Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade

I am not done with this book, and it is not done with me. This book is a cipher about ciphers, a deep peer into a world where each God is an avatar of all others, often in human form, and where the only distinction between the avatars of the gods and the impious humans may be in your imagination. The story is an importation of world religion into the service of the questioning of christianity, and of christianity into the questioning of world religions. It is a collection of biblical parables and zen koan, neat little stories, but woven into a more fundamental fabric, filled with impalpable images. I have tried but cannot explain what it is, because it is, in the end, the question answered with a question, the word that references the word.

So what is it that Melville does to conjure such frothy hype? He tells a few simple stories. That's it. Each story in and of itself is simple and straightforward. Yet, look with just a small bit of care and it becomes clear that the stories have little inconsistencies that require some sort of explanation. As soon as you look, clues begin jumping out at you. There are explanations possible and even proferred, all perhaps requiring some deus to ex machina. But none of the explanations are fully satisfying, and all lead to more searching. The simple stories become the ground for a wild hunt, without the reader really knowing how or why. And then, out of the blue, Melville acknowledges the game, and draws you into a direct discussion with him about exactly what he is doing to us and why, though even this discussion itself is unsatisfying and seems full of clues. After all, reality is indeed sufficiently confusing itself so a writer who writes it true will inevitably fail to fully expalin; the inconsistent is to be trusted as a more truthful rendition than the overly consistent. Once the game is on, there is no end to it, and never can be.

Melville's work began with a book about cannibal hosts who may or may not have been cannibals but who were likely more christian than their guest and certainly more christian than their guest's old companions; over a long and strange career, Melville's communion with nature and man never really progressed much beyond this theme, merely in presentation. Typee, Melville's first book, is a single long and simple parable of the human host; Moby Dick is a long and complex but ultimately comprehendable offering by Man and Melville to nature; Confidence Man a simply stated yet enigmatic genuflection of Man to his maker, and Clarel the longest and most inscrutable sacrifice to the Melvillian Gods living in their natural wasteland. This book leads me to the conclusion that all those who have suggested many Melvilles are dead wrong: there is one, regardless of his many avatars. It is a disservice to not see the fundamental unity of his work - a unification in the Confidence Man's ciphers.

Much discussion has occurred on whether or not this book might be "post-modern" or, before that category was born, "modernist". It is neither, for it challenges a more fundamental set of thoughts than each of these temporal forms. Let's think of it as epic, if we must, or, better yet, as biblical, if we are required to categorize the thing. It is no more post-modern than those fishes and loaves that Christ used to con the masses.

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