Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Ahab's Return or The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is a writer who writers and reviewers I love speak about in hushed tones, the kind usually reserved for the likes of Kelly Link, Ted Chiang or Gene Wolfe. I had not read anything by him before this, but I doubt this will be the last. That it took a sequel to Moby Dick to get me to take the plunge with him, is, I know, extremely on brand. Moby Dick is my favorite novel, one that I read every year. I’ve maintained in recent years that it has a lot of the structure and feel of a fantasy horror novel. No doubt though, it is a precursor to the big difficult novels of the 20th century as well. And I’m not sure what anyone would hope to accomplish by writing a sequel to it that went for a similar approach. Ford very wisely takes this in a very different, much pulpier direction; this is a delight of a very different sort; fun and propulsive without all the digressions of Moby Dick. And yet it has significant philosophical and political heft.

You could almost call it pulp metafiction. Ahab, again, is an obsessive character encountered by the narrator. The narrator in this case is one Alex Harrow, a reporter (read: person who makes up fantastical stories out of whole cloth) for a tabloid called The Gorgon’s Mirror in New York. After the events of Moby Dick, Ishmael worked as a copy editor for the Mirror while writing his novel. Like Harrow, Ishmael was a little fast and loose with the truth. Ahab survived after all, as did Dagoo (who resents his name having been changed in the book from Madi). After an implied Odyssean journey back to America, Ahab shows up in pursuit of Ishmael so that he can find his son. What follows is part fantasy bordering on horror and part Gangs of New York and part theory of fiction and ideology (though this part never drags down the narrative voice or pace). Ahab’s son has taken up with a gang led by a magical and nefarious gangster called Malabaster. On one level the book is this pulp story from the perspective of a delightful unreliable narrator in which a small band of characters all with different, believable motivations make a tenuous alliance to go after Malabaster.

The magic system is rooted in the power of language and of narrative. In this sense the book, without going on tedious tangents, is very much about the danger of ideology (specifically nativist ideology) and how the war for people’s minds is fought on that ground. Set, as it is, in the 1850s Ford makes masterful use of the rabid nativism that was happening at the time. As I said in my review of Redburn, you could copy paste a lot of what was being said about catholics at the time and just say muslim instead, and other than a few anachronistic phrasings the same message wouldn’t seem out of place in some contemporary outlets. And in Madi (nee Dagoo), Ford illustrates a lot of the ways things haven’t changed a century and change later. By making the enemy the embodiment of nativist ideology Ford makes a powerful statement. If I had to ding the book for anything, it’s that it’s more pointed in its political message than I usually prefer. That said, if there was ever a time to write an anti-nativist novel it’s now.

But the book is not sermonizing. It is, first and foremost, a rollicking pulp journey rendered in excellent prose. If this is representative, Ford deserves those hushed tones that people use when discussing him. This isn’t going to replace Moby Dick on my yearly reread list, but it’s definitely in the reread a couple more times (at least) pile. 

Highly Recommended 

Owned But Previously Unread 2021 Number 5

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