The Magazine

Inside the Whale

Great strength, glaring weakness, in a debut novel.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By STEFAN BECK
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A day will come when it is widely acknowledged that cultural literacy, or correctly calibrated taste, not money, is the marker of elite status. For the time being, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who knows that Finnegans Wake and Howards End have no apostrophes, or (to stay topical) that Moby-Dick does have a hyphen, will quietly capture the imagination in a way that an upper-crust kid who’s actually read these books will not. If Harbach had any interest in dispelling this absurd and neurotic strain in modern thought, he wouldn’t imagine that a college president, of all people, might worry about his large house communicating a shameful concern for bourgeois propriety.

Harbach’s soundest Melville connection rests in the fact that Guert Affenlight, a Melville scholar, the author of a study called The Sperm-Squeezers, once unearthed an address delivered by Melville to the students of Westish in 1880. Because of this fact, Westish made Melville its mascot, erecting a statue and naming its baseball team the Harpooners. If this is contrived, it is contrived in the best possible way, illustrating a status anxiety the reader can easily attribute to a landlocked, uncelebrated college. It is an allusion that earns its keep, and then some.

Henry’s matriculation at Westish College parallels Melville’s minor work Redburn: His First Voyage, though in strictly economic terms Henry has more in common with Mike Schwartz than with the refined, wet-behind-the-ears “Buttons” Redburn. Still, he has much to learn. He frets about his provincial mother’s objection to his “gay mulatto roommate,” Owen Dunne, of whom she asks, “Would they put you in a room with a girl?”

If there was a flaw in his mom’s logic, Henry couldn’t find it. Would his parents make him switch rooms? That would be horrible, worse than embarrassing, to go to the Housing office and request a new room assignment—the Housing people would know instantly why he was asking, because Owen was the best possible roommate, neat and kind and rarely even home. The only roommate who’d want to be rid of Owen was a roommate who hated gay people. This was a real college, an enlightened place—you could get in trouble for hating people here, or so Henry suspected.

Both Owen, who becomes the object of President Guert Affenlight’s queasy-making affection, and Henry, the strapping, iron-armed innocent, owe something to Billy Budd—but not much, as neither one of them comes to real harm. (Melville’s cousin Guert participated in the court-martial on which Billy Budd is based—more showboating allusion.) Owen’s role, apart from his torrid and ill-advised affair with Affenlight, is to get brained by the bad throw that plunges Henry into a “Prufrockian paralysis.” (There are minor-league Eliot references on pages 55, 74, and 328, for anyone keeping score.) Once a Billy, Henry becomes a Bartleby, preferring not to play ball, despite the interest of Major League scouts, and refusing even to eat. Harbach makes some comic hay of this, as when Mike says: “I told [the doctors] only cheerleaders get anorexia. You’re a ballplayer—you’re having a spiritual crisis.”

Spiritual crises are the lifeblood, the navy grog, of Fielding. Forbidden love, infidelity, overweening ambition, the purpose of a liberal-arts education—these subjects are weighty enough, and treated intelligently enough, to outshine Harbach’s serpentine sportscasting and to excuse the odd bit of painfully self-conscious dialogue and grad-student cleverness (“You’re only Jung once,” quips Pella Affenlight).

Harbach’s prose is unpredictable. There are clichés and tics, and a heady odor of polish. A lovesick heart is “a fruit so ripe it threatens to split its skin.” “Arcs” are constantly being “described”—“sensual,” “tight,” “rapt,” “long slow,” and “parabolic.” Sentences like “The silence that filled the Audi seemed profound” (it wasn’t) only serve to kill the mood. Names like Craig Suitcase and Sal Phlox, or Skrimshander, for that matter, kill the verisimilitude.

Is this more sly homage to the winking, postmodern nomenclature of a David Foster Wallace? Why not a film major named Myrna L’œil, or a transgendered activist named Lez Majeste? (See? Man is only completely insufferable when at play.) Then there comes some moment of Melvillean phosphorescence—“With each stretch Schwartz’s knees snapped and popped at increasing volume, as if trying to outbid each other”—and the reader forgivingly remembers that unevenness goes hand in hand with genius.