DAMION SEARLS

CARVING THE WHALE

AN AUTOPSY OF ORION BOOKS’ MOBY-DICK IN HALF THE TIME

DISCUSSED: Anna Karenina in Half the Time, Digression, Texture, Weirdness, Adam Gopnik, Flaccid Hysteria, “The Quarter-Deck,” Binnacles, The Sub-Sub-Librarian, Doublings, Etymology and Extracts, Monomania

In 2007, Orion Books launched its line of Compact Editions of canonical works, with titles like Anna Karenina in Half the Time and Moby-Dick in Half the Time. “Many of us just don’t have the time to read books over a thousand pages long,” Orion’s PR department informed us. “We lead busy lives. There’s work and kids and all the other things.” The Compact Editions “have their own distinctive yet subtle branding,” they say, and are “sympathetically edited” (by an anonymous abridger) to “retain all the elements of the originals: the plot, the characters, the social, historical and local backgrounds and the authors’ language and style.”

All this is fair enough. The Compact Editions got a lot of press, mostly in the form of journalists expecting serious people to be upset but finding that no one was especially outraged. We do have bigger things to worry about. And there have always been abridgments, and the full texts remain as available as ever for anyone who wants them. I did, however, feel that while Anna Karenina in Half the Time or Vanity Fair in Half the Time would be more or less half of the same kind of thing as the originals, Moby-Dick in Half the Time would turn the original into something different—what makes Melville Melville is digression, texture, and weirdness, three literary values which were missing from Orion’s list of all the elements. Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker came to a similar conclusion:

The Orion Moby-Dick is not defaced; it is, by conventional contemporary standards of good editing and critical judgment, improved. The compact edition adheres to a specific idea of what a good novel ought to be: the contemporary aesthetic of the realist psychological novel…. [It cuts] out the self-indulgent stuff and present[s] a clean story, inhabited by plausible characters—the “taut, spare, driving” narrative beloved of Sunday reviewers.... You think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.

This begs the next question, though: For those of us leading lives too busy to read a 1,000- (or, let’s be fair, 650-) page book, would we rather spend our time on a taut, spare, driving narrative or on all-mad, flaccid hysteria? Does today’s harried reader want Moby or Dick?

There was only one way to find out: pull together every chapter, sentence, word, and punctuation mark that was cut from Melville’s original Moby-Dick; or The Whale to make the Orion edition, then see how the two demi-books compared. And so I did. The result is called, of course, ; or The Whale (pronounced “Or the Whale”: the semicolon is silent). In mathematical terms:

; = M – ½

The whole thing has made it into print, too, as an almost-400-page special issue of the journal Review of Contemporary Fiction.

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Click here to read an excerpt from ; or The Whale
as published in the
Review of Contemporary Fiction. (60KB PDF)

Click here to purchase this issue of
the
Review of Contemporary Fiction
from Dalkey Archive Press.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Damion Searls is the author of two books, Everything You Say Is True and What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, and an award-winning translator from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch. He is publishing six books in 2009, including ; or The Whale and a (normal) abridgment of Thoreau’s seven-thousand-page Journal for NYRB Classics. More info and excerpts at damionsearls.com.

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