall into the trap, when setting a story in another time, of simply adding or subtracting things from the present we're familiar with -- so Beauregard has imagined Melville's passion for Hawthorne by pasting some vaguely old-timey inhibitions onto late 20th-century categories of sexual orientation, with some vague late 20th-century homophobia as backdrop. I am not a 19th-century scholar, or any kind of scholar, but I have read several books that were not The Whale, and it was hard for me to believe that Melville OR Hawthorne would have thought of, or talked about, their relationship in the way they are made to here.

There is an impossibly impetuous young slash fangirl who “helpfully” creates a rumor that she and Melville are having an affair, in order to deflect suspicion from his feeling about Hawthorne. Because she has time-traveled in from the early 21st century without bothering to do any research, like those painfully unprepared adjuncts in To Say Nothing of the Dog, she assumes that "everyone can see" Melville's crush on Hawthorne and has naturally sorted it into the box marked "CANON GAY," which, because this is the past, must therefore be shocking and scandalous. Eventually she tricks them into the same room so she can force a reconciliation and beam at them from the sidelines. She has not actually time-traveled in, but it would be more believable if she had.

Is this also a deliberate choice? By allowing Hawthorne and Melville to think and talk like characters in a contemporary YA romance, Beauregard is trying to make them more real to us? It doesn't work, for me anyway; Melville was already real enough and this hapless line drawing is someone else entirely. There are flashes here and there that might be echoes of Ishmael, but they are few and far between. The Whale can't illuminate Melville and Hawthorn for us because the connection to their books and letters is too weak. It would have been better as an actual YA romance set in one of those mid-apocalyptic Christian Dominionist dystopias (aka “the present”), with confused and difficult teenagers discovering an unexpected parallel to their own love story between the lines of their conservative Am Lit reading course.

Speaking of the apocalypse, The Girls of Slender Means is a good book.

The May of Teck Club stood obliquely opposite the site of the Memorial, in one of the row of tall houses which had endured, but barely; some bombs had dropped nearby, and in a few back gardens, leaving the buildings cracked on the outside and shakily hinged within, but habitable for the time being. The shattered windows had been replaced with new glass rattling in loose frames. More recently, the bituminous black-out paint had been removed from landing and bathroom windows. Windows were important in that year of final reckoning; they told at a glance whether a house was inhabited or not; and in the course of the past years they had accumulated much meaning, having been the main danger-zone between domestic life and the war going on outside: everyone had said, when the sirens sounded, 'Mind the windows. Keep away from the windows. Watch out for the glass.'

I read it all on the same day I got it and when I got to the end I read it again. Then I spent a lot of time trying to describe it to people, but maybe it's best just to say it was a good book and you should probably read it if you haven't.

What I'm Reading Now

I started Nana before I left, but didn't get very far. It's good! The young courtesan is such a likeably ordinary character: frustrated with her aunt, hopeful about her baby, always struggling to keep her clothes clean (those long skirts and those streets and stairwells soaking with filth! You can count on Zola to notice the difficulty). The back cover promises me an ignominious downfall, which is too bad. I like Nana.

I've actually finished A Buyer's Market, but I'll probably get through The Acceptance World and the end of the volume before I say any more about the world of Anthony Powell. Well, I will say that he loves his gigantic clunky metaphors! The rest can wait. I'm enjoying them a lot.

What I Plan to Read Next

I still have to get the first Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight book somehow. Other than that, I'm not totally sure! Oh, right, C. P. Snow. And Balthazar, the next novel in the Alexandria Quartet! I'm looking forward to that one.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 20th, 2016 10:36 pm (UTC)
Jul. 21st, 2016 05:12 pm (UTC)
Spare a hug for poor Herman Melville! First Hawthorne doesn't answer his letters because he's having marital relations with his wife, DESPITE talking really intensely with Melville that one time and clasping him to his bosom like NO MAN HAS EVER CLASPED ANOTHER, and now all of a sudden he's got this painfully on-the-nose internal monologue that doesn't sound like him at all and everyone is talking like the first draft of a sitcom script. It's been a confusing couple of years, poor guy. :(
Jul. 21st, 2016 12:38 am (UTC)
That is an epic take-down of The Whale. Too bad it wasn't any good, though! A period-appropriate take on Melville and Hawthorne's relationship could have been really interesting.

I feel like trying to pastiche Melville might have helped Beauregard out, actually. Trying to mimic the style might have forced him to at least try to fall into nineteenth-century thought patterns; at very least he would have realized that Melville and Hawthorne didn't sound at all like Melville and Hawthorne.
Jul. 21st, 2016 05:08 pm (UTC)
I think I've written more about The Whale in the past few days than about the last ten books I really liked. Poor Melville deserved a better book and so did I, but I also enjoyed it a lot, in that Da Vinci Code way where you can't stop reading because you're constantly watching for the next infelicity.

I feel bad, because it was trying so hard to be the kind of book I love (passionate friendships! Long passages of dialogue about Important Truths of Life and the Heart! Angst about unanswered letters!) but it just didn't make it, even to the halfway point where I could applaud the attempt and empathize with the difficulty inherent to any writing project. I don't want to dismiss it out of hand because obviously my taste is not everyone's, but it just didn't work for me as a novel about Melville and Hawthorne, or a novel. But I keep opening it back up, hoping it will have become better in the interim, and so it's on my mind still. The real letter that ends the novel is so nervous and private and Melville-ish; I keep reading it. I think you would like it – it's here: http://www.melville.org/letter7.htm

I really think the contemporary YA version would be better; it would have a built-in excuse for any anachronisms, because the English teachers at Cornerstone Heartland Values Academy obviously don't have the training or interest to go into it, and the contrast between Beauregard narration and original 19thc text could have served some purpose instead of just baffling the reader.

I agree it would have done him some good to copy out twenty-five pages a day of Melville and Hawthorne until he couldn't help but imitate them. Maybe a bad pastiche would have been better than what we actually got, I don't know.
Jul. 21st, 2016 02:40 am (UTC)
I started out being disappointed to hear that The Whale isn't very good, but by the end of your review it sounded SO bad, so incredibly inexplicably bad, that I think I'm possibly even more intrigued by it now. Which I'm sure was not your intention! But sometimes there's something compelling about total wrecks.
Jul. 21st, 2016 05:23 pm (UTC)
I kind of want everyone to read it so they'll understand I'm not exaggerating! It's impossible to explain just how pronounced the mismatch is. . .I kind of don't want to say too much more, because I feel bad for harping on it, it seems so earnest. It didn't work for me, but maybe there's a level it works on that I'm not seeing through the haze of my pickiness about clunky dialogue and thinly imagined historical settings.
Jul. 21st, 2016 11:59 am (UTC)
*disappointed 'ohhh....'* Well, thank you for reading The Whale and giving everyone the heads-up! Damn, what a waste of a great premise.

The story about the time-travelling slash fangirl would probably give me 2ndhand embarrassment but it sounds moderately more interesting than the actual novel.
Jul. 21st, 2016 05:42 pm (UTC)
At least some of its problems could have been helped by imposing an outsider POV, instead of trying to close-third Herman Melville and making him sound like Bella Swan. The time-traveling slash fangirl might cover a multitude of sins: her awkward insistence on first names when she meets Melville and her weird confidence that everyone in the Berkshires circa 1850 shares her slash goggles (when, let's be real, most of the people in her Great American Novels RPF group don't even share her slash goggles) would be explained, if not excused.

Are there any stories about time-traveling slash fangirls? Maybe there should be.
Jul. 21st, 2016 02:42 pm (UTC)
The excerpt where Herman shocks Lizzie with his dedication to writing reads like the start for a 70s comedy sketch about artists.

The book sounds terrible: when does the film of the book come out? I'll be sure to see it;p
Jul. 21st, 2016 05:54 pm (UTC)
Hah, it does a bit! Especially the weirdly "snappy" 'are you joking?' 'Are you?' The whole book gives the impression of being written by someone whose main influences are audiovisual, though I'd have to think about it a lot more to work out why.

I think it would fare better as a film. The plot is very straightforward, which would suit a film, and the viewer would be spared all the descriptions of people turning around in their chairs, balling up their fists, or looking meaningfully at the sky. The cheesy dialogue wouldn't matter so much, and you could replace some of the clumsier emotion-descriptions with string music and shots of rippling lake and trees tossing as if in agony of desire, etc.. I might even go see it myself!
Jul. 22nd, 2016 01:39 pm (UTC)
No, you should make it - an illustrious career in film beckons:-D Pitt and Wilberforce approve. Don't forget to put a scene in where there's a priest who does secret gay marriages and then they have to wear their wedding rings close to their hearts.
Jul. 22nd, 2016 06:22 pm (UTC)
Of course! The great underground secret gay marriage network of 19th century New England! I'm surprised Beauregard missed it in his research. :)
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


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