Fifteen years ago, I first dove into the immense, dark waters of Melville's masterpiece.
I was surprised how Moby-Dick kept me turning the pages, especially in the beginning. It has all the trappings of a classic adventure story: rollicking action, foreshadowing, bawdy humor. Despite all the darkness, the plot centers around one of the most deep and abiding friendships in literary history (Ishmael & Queequeg). And the language is often brilliant, pulse-quickening, Shakespearean—the deeper midnight of the insatiate maw.
Though I personally loved the digressions and long-winded tangents about the minutiae of whaling, I could understand why many readers give up less than halfway through.
Not one to give up easily, though, I made it through Moby-Dick.
I became obsessed with a book about obsession.
More so when I discovered some critical work that compared Moby-Dick's narrative trajectory with Carl Jung's concept of the night sea journey—the dark passages that we all embark on, where we find ourselves floating and directionless, frightened and alone.
At age thirty, I relocated to New York City. With no job prospects, it was both the boldest and the most senseless move of my life. During my three years in the city, I failed to achieve most of my literary ambitions, but I did learn to surf (was there ever a worse way to get ahead in New York?). And, through my new ocean-obsession, I made some of the closest friendships of my life.
But in the wake of of a painful break-up and a traumatic robbery, I soon found myself on my own night sea journey.
It was a time during which, to paraphrase Joan Didion, I lost my own life's narrative.
Without my own script, I clung to Moby-Dick as a kind of postmodern survival guide.
According to Jungian analyst Edward Edinger, "Moby-Dick speaks so deeply to us today because this state of alienated meaninglessness is so prevalent . . . In Ishmael's voyage we recognize dimly the state of our own souls."
The night sea voyage, though always dark, is also transformative, especially in a creative sense. As the edges of the world slowly came back into focus, a book began to emerge out of the experience.
Writing The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld helped be break through some major creative blocks. I'd tried and failed to write a novel while in New York, but I finally found my voice in creative nonfiction.
I also began connecting with an amazing crew of fellow Melville fanatics—people from all over the country and the world. Back in 2011, some of us organized a 24-hour Moby-Dick marathon reading at Powell's City of Books, here in Portland. As David Dowling writes in his book Chasing the White Whale, "If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order." Over a hundred readers brought the novel breathing to life; there was a palpable sense of communion and connection, like we were all shipmates, pulling oar together through the night.
It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and it's with that same spirit of communion and connection that I wish to send The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld out into the hands of readers—into your hands.
I hope you'll join me on this journey.
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All best wishes,
PS: One of the most gratifying things about about having written Wonderworld is that it seems to inspire people to revisit Moby-Dick. Whether you're taking the voyage for the first or the fifteenth time, I highly recommend you seek out the Modern Library Classics version, featuring copious illustrations by Rockwell Kent (including the images in this post). It's available at many bookstores and online, usually for $13.00 or less.