Jeffrey Ford, Ahab’s Return or, The Last Voyage (William Morrow, 2018, 272pp, £20)
Reviewed by Joan Gordon (Nassau Community College)
Several years ago I took an old friend of mine, an Australian and a fellow admirer of Herman Melville, on what I dubbed a subjunctive tour of Melville’s New York: that is, most of what we visited might have been or would have been or could have been a place Melville had stayed or lived or frequented. Lower New York City is much changed but its traces remain like uncertain and furtive subjunctive clauses. Jeffrey Ford’s Ahab’s Return takes place in that New York. It also takes place in a subjunctive space between genres: it is a pastiche novel, a ripping yarn, a mystery, a fantasy, a literary meta-fictional narrative, a timely political commentary, and an historical novel.
Ahab’s Return evokes the lunch stop of my subjunctive tour, Fraunce’s Tavern, on its very first page, as the narrator, George Harrow, a reporter for the fictional yet magnificently named tabloid newspaper The Gorgon’s Mirror, describes his meeting with Ahab, miraculously returned long after the sinking of the Pequod. This story is, of course, a continuation of Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), imagining that not only Ishmael, but Ahab and Daggoo, survived. I learned from a Publishers Weekly interview (25 June 2018) provided by Morrow Publishing that Ford had sadly abandoned an earlier attempt at imagining Ahab’s survival, washed up on a tropical beach and ruling the local lemurs – I’d have liked to read that. Instead, Ahab has come to New York to find the wife and child he had left to their fate all those years ago. Ishmael’s book (Moby Dick is mostly in first person, after all) was a sensationalist exaggeration of the true adventure, and now Ahab is asking another sensationalist writer to help him in his quest. This is the ripping yarn – they will meet gangs, opium fiends, a manticore and a terrifying villain, Malbaster or Pale King Toad, as their search evolves into the rescue of Ahab’s son. Much as I might regret the loss of lemurs, this version is very satisfying, full of surprising twists and turns, daring rescues, and so on.
As it is, Ford weaves more mystery into the novel than the whereabouts of Ahab’s son, Gabriel, which leads to further mysteries. Where is the huge cache of John Jacob Astor’s opium, now ruining countless lives including Gabriel’s? Who is the mastermind behind the ruthless enterprise, and how can he be stopped? Perfect material for tabloids.
Harrow is ‘a sensationalist,’ Ahab says, like Ishmael. He writes stories only loosely based on the truth, guaranteed to thrill, heavily laced with the impossible, the stuff of nineteenth century tabloids: The Gorgon’s Mirror is a fictional version of a very popular medium. It turns out that, according to David S. Reynolds, Melville was often inspired by such tabloids and read them avidly. Bartleby, whose story was directly inspired by the tabloids, makes an appearance in Ahab’s Return and Melville used tabloids in the writing of his sensationalist masterpiece, Moby Dick.
Among the other characters of this ripping yarn are the people missing from Moby Dick, the women, and they are fantastic (often in both senses). Mavis is the intrepid girl Friday, but also good in a fight, while Misha is the housekeeper who can manage monsters as well. Arabella Dromen is the wealthy sponsor of the expeditionary rescue who also writes events into being in an opium fog. The manticore too is female, with blue eyes, bobbing curls, poisonous sting and mellifluous iambic speech. My favourite, though, is Mrs Pease, the elderly lady who handles the newspaper files that are really so much more, a kind of magical internet over which she holds sway. Harrow thinks of it, and her, as ‘the memory of New York City’ and Arabella imagines ‘that this is what happens when we conjure a memory. Everybody has a Mrs. Pease behind their eyes’.
For this is also a book about writing, about books, about the power of words. Harrow, unwilling to take chances unless they will result in good copy, realizes as he becomes embroiled in daring battles ‘how dangerous it was to keep company with the characters from books’. And that is what he, and every reader, does: however much the narrator claims that he’s ‘along only to record the events,’ he becomes part of the story, and the story becomes part of him. As a fantasy, the characters shape events through their writing about them, although our stories do indeed shape how we act, so it is also true of the real world. Arabella notes that ‘Every so often there are episodes where a confluence of fictions come together to shape reality’: she does it, the manticore does it, Malbaster does it, Harrow does it and, inevitably, Ford does it, in guiding us to see the world according to his vision.
It is a dark vision, one shaped by the contemporary resurgence of xenophobic isolationism. ‘Ignorance is the handmaiden of Wonder,’ says Harrow’s boss, a master of the epigram, making one wonder if New York City of the first half of the nineteenth century might be the ‘before’ suggested by the motto ‘Make America Great Again’. We learn that the evil Malbaster and his gang, the Jolly Host, are ‘Nativists – they want to get rid of colored and Catholic’ as well as other immigrants. Malbaster seems quite clearly modeled on our present nativist with the Pale King Toad’s ‘demand of strict allegiance, his dim encompassing philosophy, his childlike messages of “Me First,” and a quest for the reclamation of white Protestant superiority that had never gone missing’. But he is also an accurate representation of attitudes circulating in nineteenth-century New York.
Ford hews carefully to the history of New York here, placing Daggoo, now named Mardi, in the historical Seneca Village, ‘a settlement of African American farmers’ later destroyed to make way for Central Park, and showing how John Jacob Astor also made money importing opium from China. In the notes that follow the text of the novel, Ford discusses how he used a map of the city from 1850 to describe where his characters wandered, ‘a kind of talisman that allowed me to daydream more deeply into the fiction’.
Ahab’s Return succeeds on all levels, from ripping yarn to historical fiction. To have imitated his source novel in epic sweep, metaphorical grandeur, and thundering rhetoric would have diminished both source and sequel. Looking instead to Melville’s sources in sensationalist tabloids was a brilliant decision in our present moment of fake news and sensationalist governance. This is the most satisfying novel I have read this year, thought-provoking, beautifully written, and fun.