Sena Naslund, seeing that Ahab was alone, has created a female heroine, Una Spenser, to rival Melville’s infamous sea captain. Dispensing with the rib, Naslund’s heroine comes not from Melville, or Ahab, or the 1850s, but rather she leaps like a multicultural Athena fully formed right from Naslund’s mind. Una is a brilliant, adventurous, precocious, intuitive woman who embodies all the right values and philosophies of the modern uber-woman.
Growing up in Naslund’s home state of Kentucky, by age 12, Una’s ardent atheism has so infuriated her newly converted father that her mother is afraid he will kill her in a fit of religious frenzy. In order to get her away from her tall, dark, threatening, meat-eating daddy, her mother, whose atheism is inexplicably tolerated, sends her to live with her sister, Una’s Aunt Agatha. Naslund misses no opportunity to endear Una to her reader. Upon seeing the steamboat, she says it reminds her of Don Quixote’s windmill, and once on the boat she and mom run around tearing down the runaway slave posters and throwing them in the river; her mother all the while quoting the Declaration of Independence through clenched teeth.
Una’s new home is all sweetness and a lighthouse. Forward-thinking Aunt Agatha has found herself a nice, non-threatening, lighthouse-keeper husband, and is living an idyllic, vegetarian lifestyle on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Una’s first meal there is sumptuously described: “The white goat cheese bubbled in a wrought-copper chafing dish, in the center of the table, ‘Here are the herb leaves: dill, sage and thyme,’ her uncle says, ‘roll the herb you like best between your fingers, and sprinkle it over the cheese.’” Even down to the bowl of good-for-you seaweed the whole thing seems like something right out of the Silver Palate Cookbook.
And I don’t really object to fictional characters eating well, or being so progressive, but part of the reason I enjoy reading about the 1800s is that it is a welcome relief from my everyday fare. But all of the things this character does and says are contrived to match, nay overwhelm, Ahab.
It is ironic, then, that the book still centers around Ahab, for its denouement is certainly her marriage to Ahab. And during those pages, the themes, characters, facts and stories of Moby Dick are generously lifted and twisted. Since Captain Ahab has found his soul-mate in a woman 40 years his junior, we can expect all kinds of fictions to follow. But did you know he and Starbuck both slipped love letters into Queequeg’s coffin, so that Ishmael could personally deliver them to Mrs. Starbuck and his future wife? That’s right, you’ll now see Ishmael joking about that November-in-his-soul business like it was some cheap philosophy, moving right in with widowed Una and her child and living in an unmarried state (allegedly so he and Una can choose marriage every day), which sounds suspiciously like what my sister tried to tell my dad when she wanted to move in with her boyfriend.
A short list of Una’s feats will suffice. Assists runaway slave. Runs away to sea. Encounters the black whale. Eats a boatful of people. Befriends dwarf bounty hunter. Breaks into the Boston intellectual circle with her homespun truths. Stays the night at Emerson’s house, although thankfully Naslund spares us a conversation between the two. Intuits that “earth oil” is a good investment and makes a tidy profit in the kerosene market. Befriends the local gay artist and his lover the judge. Establishes a school where students ask questions like, “Is time an orphan?” Presumably she also attempts to answer those questions, but not in this book.
Sentence to sentence, Naslund’s prose shows evidence of much revision and careful crafting, despite the dreamy tone of much of the book. She is clearly a professional writer who knows an impressive amount of poetry. There is just far too much detail, too many irrelevant but poignantly described incidents, too many rhetorical questions, brilliant asides and literary/philosophical allusions that are rarely anything more than intellectual window dressing. Her work is all carefully researched and written, but her art does not imitate nature, and seems instead much like the musings of someone of our time trying to imagine what it was like to be on a whaler or live in pre-civil war America—which it is.
Sometimes too much knowledge is a dangerous thing, and amid the reams of promotional materials sent touting her 32-city book tour, (including Missoula on Nov. 11 at Fact and Fiction), two statistics emerged as significant; the first printing run of Ahab’s Wife: 150,000, and the number of copies of Moby Dick that sold in Melville’s lifetime: 1,500. Is it me or is this time is out of joint?