Ahab’s Return, by Jeffrey Ford

(Originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, September 5th, 2018)

In his book The Postmodern Condition, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote that Postmodernity, among other things, meant the end of the grand narratives, or metanarratives. In his words, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”.

It was indeed a gross simplification, but nonetheless very useful as a starting point regarding books as Jeffrey Ford’s latest novel, Ahab’s Return.

As the title says, the story is a sort of sequel to Moby-Dick. This tickled my fancy big time. Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorite epic narratives. It’s right on top with Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (published in the US as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands – although Alison Entrekin is doing a new translation as I write this review) and Ulysses.

The reason Lyotard’s claim doesn’t bother me is twofold: first, I agree with him in that epic narratives (one of the possible meanings of the concept of metanarrative) are pretty much dead. Second, I’m not in the least upset by this, because the so-called small narratives are nowhere as small as they seem – most of the modern fantasy and science fiction stories fit this bill. Of course, I’m not talking about true epic fantasy, like Tolkien, or Stapledon’s Last and First Men, but the narratives exploring deeper aspects of life, and the role of humanity on this world, for instance. From the vast amount of narratives encompassing fantastika, only very few writers are doing what could be considered epic scope, such as David Zindell in his Requiem for the Homo Sapiens series, for example. But I digress.

Ahab’s Return is far from being epic, but it does a marvelous job of revealing the human psyche AND also give us a thrilling adventure such as Melville himself could have imagined (though I think his narrative owes more to Conrad or London, but I am not complaining).

Ford’s new novel explores not the sea, but the underworld of New York in the mid-1800, a few years after the adventure of the Pequod. The narrator is Harrow, a journalist who worked close to Ishmael when the sole survivor of the battle against the white whale decided to tell his story in his newspaper, the Gorgon’s Mirror. One day, a man appears claiming to be Ahab himself, returned from the dead. As in Mark Twain’s famous quote, his death had been greatly exaggerated by Ishmael, whose book he had read. He is looking for his wife and son, who moved from Nantucket to New York City after his supposed demise. Ahab, now a much changed, humbled man (and a bit obsessed, but maybe never as obsessed as Ishmael, that archetypical unreliable narrator, painted him), wants only to be reunited with his family again.

But, naturally, things won’t be easy for him. No spoilers here, though the subtitle (or, The Last Voyage) does bear a sense of finality to the whole thing: his path will lead him to many dangers and strange characters. In their search for his son, Ahab will also learn terrible things, such as a children gang that terrorizes the city, under the iron hand of Malbaster, a strange man with apparent telepathic abilities – and a manticore (as shown in the cover, by the way, so this is not technically a spoiler).

The best thing of the novel to me, however, is exactly what Lyotard wrote about: the metanarrative. Though not an epic, Ahab’s Return features a compelling defense of the metalinguistical with the introduction of a powerful character: Arabella Dromen, a writer who claims to be writing the very narrative in which Harrow, Ahab and all the rest of the dramatis personae are in. “It’s a tale told by the universe”, she explains to him. “I’m merely the conduit.”

The book is action-packed, but there is more than harpoons (!) and firearms (plus a scrivener-turned-zombie-turned-killer): there is the telling of stories, stories strong enough to change everything around them. As Arabella also says, “the mind is a reality engine”.

Now, being fond of alternate fictions, I lost myself several times along the novel thinking of possible endings to this narrative. I love Ford’s stories for the fact that he almost never resorts to the easiest alternative. (Maybe he does that in stories like the sadly prescient Blood Drive, but its awesomeness is due to the fact that you see a tragic ending coming and still wants to read it all the way, like a beautifully Ballardian car crash.) Highly recommended.

Also a perk: I felt compelled to read Melville again, both Moby-Dick and Bartleby in particular. I have yet to visit, though, another that seems a very interesting reading: Ahab’s Wife, written by Sena Jeter Naslund. Maybe soon, but I have a big TBR pile to take care of in the next few weeks.

Thanks to Erin Reback, of Harper Collins, for sending the eARC.

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