In Praise of Irrelevance

My daughter and I have been reading Moby Dick aloud, taking turns.  I got tired of simply hearing about this classic of American literature for much of my life, and since summer allows me to breathe occasionally, I decided to take the plunge.  It has been a ton of fun so far.  I like short chapters in a fat book — they are particularly conducive to reading aloud.  I like the protagonist.  But one of the things I like most about the book is that it is in no hurry to get to the plot.  It lingers, it wanders, it goes off into fascinating detail.  I can’t imagine that all the loving attention it pays to absolutely everything somehow justifies itself in Relevance to the Plot or the Story Arc, either directly or metaphorically.  I find that I like this mad extravagance: detail for detail’s sake.  It goes against what one is told by writing gurus: that everything in your story must be Relevant.

I wonder if that makes more sense in a short story, where one is restricted by word count and so perhaps every word has to count.  Epics such as the Ramayana, and even more so, the Mahabharata, are filled with fascinating excursions and delvings that explorations that aren’t necessarily vital to the ‘main arc’ of the story.  While they certainly flesh out the world of the story, they are clearly there for their own sake.

Similarly, reading Moby Dick, I find that its notorious ramblings and expositions are oddly pleasing.  They might slow the action, but I like taking the time to stare at a painting on a wall through the eyes of Ishmael.  I like the fact that at any moment in the story, that moment is the most important thing.  The person, the painting, the dining room of that time and place is what there is.  There is an almost Zen-like quality to this kind of writing.

Life is like that too — full of objects and people and occurrences that have no relevance to the main plot, because, guess what, there is no main plot.  We choose to draw out this thread or that from the tapestry, giving us the illusion of a sequence of characters and events and meaning, but it is only one thread in the tangle.  Art need not be compelled to imitate life — but let there be some works at least that burrow into the tangle and mix up the threads for the joy of it.

I’m working on a short story now that is mostly a series of ramblings, and I’d like to see if I can, in a small, modest and likely inadequate way, imitate what the fat, epic-like tomes do.  Throw in lots of irrelevant detail, rejoice in it, and see what happens.  Hopefully the reader will get a story where it is his/her choice to pull out this thread or that one, and play with it as a kitten might play with a ball of wool and a half-knitted sweater.


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7 Responses to “In Praise of Irrelevance”

  1. FoundOnWeb Says:

    To gain some perspective on the book, you should read Richard Armour’s “The Classics Reclassified”. He said it is so boring that it makes strong men cry and whales blubber. Even Melville got bored — he’d write a chapter, and then go off and write a bunch of stuff about whales:

    We seem about to be introduced to this Captain Ahab in Chapter XXII, but Melville, not wanting to rush things, elects at this point to give an account of the history and literature of whaling. Of course you knew all along that Louis XIV outfitted several whaling ships at his own expense, that Alfred the Great wrote the first narrative of a whaling voyage, and that the grandmother of Benjamin Franklin was Mary Folger, who had something or other to do with the whaling industry. Nevertheless, you are grateful to be reminded of these facts, and the story can wait.

    Unless you are interested in a catalogue of famous pictures of whales, the manufacture of rope lines, the anatomy of a whale’s eye, ear and tail, how to skin a whale and cook the blubber, and the history of whaling from Perseus to the present, you would do well to turn from Chapter XXXVI to Chapter CXXXIII without delay, thus saving nearly a hundred chapters without anybody’s knowing the different if you keep quiet. After all, Ahab isn’t the only one entitled to be a skipper.

    One of the best lines is where he tells us that Captain Ahab nails a gold doubloon to the mast for the first person to spot the whale, or the first person up on deck after dark with a claw-headed hammer.

  2. vsinghsblog Says:

    Thanks for the reference and the quote! I will be brave and not skip the hundred chapters unless my life is threatened. And I’ll look for the bit about the gold doubloon.

    I wonder if there is a comparable work or two that rivals Moby Dick for sheer size, verbosity and whatever else I discover as I read it. (Epics aside, that is).

  3. FoundOnWeb Says:

    In the fourth volume of Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series (which I highly recommend to anyone of a literary bent — the first volume is “The Eyre Affair”), there is a woman who has commited a crime against literature, and Jurisfiction has condemned her to wear blue gingham for twenty years, and to not die until she’s read the ten most boring books in the world. I think Moby Dick was on the list, but it was Spenser’s Faerie Queen that finally did her in.

  4. vsinghsblog Says:

    Thanks for the recommendations! I am,now insatiably curious about Spenser’s Faerie Queen. I can just imagine a world in which one just has to pick up a really boring book when one is ready to die. One could choose the flavour of one’s death through the choice of the book. Any writers willing to play with this idea?

    • FoundOnWeb Says:

      Don’t limit it to boring books. Let them become killed-off characters in more exciting ones.

      …round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) they rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and are slaughtered. This book is dedicated to them. – Pratchett


      He was so badly burned that the only way we identified him was with his dental records. Why he was carrying his dental records with him is a bit of a mystery – Fford

  5. Josh Says:

    This is so amazing! I just read Moby-Dick for the first time myself (disability lit, dontcha know), and one of my former students decided independently to make a go of it. Nobody told me how funny it is, much less that Ishmael is a Mad Pedant out of a Borges story. But some of Melville’s contemporaries seemed to know what he was doing: The Washington National Intelligencer said “The humor of Mr. Melville is of that subdued yet unquenchable nature which spreads such charm over the pages of Sterne.” I see how it would be your kind of wit.

    Anne Call Me Ahab Finger thinks that Ishmael, being a schoolteacher from an aristocratic family, is trying to prove his working-class cred and keeps failing by going all metaphysical. I’m not sure that’s unique to him though: almost every white character on the Pequod with a speaking part tends to draw a sermon out of everyday events, don’t they?

    A few weeks ago, I wrote on Eleanor Arnason’s facebook wall, “Josh Lukin about Eleanor’s having characterized Melville’s novels as science fiction. What most strikes me about their resemblance to SF (and I’m sure H. Bruce Franklin had this insight long ago) is that, subsequent to the Popular Front fiction of the 30s and 40s, SF is the genre most likely to pay that kind of meticulous attention to work. Look at the amount of “It Walks in Beauty” devoted to explaining the factory setting; look at _Slow River_; look at _The Space Merchants_ . . . less common in litfic, although you often run across flashes of it like Philip Roth’s wonderful infodump about glove manufacture in the middle of _American Pastoral_.” At the time, I didn’t know how much controversy C.L.R. James had stirred up in the 1950s by pointing out that Moby-Dick was about industrial labor. I mean, the book devotes hundreds of pages to describe the process of turning raw materials from nature into commodities, and yet the white Cold War critics, in headlong flight from their own working-class forebears, were all, “Political allegory! Ishmael is Democracy and Ahab is Tyranny! Melville was warning us about the Soviets!” I’m not making this up . . .

  6. FoundOnWeb Says:

    So, here’s a list for your next project:

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