In Ahab’s Return, Stories Are the Great White Whale

Stories can change your life. Maybe they won’t, and maybe they shouldn’t (that is, after all, a lot to put on any story). But the right story, at the right time, certainly can.

Ahab’s Return, the new full-length novel from surrealist writer Jeffrey Ford, is about that ephemeral power of storytelling. Weaving into the binding of a famous novel—Melville’s Moby-Dick—he plants us in an alternate version of New York City to examine the ruinous effects that work has had on the lives of those unfortunate enough to feature within it. The interplay between the fictional, the fantastical, and unflinching fact transforms what could be a metafictional lark into something truly mythic: a literary work both nightmarish and surreal, and utterly sincere, true to its characters and setting, and to its consideration of the power of stories.

Saved from death at the hands of the great white whale at the end of Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab washes up on the shores of the United States only to find his death has already been widely reported by his former crew mate Ishmael and his wife and son have relocated to New York City. In an effort to find his family, Ahab contacts George Harrow, a tabloid writer who knew Ishmael, to act as a guide in the strange metropolis. As Harrow and Ahab journey into Manhattan’s underbelly, they encounter a host of dangers, from Ahab’s former crew, to a hypnotic manticore who quotes poetry and who can erase someone from existence with the snap of her jaws, to a seemingly undead assassin made of bones and dust. Above it all stands the demonic Malbaster, a man who seems to feed on the city’s paranoia, racism, and fear.

All cities have their own deep mythos, formed over decades from their citizens’ overlapping, intersecting lives, their stories growing and changing in the telling. Ahab’s Return, being a book about stories (and one specific story in particular), depicts this wonderfully on a character level: Malbaster’s backstory grows deeper as the book goes on, taking him from a supernaturally powered nativist crime lord; to a demonic figure able to hypnotize others with words and with literal monsters at his beck and call; to a pervasive idea—a kind of anthropomorphic personification of evil whose traces are shot through the veins of every New Yorker, given power by the stories being told about him. The manticore, a terrifying creature that haunts the heroes at every step, emerges from a conflicting narrative that overlaps with those of several of the protagonists. Even the characters’ interactions with one another become intertwined with a growing legend, particularly after a violent fracas in a French restaurant. Even our understanding of Ahab changes with our understanding of his story, turning him from a single-minded madman into a haunted soul wracked with guilt over his past decisions.

Contrasted with these elements of the fantastical, it is also the novel’s realism that emphasizes the way a narrative can change the world. Ford doesn’t shy away from depicting the problematic past, and both Malbaster and his Jolly Host are specters in line with the times—misogynist nativists terrorizing New York’s underclasses and trying to keep as many people as possible in a drugged-up stupor. Ishmael’s famed account of his sea voyage has consequences not only for Ahab, but also Madi, a black man who is depicted in Moby-Dick as a giant named “Daggoo” because Ishmael thought it “sounded better.” Even the manticore and Malbaster’s undead assassin Bartleby have lives beyond their monstrous appearance as a villain’s puppets—the manticore might have once been a victim of a horrifying act of misogyny and misguided mercy that transformed her into a mythical creature, and Bartelby’s appearances turn from terrifying to tragicomic after someone finally bothers to realize that he was human at some point before he became a mute, homicidal bag of bones.

Ford marries Melville with the lurid elements of the pulps and serials of the past, but his realistic portrayal of the pervasive racism and misogyny of the era keep his monsters firmly footed in a too-relatable real world. It’s a balance—the fantasy is never obscured by nostalgia for a bygone age, nor are the bizarre and nightmarish adventures of Harrow and Ahab absorbed by the grimness of the historical circumstances they occupy. In reconciling this two sides of the story, Ford has constructed an unusual, altogether intriguing work of modern mythology.

Ahab’s Return is available August 28.

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