Ahab's Wife or, The Star Gazer
By Sena Jeter Naslund
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
Suppose you were drowning in a vast shoreless ocean. If something solid obtruded from the waves one could hardly be blamed for grabbing onto it.
"Classic" books stand unmoved above the water while around them the ceaseless multitude of ambitious authors give way and sink below the water's surface . It is not remarkable then, that authors should turn their thoughts to grasping onto a classic book as a means of staying afloat. One can retell Jane Austen's Emma from the carriage's perspective or "spin out" a newly rediscovered postcard from James Joyce into a full length novel, for example.
While the practice itself is nothing new, their reception among critics has never been more ardently supportive. The awards which were showered down on Michael Cunninghams's odious reworking of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, offers a prime example. For his cloying pseudo-evocative imitation of Virginia Woolf's style circa Mrs. Dalloway, which employs Virgina Woolf as a character, providing her thoughts as she goes to commit suicide, Cunningham received the Pulitzer Prize, the National book award and the Pen-Faulkner award.
Critics seem almost desperate to reward these shameless literary barnacles with accolades. Indeed, they have already landed on a new subject to festoon with honors, Sena Jeter Naslund, for her "ravishingly detailed re-creation...of Moby Dick," Ahab's Wife. "Line up the literary prizes," declares one particularly unctuous critic."
Ahab's wife, purports to be the first person narrative discourse of, not surprisingly considering the title, Ahab's wife, one Una Spenser. In Moby Dick Ahab refers to "that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in the he marriage pillow." Captain Peleg describes Ahab's wife to Ishmael as "that sweet girl, resigned girl."
The protagonist of Ahab's Wife bears no resemblance to Melville's character in any way. Nor does the 666 page book bear any underlying resemblance to Melville's masterpiece. Ahab's Wife's numerous connections to Moby Dick are all overtly self conscious celebrations of Naslund's cleverness at making overt connections to both writing about Moby Dick and to Moby Dick itself. On the very first page Una, supposedly considering Ahab, speaks directly about Naslund's own situation vis a vis Melville, "But I will not see him all dismembered and scattered in heaven's blue, that would be no kind reconstructive vision."
Right ho, but if Naslund feels that way why did she go ahead and write this appalling, rambling novel that couldn't have done a better job of dismembering and scattering Melville's Moby Dick. Well, que surra surra, and so after having her new husband say "call me Ishmael, and then meeting Henry James at the beach, Una's story comes to a close. And if there is any lesson to be drawn from its dreary pages, its that the quest to create an immortal book makes the quest for the great while whale seem like child's play.