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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Friday, June 16, 2017

An extremely talented writer who's created an extremely unpleasant world

Obviously any novel about a seafaring adventure aboard a 19th-century whaling ship is going to have to live under the shadow of Moby-Dick. Also obviously, Ian McGuire, author of the 2016 novel The North Water (and an English=born professor of American lit.) knows this. His novel even opens w/ a 3-word sentence: Behold the man! But unlike the mysterious, observant Ishmael narrator, McGuire opts for an omniscient 3rd-person narrator - which allows him to introduce a lot of characters and plot elements pretty quickly: The ship captain is trying to regain his reputation after some kind of disastrous shipwreck, the mission to Greenland has a goal other than whale oil though only the captain and ship owner are in on this, the boat is dangerously understocked, the crew is volatile, and the ship's doctor, probably emerging as the central character, is a opiate addict and tells an phony story about why he wants to go to sea - he has some secret in his past (previous service was w/ British army in India), like most who go to sea no doubt. What brought this novel to my attention were a # of glowing reviews and subsequent comments by many writers about the McGuire's beautiful and engaging writing. No question, he is terrific at creating a sense of time and place - in this case the seaport of Hull in the 1860s - with exquisite and excruciating detail about the stench, the hubbub, the and the technical details of preparing and launching a whaling voyage. His is a counterpoint to Melville's somewhat romantic view of whaling and of the men aboard the Pequot; Melville's opening, in New Bedford, is by comparison a scene of comradeship, diversity, and faith - an optimistic opening to a voyage that will become increasingly bizarre and troubled - because of Captain Ahab's obsession of course (not because of the crew). In McGuire's world, everything and everyone is corrupt and evil-natured. In the opening chapter we meet a crew member who becomes drunk, belligerent, and destitute, attacks an innocent man with a brick, steals his money, befriends an impoverished black teenager, then rapes him - shall I go on? The world of this novel is not just dark, it's sordid; I will read further to see how things develop but I have to wonder why a writer with such obvious talent as McGuire - his prose is vivid, though at times willfully obscure and punched up w/ nautical terms (mizzenmast, taffrail) and possible neologisms (chuntled?) that seem a little bit of a show-off - would want to devote himself to such a unrelentingly nasty set of characters. All writers love their characters, usually, but how can anyone love these guys - or even care about them?

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