Frank Lentricchia, Lucchesi and the Whale. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001

Article excerpt

Lucchesi and the Whale is the third book of fiction by the apostate literary critic Frank Lentricchia, who made the transition from academic criticism to creative writing in a 1994 memoir titled The Edge of Night. He followed that up with two short novels in Johnny Critelli and The Knifemen (1996), and then a longer novel, The Music of the Inferno (1999), which has the most compelling narrative drive of all his fictions. In these earlier works, Lentricchia would drop the occasional Melville reference, and his pale, monomaniac protagonist in The Music of the Inferno bears some resemblances to Ahab, Ishmael, and Bartleby. But in this most recent novel, Lentricchia puts Melville at center stage to investigate the powers of writing. His fictional stand-in, a novelist manque named Thomas Lucchesi, uses Melville's career as a model for exploring how the acts of literary creation and reception both succeed and fail at lending his own life a sense of meaning. Anyone who reads fiction only for its plot will be put off by Lucchesi's episodic personal narrative, which works according to the disjunctive logic of memory and thematic association rather than the cause-effect progression of conventional narrative. Nevertheless, Melville enthusiasts interested in aesthetics should be intrigued by Lucchesi's reading of Moby-Dick.

Lentricchia has continually been obsessed with the theme of paternity, and his narratives cover a variety of love-hate relations between parents and children, or what Lucchesi calls "the lacerations of family" (26). One of the epigraphs to The Music of the Inferno comes from Chapter 114 of Moby-Dick ("The Gilder"): "Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it." In Lucchesi and the Whale, the title character treats the orphan's search for paternity as the impulse behind both Melville's and his own writing. Lucchesi sees Moby-Dick as "nothing less than an abandoned son's (a son's, it is enough to say a son's) final retort to the voids of the Father God, voids flowing from the unbottomed reservoir of His Fatherly Nothingness" (50). These familiar Freudian themes also run through Pierre, but Lucchesi is most interested in relating their development in Moby-Dick to his own yearnings after truth and his anxieties of authorial influence. Writing for him amounts to "self-fathering" (66), even "self-resurrection" (62), and he claims that Melville also wrote to create a transcendent substitute for his "finitudinous" father Allan (50). If this is irresponsible scholarship, Lucchesi doesn't care. Quite the contrary, he is "eager ... pleased to confuse the Myth with its autobiographical origin" (57).

Lucchesi puts several postmodern twists on the psychological themes he finds in Moby-Dick. He rejects Ahab's quest for a "deep" truth that supposedly lies beneath the surfaces of sensory reality. Such a quest, he claims, relies on a "metaphysics of the sinkhole" (55), and it can only result in "the dull death of deep meaning" (58). As an alternative, he celebrates Melville's counter-impulse" to stay at the thin variegated surface of sensuous life and figurative play" (58). Following scholarly tradition, he associates this positive, life-affirming impulse with Ishmael. This preference for Ishmael's "`low enjoying power' of sensuous perception" (74) brings to mind one of Lentricchia's own critical enthusiasms, Wallace Stevens, and at one point Lucchesi even compares Moby-Dick to Stevens's "The Snowman." Both works try to elaborate on "the nothing that is" (74). Lucchesi, however, does not share Stevens's and other modernist writers' confidence that art is superior to life.

Fortunately, Lucchesi avoids getting lost in the tedious epistemological games that have become fashionable in a lot of recent fiction and criticism. Instead, he treats writing as rhetoric and the will to power rather than as representation. …