Am I Not Now at Peace? On Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel’s “Dayswork”

Alice Kelly reviews Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel’s “Dayswork.”

Am I Not Now at Peace? On Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel’s “Dayswork”

Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel. W. W. Norton & Company. 240 pages.

DAYSWORK (2023), CO-AUTHORED by the husband-and-wife duo of Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel, is about scholarship—in particular the circuitous, interconnected, delightful and often maddening world of doing academic research. It’s also about the pandemic. The book moves artfully between the narrator’s research, all conducted from home; the work and life of Herman Melville; writers influenced by Melville including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Sylvia Plath; and the protagonist’s own day-to-day experience during the strangeness of quarantine. There are glimpses into the narrator’s marriage and family dynamics, but the narrative is primarily about her trying to come to grips with Melville—and with the pandemic. (Literary critics will understand the value of holding on to other people’s lives and work when one’s own life is in crisis.) As the book interweaves fact and fiction throughout in Sebaldesque fashion, the vexing nature of academic research becomes a metaphor for trying to work out what is happening on a broader scale. The experimental, fragmentary style—and lack of an explicit narrative—is a way of writing about the pandemic without really talking about it: a fascinating example of “pandemic writing” that doesn’t mention masks, tests, or statistics.

Dayswork is constructed as a patchwork of interconnected thoughts that recreate the experience of following up on a lead or chasing down a reference, and its short, epigrammatic sentences and staccato paragraphs mirror both the disconnected nature of research with the dislocation of time caused by social isolation. Most passages are an assemblage of quotations from “the Biographer,” eventually revealed to be Hershel Parker, author of a two-volume Melville biography, as well as a host of other Melville scholars and critics and Melville himself, punctuated by the narrator or her husband’s wry comments. The narrator often traces the routes she took to uncover this information: for example, when she discusses researching a historical figure “whose childhood home, I see on Google Maps, is a mile from” another’s, or when she presents a fact “according to the author of an article I surreptitiously ripped from a magazine at the Subaru dealership way out on Beechmont.” The novel faithfully documents the idiosyncratic nature of research in the age of the internet: the strange tidbits of information and minutiae you find via Google, the human stories and connections, the imaginative journeys you take each day in front of the computer or in the library, the vagaries of individual interpretations. At one point during a text conversation with her husband, who is quarantined in their basement, he “sign[s] off with a string of emojis intended, I think, to depict the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne.”

In part, Dayswork is a tribute to the enormous body of scholarship on this most canonical of American writers: the one who has seemingly inspired the most obsessive scholarship and fanaticism. The narrator writes about Henry A. Murray, who spent over 20 years working on his “massive unfinished biography” and died having refused to share any of the Melvillean secrets he had supposedly uncovered. (Those secrets, including letters from Melville to Hawthorne, are believed to be in a safe in Murray’s home, behind a wall constructed of boards that he pilfered from Arrowhead, Melville’s own house.) Another professor, the narrator recounts, died by suicide after his detailed close reading of Melville’s phrase “soiled fish of the sea” was rendered useless when a genetic edition of the text revealed that the phrase was, in fact, “coiled fish of the sea.” Even Maurice Sendak had a German shepherd called Herman. Arguably, these scholars and admirers are all foils for the narrator, herself a Melville obsessive. At one point, she attempts to calculate the number of days he lived; at another, she tries to work out something even more specific:

In the dark I tried to calculate how many times Herman Melville’s heart beat:
60 ✕ 60 ✕ 24 ✕ 365 ✕ 72.

But 60 bpm was, I decided, too low, given tobacco and alcohol—
I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven, he once wrote to Hawthorne.

Given his appetite, his debts, his grief.
Given what the Biographer calls his “four decades of sustained misery” after the publication of Moby-Dick.

So I tried 75, but couldn’t solve it.

This obsession is presented through a nod to COVID-19: “My husband says that I seem to have contracted Melville, and it’s true that some mornings we find one of my crumpled sticky notes in the sheets like a used tissue.” Perhaps fittingly, the longest paragraph in the book is a series of anecdotes about Harrison Hayford—a tribute to the general editor of The Writings of Herman Melville, a project that took 52 years to complete and ended 15 years after his death—highlighting his scholarly generosity, such as “Harrison Hayford collaborating with graduate students but refusing to include his name.”

Dayswork cleverly recreates the experience of many of us during the pandemic—trying to find verifiable information on the internet only to end up reading the myriad ways in which it had been interpreted by others, endlessly seeking meaning in a sea of personal anecdotes. One of the novel’s key preoccupations, unsurprisingly, is the difficulty of sorting out fact from fiction. Sometimes the narrator assertively states something, only to undermine herself a few pages later, admitting, “I see it was not Updike but Paul Auster who wrote that …” or citing an online source “which is not, it turns out, reputable.” The value of evidence is crucial from the first chapter:

Curiously, Melville’s delinquent passport applications indicate that he shrank nearly an inch and a half in seven years—
He was 5’10 1/8” at age thirty but 5’8 3/4” at age thirty-seven.

According to ships’ crew lists, he was 5’8 1/2” at age nineteen but 5’9 1/2” at age twenty-one.

If you had less evidence, my husband said, you’d know how tall Herman Melville was.

Or if I had more, I said.

Elsewhere, the narrator teasingly mimics modes of academic citation: “Given Hawthorne’s shyness (see Hawthorne’s Shyness, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).” Dayswork is also about the limits of knowledge about the past, complete with a comment on how scholarly knowledge can be policed:

I did, one morning, try, unsuccessfully, to discover how many copies of Moby-Dick exist in the world.

“Much remains unknown,” writes one of Melville’s biographers, “and always will.”

I have reached, so many times, my free article limit.

“‘We are poor passing facts,’ according to Robert Lowell and this blue sticky note,” the narrator writes elsewhere. In the final chapter, she recounts the copies of Moby-Dick she has come across, ranging from “Susan Howe’s heavily annotated copy” at Yale to those she has found in fiction and on social media:

I found @ericjohnkrebs’s 1961 copy in which he found an old train ticket from the New York Central Railroad.

And @stefschwartz’s lost copy which was found and turned in to the train station with her ticket still inside.

The protagonist tells us: “I found the copy [Melville] gave to Hawthorne, which is unlocated and may never be found,” blurring fiction and reality, and demonstrating how much of our scholarship and recreation of the past is imaginative.

The pandemic is even replicated in the book’s ostensibly separate chapters, unnamed and unnumbered. As in the pandemic itself, there are demarcations, but they’re not indexed. Things happen, but we can’t place them. The chapters blend into one another, a textual rendering of the impossibility of placing things chronologically—a literary response to COVID that is perhaps not surprising: plotlessness, which, artfully combined with the metaphor of academic research, allows a clear novelistic structure to emerge—one that documents Melville’s career as the chapters progress, while keeping the reader so immersed in the details of the research that we don’t notice it unfolding. Melville is an ideal subject for this research, and an ideal stand-in for the pandemic, inspiring, as he does, obsessive, fastidious, and zealous modes of behavior among his followers.

The novel’s title comes from the 26-page handwritten letter Melville sent to Hawthorne in reply to his reading of Moby-Dick a few days after its publication: “[I]f I have done the hardest possible day’s work, and then come to sit down in a corner and eat my supper comfortably—why, then I don’t think I deserve any reward for my hard day’s work—for am I not now at peace? Is not my supper good?” In a late chapter, parts of the letter are quoted verbatim by the protagonist to her husband as he quarantines in the basement, with his interjections included throughout: “Hold on, my husband said, let me turn off the dryer.” This blending of the timeless, the poetic, the profound, and the quotidian was the experience of the pandemic lockdown for many people. The existential grief, the sorrow, the unexpected joys combined with the Zoom meetings, the working from home with children, the endless testing, the endless internet scrolling. Following a reference to “your own solitudes” in Melville’s letter to Hawthorne, the couple discuss quarantine:

Solitudes, my husband said.

Hawthorne would have been fine with quarantine, I told him.

He probably would have liked it, I said.

The analogy between research and the pandemic becomes more pronounced as the book continues. The narrator links the endless nature of Melville scholarship with the ways we demarcated COVID time, with a reference to how long her husband must remain in quarantine:

The Melville Log, the Melville Revival, the Melville Industry, the Melville Society, the Melville Vortex, the Melville Room, the Melville Effect …

“There is no closure,” said one of Hayford’s most prominent former students.

“There is no end in sight, said that prominent former student’s prominent former student.

Just five more days, my husband said last night.

What counts as a “day’s work”? The idea has been present throughout the novel, often in relation to stories of beleaguered wives and the gendered nature of labor that the narrator comes across in her research. This is paralleled gently in the emerging story of the narrator’s marriage and the “Bad Time” sometime in the past, when the husband and wife disagreed about moving to another state. “I lost,” she writes. There are multiple unacknowledged debts to wives present here. Lizzie Melville’s largely invisible labor and hardship in relation to her husband both during his lifetime and after his death is particularly highlighted, even if humorously:

Melville’s wife, Lizzie, gave herself this kitten as a reward for having endured the composition and publication of her husband’s epic poem, Clarel. […]

A “dreadful incubus of a book,” she called Clarel in a letter—
“(I call it so because it has undermined all our happiness.)”

Debit: happiness
Credit: kitten

Most of the print run of Clarel—the longest poem in American literature, the draft of which Melville once awoke his daughter at 2:00 a.m. to proofread—was pulped three years later. Hawthorne’s wife didn’t have it much better: “Hawthorne appears to have read Moby-Dick in two days, sitting in his study while his wife packed the house and took care of their three young children,” including nursing a newborn. The narrator thinks back to the hour each day she and her husband got to write in the shed when they had young children, recalling her thwarted attempts to write a novel. Melville, by contrast, while working on Moby-Dick, was “seated all day in his cold study […] [u]ntil at an appointed hour came a knock on his door, ending his day’s work.” The narrator compares the young Melville, age 12, “sent to work in a bank six days a week” with “[t]he age of [her] younger daughter—Presently in her room, on Zoom, in school, on mute.”

Unlike earlier pandemic novels, such as Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends (2021), Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (2021), Ali Smith’s Companion Piece (2022), or Weike Wang’s Joan Is Okay (2022), Dayswork approaches the pandemic by decentering it, by making something else the focus while maintaining the metaphor. (Arguably the closest thematic approach to writing about the pandemic is Delphi (2022) by Clare Pollard, where the unnamed narrator becomes increasingly obsessive about her research into ancient prophecies as the lockdown continues.) As a scholar of war literature, I’m interested whether there will be a pandemic publishing boom like the “War Books Boom” of 1928–30, a period which saw the publication of books including Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, after what scholar Samuel Hynes calls a period of “curious imaginative silence” during the earlier 1920s. There is evidence that audiences were fatigued with reading about the war and so publishers responded with books on other topics; others have argued that grief and trauma meant that people were simply not able to write about it. The 10-year anniversary of the Armistice was also a reason for revisiting the war towards the end of the decade, at a safe distance, when the narrative of the war had largely been established.

Will there be a “COVID-19 Books Boom”? Perhaps, but not right now, given the lack of consensus and unworked-through grief—not to mention the ugly recurring head of the pandemic, ongoing as I write. Dayswork, with its fragmentation, plotlessness, and playful exchange of fact and fiction—expressed as a paean to academic research in the age of Google and the pandemic—is a masterful antidote.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Alice Kelly is an assistant professor in literature and history at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War (2020) and the editor of Edith Wharton’s war reportage, Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (2015), as well as other academic and popular publications on the literary and cultural memory of war. She regularly writes for The Times Literary Supplement. Find her on Twitter @DrAliceKelly.


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