In his slim but astute volume Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick—author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, which tells the story of the Essex, the whaleship upon which Melville’s Pequod was based—has this to say about the metaphorical content of Ahab’s ship:
Just as Nantucket is largely a rhetorical construct, so is the Pequod not of this world. She is the mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.
Melville, then, saw a country founded on contradictions, on moral ambiguity and ethical compartmentalization. The Land of the Free was built by slaves, and its dictum about “all men are created equal” didn’t extend to women or anyone non-white. Christopher Columbus, who in our mythology functions as a kind of Adam, butchered innocent (and ill-equipped) Native Americans in order to lay the foundation for a “free” country. Such a principally compromised state is especially vulnerable to a demagogic leader, someone whose loud and convincing declarations drown out the inner turmoil of hypocrisy. The Pequod gets Ahab; America gets...well, America has had plenty of demagogues in her short life.
Over 160 years later, those contradictions still exist, except now they’re buried deep in our collective psyche, which makes progress all the more difficult: we must first locate the problems in our hearts before we can even begin to heal. But it is as if we as a nation have split in two—one half that acknowledges the past and its many horrific cruelties and injustices, and another that refuses to incorporate those atrocities into contemporary reality. What is past isn’t prologue, many white Americans seem to think, it’s merely past. The American dream is, of course, just that: a dream, and one we must wake up from.
We as a nation would do well to follow the lead of Paul Metcalf, an experimental writer who died in 1999. His 1965 novel Genoa, reissued by Coffee House Press to celebrate its 50th anniversary, contends with exactly these kinds of forces. The present action of the novel is pretty bare bones: Michael Mills, a man with a medical degree but who can’t bring himself to practice, sifts through the detritus of his attic while his children watch television downstairs. That’s really it. Throughout, Michael quotes Melville and Christopher Columbus for various reasons and in various ways; a good chunk of the book is made up of quotations. But the novel is really about the convergence of three threads: 1. Paul Metcalf’s relation to Herman Melville (he was Metcalf’s great-grandfather), 2. Columbus’s relation to America, and 3. the character Michael’s relation to his brother Carl, who was executed for murder. These three notions intertwine and correspond in complex ways throughout the novel.
Here is an example of how it all works. Michael is consumed by his brother’s death, and as he smokes cigars and pensively contemplates Melville and Columbus, he becomes like Ahab, obsessed with his white whale. At one point, Michael’s wife comes home and scolds him because “every light in the house is burning, the children are in an uproar, the television going.” She leaves him in his attic stupor, and he recalls that “Columbus at first thought he discovered India...thereby lopping off, roughly, one half of the globe: a hemisphere gone.” This notion of a halved self becomes a metaphor, as Michael quotes Melville on Hawthorne: “Still there is something lacking—a good deal lacking—to the plump sphericity of the man.”
Then Michael begins to feel “cramped into one side,” and quotes Melville describing Ahab:
Threading its way out from among his gray hairs, and continuing right down his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.
Michael feels similarly halved, cut in two, as the vision in one eye begins to weaken. He feels he is becoming Ahab, too delusional and driven to be a whole man. He remembers his brother Carl losing his vision once, too—his three-dimensional sight gone completely—“the whole world appearing to him as a flat plane,” but when Michael quotes a comparison, it isn’t about Ahab but Moby-Dick:
Now, from this peculiar sideways position of the whale’s eyes, it is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead, no more than he can one exactly astern. In a word, the position of the whale’s eyes corresponds to that of a man’s ears; and you may fancy, for yourself, how it would fare with you, did you sideways survey objects through your ears…you would have two backs, so to speak; but, at the same time, also, two fronts (side fronts): for what is it that makes the front of a man—what, indeed, but his eyes?
So Michael is connected with the madness of Ahab and Columbus, while Carl becomes the whale. And yet Carl, for Michael, is like America’s past: something he must confront; just as Metcalf here is confronting his great-grandfather, the way America must confront (and accept) its violent and imperial origins.
This sequence captures the ways the metaphors of Genoa work, though they aren’t always as clear (if what I’ve just described could be considered clear). Metcalf uses, as mentioned, quote after quote after quote, until you begin to lose track of who is talking about whom. He also uses different fonts, even different font sizes, to try to capture the inner workings of Michael’s mind, and at times it’s a challenge to keep up with the threads.
The last section of the book—in which Michael briefly ceases his onslaught of quotation in order to tell the story of his brother’s death—is the most effective. The pace of the novel completely changes, rushing ahead in comparison with what came before, and we see what a skilled storyteller Metcalf really was. After Genoa, though, Metcalf’s work became increasingly esoteric and plotless, so that stretches of prose like the Carl section here disappeared from his work. Of course, one can’t legitimately lament the aesthetic choices an artist makes in his life, but it would have been fascinating to read a Metcalf novel that didn’t need to be steeped in another man’s work to create its own revelations. The Carl section is, as Rick Moody calls it in his introduction, “electrifying, exceedingly painful,” and, moreover, demonstrative of a rare skill: creating drama, creating myth, completely on one’s own. Now that is the American dream.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.