Toe to Toe With “Moby-Dick”

The Hunted

Pierre Senges and the novel of aesthetic sabotage.


Over the past two decades, Pierre Senges has emerged as one of France’s most important and celebrated writers. At the age of 54, Senges has published 16 novels, mostly with Éditions Verticales, an experimental imprint of Gallimard, the most storied publishing house in France, as well as some two dozen radio plays. Since his 2000 debut, Veuves au Maquillages, a dark comedy about a man with a fetish for women who have murdered their husbands, he has won a number of prestigious literary prizes. Yet despite the efforts of a handful of devoted translators and small presses, he remains little-known among Anglophone readers.

To a degree surpassing even his postmodern counterparts in the United States, Senges specializes in irreverent literary pastiche and baroque maximalism. His 2004 novel The Major Refutation is a fictitious treatise attributed to the 16th-century Franciscan monk Antonio de Guevara, whose aim is to prove the New World does not exist and to expose Columbus and the other explorers as frauds. His 2008 Fragments of Lichtenberg tells the story of a group of scholars who are attempting to piece together a systematic work of philosophy out of the aphorisms of the 18th-century German physician Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. In the 2010 Studies of Silhouettes, Senges tries his hand at something similar with the unpublished fragments of Kafka, “completing” sentences from the Prague writer’s diaries by turning them into longer fictions. And in his 2015 masterpiece Ahab (Sequels), now available in an English translation by Jacob Siefring and Tegan Raleigh, we see Senges train his sights on the Great American Novel: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The zany premise of Ahab (Sequels) could have been dreamed up by Eli Cash, the writer played by Owen Wilson in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums: “Well, everybody knows that Captain Ahab dies at the end of Moby-Dick. What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn’t?” Having survived his encounter with the white whale, Senges’s Ahab moves to New York City, where he works a series of odd jobs (pastry chef, shoe shiner, elevator operator, phony Catholic priest) until he hits upon the idea of turning his time aboard the Pequod into the libretto for a Broadway musical. When that fails, he moves to Hollywood to try his luck in the script factories of the nascent studio system. Ahab’s screenplay is passed from director to director—Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Billy Wilder, Orson Welles—with no success, before being handed off to the alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald, who works on it in the months leading up to his death in 1940. Meanwhile, the hunter has become the hunted: Up and down the coasts of North America, dozens of people have been swallowed by a white whale bent on revenge against a certain one-legged captain.

Alongside these afterlives or sequels, Senges also gives us two backstories or prequels for Ahab, one for Melville’s character and the other for his own. In the first, the story of an “irascible, old whaling captain” and “pirate from Nantucket” is “palmed off” on the 19-year-old Melville by Mozart’s former librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, during a chance meeting in a Manhattan tavern in 1838, just before the aspiring writer sets off for five years at sea. In the second, Ahab is born in 1851 (that is, the year of Moby-Dick’s publication) and spends his 20s and 30s working his way up the ranks of the London stage—where he goes from prompter, to understudy, to Shakespearean actor—leaving behind a wife (the suggestively initialed Martha Doolittle) in the United States. In September 1891 (that is, the month of Melville’s death), Ahab commits a crime and is forced to take to the sea in flight (it is implied that he has murdered Melville himself). Aboard the Pequod, the fugitive is mistaken for the captain, forcing him to rely on his experience playing Richard III, Ophelia, Shylock, and company to fool the crew. In Senges’s version, Ahab the thespian invents the grudge against the whale as a sort of myth that legitimizes his position on the ship for an Odyssean two decades before the Pequod finally has its chance run-in with a white whale.

Senges makes no attempt to reconcile the two incompatible origin stories he gives for Ahab; the point, rather, is to satirically undercut the originality of Melville’s masterpiece by attributing it to someone else. Just as in real life, Melville dies an unrecognized “customs inspector,” but in Ahab (Sequels), Moby-Dick remains largely forgotten: not a central text of American fiction, but an obscure, out-of-print book known only to cognoscenti like Orson Welles. Senges’s Ahab is not content with just killing his maker; he also spends his twilight years and loose change buying up and destroying the few remaining copies of Moby-Dick he can locate in secondhand shops. Melville’s Ahab is a larger-than-life monomaniac, and his pursuit of Moby Dick to the exclusion of considerations of morality and self-interest is in no small part what gives him his grandeur. Senges’s Ahab, by contrast, is a huckster whose motives are self-preservation and personal profit: “American pragmatism putting a stop to the wanderings of a Shakespearean lunatic.” In Ahab (Sequels), the ersatz captain’s “grudge” against Moby Dick is downgraded to “pure theatricality”; the golden doubloon that Ahab nails to the mast as a reward for the first crew member to spot Moby Dick is a cheap “trick” likened to a manager giving out “bonuses.” The relationship between Senges’s book and its source text can be best summed up in his tidy description of the character they have in common: “Ahab: one step on his good leg, the next on a crude imitation.” The first time as epic tragedy, the second time as burlesque farce.

If at first the object of satire here appears to be Moby-Dick itself, on closer inspection it turns out that Senges has bigger fish to fry. Ahab may “comically outlive his death,” but Senges does not adequately explain how his protagonist comes to be almost 130 years old. This stretching of biological plausibility serves to change the scene from the mid-19th-century energy extraction economy in Moby-Dick to the early-20th-century entertainment industry of Ahab (Sequels). Senges’s persistent use of anachronism—among other things, there are references to deindustrialization, gentrification, photo booths, Saturday Night Live, the speakeasy revival craze, animal documentaries, TV miniseries, fast food, and a certain coffee chain named after a character from Moby-Dick—suggests that the Great White Way and Golden Age Hollywood are in fact merely stand-ins for a satirical target that is nearer to hand: the totally marketized culture of the 21st century.

Especially its literary culture. Today, thanks in large part to corporate consolidation, the rise of the online retailer Amazon as a publishing platform, the academicization of significant parts of literary production, and competition from film, television, streaming services, and social media, writers in particular have been returned to levels of economic precarity unseen since Alexander Pope satirized the hacks of Grub Street in The Dunciad. The key feature of our literary landscape, as Mark McGurl notes in Everything and Less, his survey of the novel in what he calls “the Age of Amazon,” is “scarcity amid abundance.” More narratives are being produced than ever before, but we have less and less leisure time to experience them; prices are driven down, but the opportunity costs of reading are driven up. The result of these developments in the market, McGurl writes, is that there are “infinitely various messages” to be consumed, but only “one true meta-message: the necessity of corporate capitalism and the consumerist way of life.”

Under these conditions, individual writers may still create difficult, unconventional, high-opportunity-cost fictions in the “style” or “genre” of former avant-gardes, but the subculture that was constructed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as a vital institution for technical innovation and a repository for nonmarket values has effectively ceased to exist. This seeming contradiction—a mode of anti-commercial writing that has “outlived” the “death” of its social function—is the central conceit of Ahab (Sequels). As we will see, it goes a long way toward explaining Senges’s initially puzzling aesthetic choices.

They were a “tough audience,” Senges writes of the Pequod’s crew, “lovers of tradition…and for [this reason] were not always appreciative of the avant-garde.” Ahab’s early “art for art’s sake” performances left them “speechless” and “exhausted,” so he modifies them accordingly, “playing aquatically with the ambiguity of genre.” What Ahab learns during his time as captain is how narrative can be a form of customer service. Once off the ship, Ahab is pauperized, but he wholeheartedly embraces the values and ideology of “free enterprise.” His time as an odd-jobber in New York is “part of the pilgrimage necessary to make oneself into a self-made man,” “the man oriented wholly toward the future,” “a man of common sense” who has understood the “logical and moral impossibility of renouncing profits.”

Ahab’s turn to writing is an attempt to monetize the only “merchandise” he has at his disposal: his life story. As a “reckless entrepreneur,” he is the cousin of today’s self-publishing “service providers,” and like them, he confronts the hard economic logic of a marketized culture. “Stories kept being told,” Senges writes; “all that matters” in both the Hollywood Ahab encounters and in the 21st century literary marketplace, is that “they be in abundance.” It does not matter if they are high-quality or even original: When even the avant-garde has “long since given up…the search for new subject matter,” Senges contends, why should anyone else feel any compunction about “wanting to cash in on stories that have already been told twenty times over, and then resumed under a different title”? That Ahab ends up writing screenplays rather than the best-selling “sailor’s Autobiography” (tentatively titled “Memoirs of an Irked Sailor”) that he dreamed of at first is an acknowledgment that, today, the telos of commercially viable literature is the screen.

The sticking point in the attempts to adapt Ahab’s story for stage and screen is always the same—how to represent the whale?—but Ahab never objects on creative grounds when the directors suggest that he replace the whale with something else. “Sub specie aeternitatis, profit of Rockefeller, genius of Puccini, it’s one and the same thing,” he reasons. He would very much like to sell out, but under these conditions—where there is no space for evaluation external to the market—selling out has lost its meaning. In the end, Ahab’s story gets made into a TV miniseries, but he doesn’t see a penny in royalties. Ahab learns the hard way that in a cultural economy totally colonized by the profit motive, there may be a multitude of stories but really only two master narratives: that of quantitative commercial success and that of “defeat.”

Since the cresting of high modernism a century ago, several generations of avant-garde writers have cast doubt on the possibility of originality, novelty, and innovation in literature, just as Senges does in this satire. However idealistic and naive these paradigms now seem, it is worth recalling why they were held up as virtues in the first place. Originality, novelty, and formal innovation in literature were modes of differentiating particular books from others; as unique objects, they acted as symbols for the possibility of unique selves. Their individual aesthetic choices could be said to have functioned as models for their readers to achieve a degree of personal autonomy from the power of the social customs, political regimes, religious institutions, and, crucially, market forces by which we are all shaped.

In his drive to become a “self-made man” according to the commercial values of the market, rather than an autonomous self according to the aesthetic values of the avant-garde, Ahab in fact allows himself to become “thingified,” Senges writes. As a flat character, lacking both psychological interiority and a plot arc, he becomes interchangeable with anyone else. The reason the whale swallows so many people before it finally captures Ahab is that it cannot tell them apart: “from the high seas, looking at the coasts, there is not a single Ahab, but millions of Ahabs.” To the whale—who is the character that is furthest removed from the market and, not coincidentally, the most well-rounded character in the book—there is “nothing more similar to a human being, than another human being, their harmony is, the predator knows, based on this repetition of motifs.” In Melville’s epic, the singular Ahab goes on a hunt for an equally singular creature; in Senges’s satire, everything and everyone has become generic: an act, an imitation, a copy, a plagiarism—a sequel.

Yet the way Senges constructs Ahab (Sequels) represents such a radical departure not only from the conventional realist novel but also from the American postmodern novels with which it would seem to have the most in common that it amounts to a kind of sabotage. At the level of form, the book explodes its potential as a commodity and, collaterally, the customer service logic of justifying aesthetic choices exclusively with reference to a reader’s pleasure. In doing so, Senges does not merely seek to place Ahab (Sequels) in the vestigial tradition of avant-garde writing; he also seeks to recapture something of its lost social function.

Much to the chagrin of its initial reviewers, Moby-Dick is famously split between novelistic “scene” (Ishmael’s adventures on the Pequod) and essayistic “discourse” (the chapters on whaling). Judging by some of the customer reviews that can be found on Goodreads, Reddit, and a number of amateur book blogs, this is the feature of Melville’s text that remains disquieting and odd to many readers to this day. (“Just skip the whaling stuff and read the story” is not uncommon advice.) Senges takes Melville’s intervention into the novel form one step further: Ahab (Sequels) is almost exclusively discursive; in other words, it does not show, it only tells. It contains no dialogue and, aside from a few monologues by the aforementioned directors and one by Ahab himself, no speech whatsoever.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of novels, which are narrated in the past or present tense, Ahab (Sequels) is narrated largely in the past or present continuous tense, and sometimes in the conditional. This gives the events the provisional status normally associated with storytelling modes like rumor, legend, or speculation—sometimes they are tagged as such by Senges—rather than with fiction proper. It is not that Senges’s narration is unreliable, a hallmark of the novel form; it is that it is unreliably unreliable. And this, rather than its syntax, or its breaks with linear chronology, or its engagements with a broad swath of European literary, artistic, and musical production going back to the Renaissance, is what makes it difficult.

A novel is a single possible world created by a one-time suspension of disbelief. Senges’s use of narrative tense in Ahab (Sequels) multiplies these possible worlds and requires the reader to suspend disbelief over and over again, until belief is no longer available as a response to the text. (We are told, for example, that there are “99 stories” behind Ahab’s missing leg; we never find out which one we are supposed to believe is true.) Serial forms like sequels, prequels, and trilogies are beloved by authors writing for commercial success, as the repetition of a successful formula across multiple books increases the likelihood of sales and downloads. By injecting seriality into the structure of a single book, however, Senges impedes the reader’s ability to imaginatively escape into a stable fictional world and the minds of the characters that inhabit it. (Needless to say, not unlike the whale in Ahab’s script, such a book could never be adapted for the screen or receive its attendant revenues, either.) The result is a formally distinctive work of literature that nonetheless limits the size of its potential audience by deliberately foreclosing the kind of narrative pleasure the novel form, grounded in the presentation of scenes, has accustomed readers to.

It is fair to ask, then, why anyone should read it. The standard defense of a work of avant-garde fiction is that once a reader has “invested the time” to master its stylistic idiom, it delivers a different (by implication, higher) set of literary pleasures: the pleasure of the unfamiliar, the pleasure of solving a puzzle, the pleasure of linguistic virtuosity and complexity, the pleasure of imagining the taboo. Senges’s prose is consistently gorgeous, and Ahab (Sequels) is frequently funny and profound, but evaluating it on these grounds would be to ignore the way it deliberately sabotages storytelling norms upheld even by otherwise “difficult” avant-garde fictions from Ulysses to Infinite Jest.

To reduce the experience of reading avant-garde fiction to the pleasures it provides is to concede that it is one genre among others, with formal conventions that may be relied on to deliver these pleasures, and a paying audience, however small, whose needs must be met. The question then becomes how to sustain the production of such pleasures for a select audience (the handful of readers of difficult literature) and transmit them as efficiently as possible, a question whose answer finds itself in the very object of Senges’s satiric critique: the literary marketplace. What makes Ahab (Sequels) the proper inheritor of the avant-garde is not merely its formal uniqueness, but the way that it challenges its reader to forgo the logic of pleasure entirely and, in doing so, to experience, for the duration of reading, something we used to be able to count on the institution of the avant-garde to provide: a space where we might be able to exert some measure of autonomy from the market forces that dominate every other square inch of our culture.

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