Friday, August 26, 2005

Book #24: The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville



I'll lay it out here: Moby-Dick is, without a doubt in my mind, the greatest novel in the English language, and definitely the greatest novel I've ever read. I've used those words for only two other novels: Gravity's Rainbow and Absolam! Absolam!. Well, as much as I love those two books, I love Moby-Dick even more. So it is with some degree of shame that I confess that I've read very little other Melville. Billy Budd, yes. "Bartleby," yes. But The Confidence-Man is the first of Melville's other novels published within his lifetime that I've read.

And The Confidence-Man is quite a novel. More precisely, The Confidence-Man is quite a postmodern novel, one that leaves me unshocked about its negative press in 1857 or the fact that Melville never published another work of prose in his remaining 30-odd years. I mean, it's brilliant, more philosophy than novel, but what could have prepared readers on the verge of the Civil War for a novel with no protagonist, a novel in which every statement is potentially equally truth and lie, a novel that questions the very nature of human existence and asks - no, that's not right, it demands - an immediate embrace of moral, ethical, and cultural relativism? And hell, it's not even a novel, but an extended parable, harboring parables within parables, stripping away not just the passengers' illusions, but the readers', as well, with Nabokovian economy.

So, here's what happens: passengers board the ship Fidéle, a Mississippi passenger ship, which, like Huck and Jim, heads down the Mississippi between slave states and free. In the first chapter, a deaf and mute man writes out Biblical definitions of Charity on a small chalkboard and is soundly rebuked by his fellow passengers. In the second chapter, a crippled black man, known as Black Guinea, begs money, and is claimed an imposter by a fictive Melville, a gruff, unpopular customs agent with a peg-leg like Ahab. The next twenty or so chapters involve conversations between people who we will, for the most part, never see again, in which confidence is discussed, usually couched within conversations about other issues, and once one side grants his trust to the other, the other takes monetary advantage of the first. In the second part of the book, which coincides with the passage of the Fidéle out of the free North and into the nebulous area between free and slave states, three characters dominate the narrative: a herb-doctor, a Missouran wearing animal skins, and, finally, a man described as a cosmopolitan. This is Melville as his most heady. The action is as follows: the herb-doctor attempts to con the Missouran, who refuses, only to be bilked out of money by the next man he meets, an agent of the Philosophical Inquiry Office, who claims to be able to bring out the goodness in man. Realizing that he has been conned, the Missouran shouts down the cosmopolitan, a man who claims to believe the best of everyone. The cosmopolitan, Frank, then has a long conversation with con-artist Charlie Noble (whose name, a nautical term, is as made-up as Mark Twain's), then meets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with whom he re-enacts part of his conversation with Noble, but to different ends. Frank then wonders down to talk with the ship barber, whom he either cons a free shave or he doesn't, which the invisible narrator leaps in to specifically leave ambiguous. Frank then wanders down to the sleeping quarters, where he has a conversation with an old man and a kid selling bogus goods. None of this captures the greatness of these conversations, which meander here and there and are as funny as Melville ever was, ultimately implying that all existence, all experience of the Other, all believe in oneself, is basically a con job. We are all Confidence Men.

Yeah, this is the good stuff, by turns funny and profound as hell.

I looked for decent essays on the web to cite here, but haven't found any within a few pages of Googling, so you're on your own. Also, considering that August is coming to a close and I'm not yet halfway through my stated goal of 50 books for 2005, I'm starting to doubt I'll make it. If that happens, god help us all.

11 comments:

Anonymous 1:06 PM, August 26, 2005  
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Anonymous 1:32 PM, August 26, 2005  
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Anonymous 1:41 PM, August 26, 2005  
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Anonymous 1:49 PM, August 26, 2005  
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Hayden Childs 1:52 PM, August 26, 2005  

Make it stop! Anyone know if I can trash these things?

Hayden Childs 1:53 PM, August 26, 2005  

Oh, that's how. Useful.

Anonymous 1:55 PM, August 26, 2005  

An interview with Adam Savage from Mythbusters
My hilarious pal Steve at The Sneeze has part one of an interview with Adam Savage from the show Mythbusters on Discovery Channel that any fan of the show should check out.
David King, writer, and author on

href="http://discount-global-travel.blogspot.com/">very last minute travel deals
related stuff.

Hayden Childs 2:39 PM, August 26, 2005  

Coincidence, ain't it, that my blog has been overrun with comments posting links of dubious origin appended to a discussion of The Confidence Man?

Tiffany 4:15 PM, August 26, 2005  

How does it happen and why? Some back door advertising? Strange.

Joe 10:49 PM, August 26, 2005  

Review the Arthur Lee bio I sent you. No doubt you read it or want to read it, so use it as one of the 50.

I'm only 40 or 50 pages into The Confidence Man, but I'll try to read on the train tomorrow. (There's no doubt I'll pass out for some of the ride. The only question is how much of it.) It wouldn't take much effort to get Eliot to read it, and he could probably get you know who to koin us if you want to discuss it. Like you, & unlike the poster of this comment, they're fast readers.

And I should probably mention this in a comment about your desert island discs, but I'm lazy: Brock Peters, who plays Jack Johnson on the Miles album, died the other day.

Hayden Childs 4:14 PM, August 29, 2005  

The Arthur Lee bio is upcoming in my queue, Joe. I hope you stick with The Confidence-Man. And I'm sorry to hear about Brock Peters.

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