Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: The Whale, A Love Story

The Whale: A Love StoryThe Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I remember a teacher asking me how I felt about Moby Dick and my answering her: "Well, mostly I feel like throwing it across the room, screaming 'When is something gonna happen?'"

Or maybe I didn't. Maybe I merely invented the exchange since it so neatly encapsulates my feelings for Melville's classic (which I haven't tried to reread in the more than quarter century since reading it in school). Also, I was not a particularly precocious child.

It's also how I felt reading Beauregard's slashfiction about the almost hook up of Herman Melville with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The idea of some sort of homosexual admiration (that sounds like a strange way to phrase it, but...) between the two is nothing startlingly new. I believe I first came across the supposition in Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.. They lived near one another for a time and Melville did dedicate Moby Dick to Hawthorne, though after reading Beauregard's work one might assume HM was merely calling NH a big dick (and not in a good way).

Let me say up front--or maybe here in the middle--that I hated this book. I struggled to finish it and at one point (I believe it was the start of Chapter 16, which is entirely epistolary), I cussed out loud and nearly threw the book across the room.

It starts off neatly enough. Beauregard nicely sets the piece in its period. He draws the main characters well, and pencils in several background characters that are amusing. In fact, he describes everything in detail. I think several pages could be filled with nothing but the various flowers he feels compelled to name. Melville is handsome and a bit wild, Hawthorne is older, handsome but slightly reserved. Their eyes meet, they talk like two pompous hipsters in a coffee shop, they ride in a carriage with their shoes touching... But then we're subjected to at least a hundred and twenty-five pages of (in the author's own words) "tragic yearning" (pg. 119), as Melville (usually Herman in the text) struggles to write the manuscript that will (eventually) become synonymous with his name, while simultaneously longing for his beloved Nathaniel (usually Hawthorne for some reason) like an insipid sink mooning for her sparkly vampire.
The spirit of the novel is, in fact, neatly encapsulated in this sentence from the beginning of chapter 12:

"…Herman settled into a stable pattern of work, which nevertheless failed to bring him peace of mind, as he spent nearly every waking moment pining for Hawthorne." (pg. 130)

So, if I disliked the book so much, why did I rate it 4 starts? Because it's very well written, and seems well-researched (I'm no expert on either man). And I firmly believe my own pissy preferences shouldn't take precedence over the talent, skill and scholarship of such a work. Would I have preferred that if Beauregard was going to accept the premise the two men felt more than a platonic affection they had acted on it (at least once)? Sure. And I also wish he hadn't felt the need to recast a writer of some gravitas as Bella Swan. But it's his slash not mine.

I can't recommend it, but I can see that it is a work of merit.

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