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Ahab's Wife Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

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Sena Jeter Naslund. Ahab's Wife Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel. New York: Morrow, 1999.

Commentary by Anne Dalke,
the students in a Biology/English class on The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories at Bryn Mawr College,
and Gary LaChance, a high school English teacher in Avon, Connecticut.

Ahab's Wife is a huge, 20th century woman's re-writing of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, a prime example of a common (and fairly fertile) phenomenon in the evolution of literary texts, in which minor characters from old books are brought to center stage in new ones. At the very beginning of Naslund's novel, Ahab's wife declares herself something other than the young girl whom Melville mentions briefly. Straight off, with her first sentence, she revises (rejects?) the novel's title ("Ahab was not my first husband, nor my last..."), refusing to be confined by the relationship which identifies her. Ahab's wife initiates encounters into a range of new experiences, and weaves those experiences into new assemblages of thought. Naslund dis-assembles the etymology, extracts, cetology and various plot lines of Moby-Dick, re-building from those materials a story that takes a very different shape than the original: it's much more shaped, much less "baggy" than the oft-times random assemblage that Melville put together. The new central character, Una, is impelled with the same intensity as Ahab--but Naslund uses her equanimity to poke fun at Ahab's monomania, offering readers an alternative model for coping with loss. Naslund creates in this novel a richly layered account of the imagined life of a 19th century feminist, developing an elaborately articulated "reconstructive vision," a story that is less tragic, less mournful, more upbeat than the one Ishmael tells.

When the novel was paired with Moby-Dick, in a course on the evolution of stories, Bryn Mawr students exhibited a wide range of reactions: to the novel's style, to its "directiveness" (which some preferred more, others less than the more meandering Moby-Dick), and to the sort of "intellectual womanhood" that the students saw Una modeling for themselves. An overview of their reactions are to be found @
Una, including a comparison to Ahab

More complete archives of their responses are to be found here:
"...learned from the wonder of life and grew"
Wrapping Up Una?
Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife and Evolution

Gerry (who had been the high school English teacher of one of the students in this class) offered to add another "male perspective" on the novel to the single one, Ishmael/Ismail: His Story of Our Story, we'd been able to collect in the course of the class:

Well, I must admit that after 75 pages Ahab's Wife is just not speaking to me as a reader. With works by Delillo, HD, Marquez, Merrill, Huston Smith, Milosz in the stack I don't feel much inkling to continue. My deepest sense is that the lack of desire has nothing to do with gender issues (i'm reveling in The Red Tent right now) but more with author's style and voice....I'm getting pickier in this regard when it comes to 'free' or 'pleasure' reading. I must admit that I think the text is a bit overwritten (like that 'revision' of Stowe's ice crossing chapter, which i understand is part of the author's purpose). Maybe this is linked to why i'm so attracted to Calvino's manifesto in Six Memos,in this instance the essay on 'Quickness'. (Doesn't Winter's Night have the quickness and density of ideas that Ahab's Wife lacks?) I feel Ahab's Wife could use some editing/tightening. I would prefer to read Melville, even without his quickness per say, as his style has an 'energy' that moves this reader. I feel funny saying I don't care for the text but want to be honest with you. I too prefer some of the BIG novels. I spent the past two summers reading and re-reading Pynchon, drawn into his universe, that although different from Faulkner's, has powerful prose that invites me on the journey.

A phrase--make haste slowly--comes to mind when I think of what's lacking in the energy of the novel.

I'm unwilling to meander with Naslund. I'm not really looking for a pay-off, Anne, well maybe I am, but on nearly very page. It's not an end note that keeps me going as much as the energy of the journey, a style that attracts me or draws me in or moves me with verve. I reitterate the make haste slowly motto. I don't get impatient with Perec's 'evident' playful 'revision' of other texts, like the retelling of "The Raven," because of the way he approaches the process, whereas I do not get drawn in and along by, for instance, Naslund's when she takes the "Uncle Tom" frozen river crossing and seems to appropriate it into the novel. Perhaps I miss her/your point on why I should be attracted to the way she does it, or perhaps it's that I have a hard time 'believing' in her way, feel it's almost a subversive literary theft, especially for those who don't get the allusion.

Calvino's Crossed Destinies does not engage you. Perhaps for the same reason in that his formulaic approach (which I'd agree with you about by the way) lacks the energy of which I speak above. Yet, those yummy ideas are compressed in a 'slim' space, not what I'd call the somewhat 'bloated' or overwritten style of Naslund (read this: get ye to the editing desk).

Pynchon's Slow Learner is perhaps attractive to you because of the compression and density present on each page. His manifesto on style in the author's commentary is also quite fine, I believe. And when Pynchon goes 'maximal', like in Mason and Dixon, he's alive with both poetry and the play of genius.

Maybe I'm just raising the bar of expectation as with so much to read and fewer years in which to do so, my pleasure reading must reveal a vibrant voice and style to keep me going. For instance, I'd much rather read a Borges collection five times over cover to cover because he's chock full 'o style and metaphysical fire and Naslund is not.