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Whale of a Tale? Or Albatross?


Pierre Senges’ Ahab (Sequels)
Translated by Jacob Siefring & Tegan Raleigh
Contra Mundum Press

Pierre Senges’ Ahab (Sequels) is a belletrist’s treasure trove, a language lover’s dragon hoard. His prose is brilliant, beautiful and, at five hundred and fifty pages, bounteously so. The undrowned Captain Ahab pops to the surface like a “joyful champagne cork.” We have “immense chandeliers, large as an octopus disappearing into the ceiling,” “slices of smoked meat as numerous as the pages of a book.” Word begets word, phrase begets phrase, metaphors cascade one upon another. “One metaphor and then two, then seventeen metaphors before the chapter’s end … forests, clouds, stars, roses, hogs, tulips, flies, flour, a horse, some nacre (belonging to a pearl), Berenice’s hair, Baubo’s belly, some straw, a brook, another horse, (whinnying, that one), and a snaffle.” This linguistic feast is conveyed by an equally rich sentence structure, Henry James on joy juice, clause compounding clause, parentheticals within parentheticals, barely restrained and oftentimes not by colons and semi-colons, one idea loosely connected to another by silken threads, free associations, digressions, catalogues, lists. “There is the walnut shell today, the gets started on the wrong foot today, the good tidings like the half of a mango today, the mosquito bite today, the mouthful of a brioche today, the smell of roasted chicken scented through the open window today, the headwind today, the letter in the box today, the silhouette without identity today, the violent sneezing today, the nap & meditation today, the strong alcohol today, the sudden rain today, the indeterminate remorse today, the almost pleasant melancholy today, the discovery today, the reconciliation with his childhood today, the reading a comforting page today …” And on it goes for a page and a half, and not necessarily comfortingly.

Senges likes lists, and he gives them to us, but not all lists are equal. Homeric and biblical lists convey provenance, genealogy, chronology, the vastness of armies, armadas. David Foster Wallace’s Madame Psychosis (the brilliant metempsychosis of the ditzy but tragic Joelle) reading her lists of human deformities and abnormalities in a deadpan voice conveys the weight of her own psychic deadness. David Markson’s absolute minimalist lists in Reader’s Block force the reader to assign any and all values to the text and essentially write their own book. As Crocodile Dundee might say, That’s a list. Senges is like a bastard child of Markson (with transitions), who says too little, and Henry James, too much. The narrative, or at least the prose, surges ahead, piling on more information before its premises and conjectures can be examined or challenged, and the question one begins to ask after fifty or one (or two or three or four) hundred pages of lists, catalogs and strings of metaphors is, to what end?

Comparisons have been made between Senges’ Ahab and Huysman’s A Rebours: Against the Grain, which has been described as a torrent of baroque descriptions and unending streams of rococo linguistic curlicues. It has also been said to lack any real dialogue, characters or plot. But even a glance at Huysman’s Des Esseintes reveals a heartbeat, a living, breathing soul, and conveying that soul, a very human voice. No such life exists in Senges’ Ahab. Melville’s hero repeatedly proclaims himself a hollow man but he is also a force majeure seething with hatred and the desire for revenge. He curses the whale, blasphemes against God and, like Odysseus (and Sandokan), risks not only his own life but that of his ship and all his men. Senges’ Old Ahab, on the other hand, truly is a hollow man. He never exhibits emotions, he is never angry or upset. All is calm, placid, the waters never roiled, no tempests. Even when negatively fraught words appear on the page they have no more value than washing instructions inside a shirt collar.

Unfortunately, this does little to engage the reader’s interest. It also works against Senges’ reconstruction of Melville’s hero, whom he has divided into a post-whale Old Ahab and a pre-whale Young Ahab, and whom he elides respectively more than a century into the future (with dates in the margins to anchor us in time), for the purpose, it seems, of tracking Moby Dick’s publishing history, from its poor reception, to its rediscovery, revival and ultimately its reincarnation as a screenplay for the movie version. But when we speak of Old Ahab and Young Ahab we are not talking about James Joyce bifurcated into the tormented young intellectual Stephen Dedalus and the older, world-weary but wiser Leopold Bloom. This is not the zygotic Jekyll and Hyde, curer of humanity’s ills by day and monster by night. This is the simplest algebraic equation, x=y. Cow one is cow two. It may be true that we are always the same age inside, but we are still different at each stage of our lives. Senges’ Old Ahab and Young Ahab are paper cutouts, distinguishable only by external attributes.

Setting forth on the sequels of the title, Old Ahab eschews the sea and anything related to it. “No way he’s going to prepare fish filets or crack oysters and lay them out on a carpet of seaweed and ice.” Instead he seeks lowly landlubber careers as he reinvents himself or is reinvented as a shoe shiner, kitchen hand, donut maker, elevator operator, priest and father confessor, in each case cloaked in comfortably familiar attributes of those occupations, “the tapestry of the elevator, the floor buttons, or the shiny spot on the elevator operator’s shoe—and sometimes the collar of his uniform”; the cassock and distracted air of a parish priest hunkered down “between the wood walls of his confessional” as he listens to the tedious litany of greater and lesser sins. And in each case Ahab accepts his new role with the equanimity of a clothing store mannequin without bearing the least resentment toward or even awareness of the capitalist caste system that traps the everyman in these humble positions. One can argue, of course, that Senges’ intent is not to expose social issues (and it isn’t) but rather to demonstrate the process by which (cultural) information is transmitted through society and, in some cases, myths are made. In an inverse of the infinite monkey theorem, which results in the production of one book, Senges’ one book produces an infinite number of somewhat better informed monkeys. Even far inland, the coal miner or hay farmer who knows nothing of the sea, who has never read or even heard of Captain Ahab, is imbued with knowledge of a man’s (morbid) obsession with a great fish.

The pre-whale Young Ahab, on the other hand, is just setting out in the world. He meets the librettist DaPonte, experiments with metaphors, “he was hardly expecting to meet so many blasted metaphors” (nor were we), crosses the ocean to London, where he finds his way in theater, first as a stagehand and prompter and finally as an actor playing Shakespearean characters, all in preparation, one assumes, for his ultimate role as Captain Ahab, in the process allowing Senges to explore Melville’s and his own fascination with the bard, including rumors of Shakespeare’s involvement in the murder of Christopher Marlowe. But in taking the Young Ahab, as well as the reader, through the trapdoor from the substage onto the main stage, Senges also sets a trap for himself as he rehashes the worn postmodern trope of the murder of the characters by the author, of the author by the characters, Young Ahab murders Melville, Don Quixote murders Cervantes, the ghost of Sherlock Holmes murders Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley is murdered by the doctor (with the help of his creature), Philip Marlowe murders Raymond Chandler, etc. The bell has tolled for these deaths before.

The desire for vengeance and the “epic grudge” are at the heart of Moby Dick but in Senges’ version the words revenge, grudge and the more innocuous (but no less insidious) resentment are mere ink on onionskin. We are initially told that Ahab bears no grudge toward the whale, that’s all forgotten, in the past. It’s the whale who can’t let bygones be bygones, although the Mobester’s desire for vengeance seems half-hearted and indiscriminate as he begins to dine on anyone and anything along the littoral that reminds him of his former tormentor Captain Ahab, whether in Cape Cod, China or Araby. A man strolling along the beach is “swallowed up by a whopper of an allegory.” A charred pine log that only vaguely suggests Ahab’s dark and austere figure meets a similar fate. It is only when Old Ahab attempts to capitalize on his story and he is buffeted about by the caprices of producers, writers, etc., that his long forgotten grudge against the whale is rekindled as a grudge against Hollywood and life as his original script is rewritten into an unrecognizable mishmash of Shakespearean and modern drama with the prospect of various famous actors auditioning for his role, some more plausible, others downright risible: Spencer Tracy, Charles Laughton, James Cagney, Buster Keaton(?!). Perhaps even more over-the-top, Cary Grant (Moby, Moby, Moby …). Slapstick aficionados may enjoy Senges’ deserved send-off of Orson Welles who, asked to appear in the screen production, immediately assumes he will play Ahab (yes, absurd, he had already ballooned into a caricature of himself), until, that is, an ego-deflating meeting with the producers, lawyers, director, writers, et al, where they announce in gleeful unison that his role will be the whale! Adding insult to injury, he will be expected to wear an enormous whale costume. Ha, ha, funny, right? Unfortunately, we’re not done yet as Senges moves on to—who’s up next?—yep, Fred Astaire. One does, however, detect genuine resentment on the author’s part when, pondering F. Scott Fitzgerald as a possible script writer for the story of the whale, the narrator impugns mostly modernist (and, one suspects, successful or at least popular) writers of what Senges calls “dry-bones fiction.” “Now there’s no doubt, that Fitzgerald’s windows have gone dark, there weren’t that many lights to turn off anyway.” Hemingway is “born from the flank of a swordfish.” Whatever their authors’ personal failures, the “dry-bones fiction” of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Hemingway’s brilliant young trifecta sticks to this reader’s ribs much tighter than Senges’ bone-dry fiction.

And all the while the narrative goes back and forth in time, back and forth across the ocean, back and forth between characters and their occupations, frequently revisiting information the reader has been given before. One could argue this is intentionally tautological, recursive, that Senges is exploring parameters of literature received through the oral tradition. One could also generously call this wave action, mimicking the motion of waves for a lyrical effect. Too often, however, it simply feels repetitive. Throughout this unsteady voyage Senges presents us with cultural signposts, references to black-faced minstrelsy, jazz, newsboys, street traffic, but instead of a lush life it reads like a still life of Gershwin’s NYC, the reportage of someone who has studied Americana but not lived it. There’s no juke in the joint, no jizz in the jazz.

Which brings us back to the question, what does this all mean? Senges’ Young Ahab “sees in metaphors a breach into other worlds, not the warp and woof of thought, but the interval between two ideas, the interval itself, the ideas mattering little, what does it matter if they even exist …” There is no rise and fall of temperament, the narrative does not plumb the depths of human emotion and experience, there is no de profundis, no Nautilus propulsion system driving us forward on a vital mission. Only words that evaporate as quickly as they are read, too often leaving the reader becalmed in the doldrums. All the seemingly wise sayings, the pithy, witty turns of phrase, the bon mots, the sardonic, the clever—as ephemeral as clouds in the sky, summer rain. Those who have had the dubious pleasure of listening to a schizophrenic or a speed freak will recognize the pattern. Initially everything seems to make sense and even sounds brilliant but it goes on and on until you realize there really is no connection between ideas except for tenuous transitions and the next cigarette.

Perhaps Senges felt it necessary to write a book equal in volume to Melville’s to beat us into our senses (he’s great!). The whale, alas, is less than the sum of its parts, a hot air balloon inflated by empty words. Ahab is an endless set of possibilities, both prequels and sequels, but never reifying into a satisfactory whole, which would be what—an aged, defeated, world-weary Ahab who has seen his life edited, rewritten and finally discarded by a bunch of Hollywood hacks? But Senges didn’t write that. To be fair, if you enjoy cleverness for its own sake, if you like listening to a stand-up comic tossing out one-liners until the wee hours of the morning, you might enjoy Senges, all five hundred fifty pages. Fans of Tristram Shandy might even find shadows of Sterne in Senges’ rarefied word play, although Uncle Toby on his hobby horse was a heckuva lot funner.

In the end, who cares, right? Each to his cup or his kettle of fish or tea. The cause for concern lies in the fact that this sort of writing has claimed more space than it should (intellectual bullying? oh my!): writing that calls attention to itself without really knowing why; writing that stays on the surface, that does not care to dirty its hands or get its feet wet; what might also be called predatory or parasitic writing or even gravedigging, that exhumes the corpses of past writers, perhaps out of reverence but possibly just convenience because those who are guilty of these sins have nothing of their own to say, which is indeed a mystery. How can anyone who writes beautiful words as easily as a fish farts in water have nothing to say? Perhaps sensing an incompleteness himself, Senges seems to have difficulty in ending. There’s a sense of his wanting to say more, the consummate thing, echoes, perhaps, of Beckett. However, when Senges says I can’t go on, I’ll go on, this reader’s response is, stop, you’re killing me.

A final note. It would be impossible to fairly and accurately assess Senges’ work if it were not for the brilliant work of the translators, Jacob Siefring and Tegan Raleigh. Great translation is in itself an art, but also the product of due diligence scholarship and an unbounded curiosity about everything. Monsieur Senges and his readers have been well served.