PEOPLE FORGET THAT when Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” it wasn’t exactly Faulkner who said it. Or rather, it both was and wasn’t: Gavin Stevens, a defense lawyer within Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, says it in response to another character, named Temple Drake, declaring, “Temple Drake is dead,” to suggest that she cannot be equated with her miserable past.
Nearly everyone who quotes Faulkner’s famous lines applies them broadly to life or history, but this misses their unmistakable resonance in literature itself. One remarkable thing about books is the way they start all over again, freshly renewed, each time we reread them. The character that dies in the final pages springs back to life again to spool through the same rituals of action and emotion in a way that the reader can still somehow find satisfying. A character in a book is never truly dead — as long as someone can turn back to the beginning, that character’s life is not even past.
And yet, what kind of life is that? Is it not merely a trap? An endless, fatalistic loop that never allows for resolution or divine release? Temple has a point; if Temple Drake can be dead, then perhaps the person behind that name can begin to be someone else, to breathe with new life.
At the heart of Howard A. Rodman’s excellent novel The Great Eastern lies this question: can literary characters productively exist outside of the stories in which we first meet them? Certain characters are so iconic that they seem able to migrate to new contexts and still be themselves. Whether he appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages, on the big screen in the guise of Basil Rathbone, or in an animated television show set in the 22nd century, Sherlock Holmes remains recognizably himself. The same might be said of Ahab, the brooding, obsessive, peg-legged antihero of Moby-Dick. Whether we meet him on land or on sea, Ahab cannot help but be Ahab.
But what happens to an Ahab without his whale? This is the scenario central not just to Rodman’s novel but also to Jeffrey Ford’s (also excellent) 2018 reimagining, Ahab’s Return: or, The Last Voyage. Neither Ford nor Rodman wants to be done with Ahab, and so both claim that he escaped the fate Melville penned for him and extend the character’s life in the same way Conan Doyle did Holmes’s when his audience demanded it.
Ford gives a plausible explanation for Ahab’s survival, as well as for the survival of several other unlucky characters in the original novel: there was plenty of flotsam to cling to after the destruction of the Pequod, and with distance and wind and waves it’s difficult to tell if a broken bit of ship a half mile away has someone clinging to it. If Ishmael could survive, Ford argues, so could others.
For his part, Rodman acknowledges the boldness of what he’s about to do: “No one would be faulted for believing the Captain Ahab to be dead. The tale of his dénouement has been ably recounted elsewhere, and seemed to leave our Ahab no means of egress.”
And yet, rather than follow this with an explanation of how Ahab survived, Rodman slides into the space of myth: “There are, to be sure, deaths that bring a life to its full stop. Yet there are those deaths, particularly among the legendary, that punctuate more lightly.”
All we know is that Ahab has reappeared, seemingly conjured by a play called I Am Ahab in which a one-legged actor postulates that Ahab survived by claiming for him the epigraph from Moby-Dick’s final chapter: “And only I am escaped alone to tell thee.” The run of the play stops, though, when the “real” Ahab shows up one night and beats the actor to death with his own false leg. “The man was dead. Is dead,” thinks the actor through a mist of his own blood. “How could he be here in this room?” Before he can hit on an answer, he is dead.
Rodman makes Ahab “larger, more terrible” by far than the actor who plays him. Ford’s Ahab’s Return, on the other hand, questions the image of Ahab that Moby-Dick offers by rendering him a more sympathetic character. In Ford’s novel, we discover that Ishmael (who in Ford’s world putatively wrote Melville’s book and has since become addicted to opium) has made a great deal up about Ahab. Rodman, however, embraces the myth of Ahab fully and even magnifies it. Not only is his Ahab still obsessed with the great white whale that got away, he is also able to persuade himself that if he could survive then surely the whale must have as well. Soon, he is convinced that the force responsible for cutting a telegraph cable being laid across the floor of the Atlantic must, improbable as it seems, be his pale nemesis.
Rodman has a deep love of and respect for Melville’s novel; he is interested above all in Ahab’s obsessive personality and in the rhythms of his speech, and he manages to build out the character from Melville’s model with effective idiosyncrasy. Rodman’s pastiche of Ahab’s voice is as good as any I have read, and it’s very satisfying if you like Moby-Dick. Indeed, the Ahab sections of The Great Eastern read like chapters from a lost sequel to Moby-Dick that have just been found bricked behind a wall at Arrowhead.
The other larger-than-life fictional character that Rodman deploys is Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. Rodman is an attentive and precise reader of Verne; he takes the way Nemo and his past are described in The Mysterious Island, couples it with elements of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and shades it all with a modern sensibility. Where the author renders Ahab’s obsession and madness even more intense than in Moby-Dick, turning them into psychopathology, he recognizes the potential in Nemo, with his concern for the downtrodden and despair about the wrongs of Western colonization, to be an unlikely, albeit ambiguous, hero.
Against these two literary figures, each mad in his own way, Rodman offers a historical figure, the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel too has lived beyond his death, which, as it turns out, was faked by Nemo. An engineer of uncommon talents, Brunel built the first tunnel under a river (the Thames), designed England’s Great Western Railway, and was responsible for the most massive ship of his time, the SS Great Eastern, which was damaged by an explosion on her maiden voyage.
In Rodman’s book, Nemo has kidnapped Brunel because he needs his help to improve the Nautilus, something Brunel does only with great reluctance. Once a refurbished Great Eastern begins to lay cable for a transatlantic telegraph line — an act Nemo sees as an imperialist threat, since the telegraph led to the loss of his family — it seems the two vessels will be pitted against one another. And with Ahab, who’s guarding the Great Eastern, convinced that the Nautilus is in fact the white whale, things become increasingly desperate. Or, as Rodman’s classically omniscient narrator tells us grandly, “What we know to a certainty: at battle’s end, when smoke and mist do clear, not more than one of them shall remain alive.”
It would be wrong to reveal more of the plot, or who dies, but Rodman explores the struggles of these grandiose figures — one real and two fictional — with engaging curiosity. Readers who don’t know Verne’s or Melville’s work are still likely to enjoy the novel, but those that do will grasp its true dimensions. The Great Eastern is a pastiche in the best postmodern sense: it’s intense, invigorating, and faithful to the originals while still breaking new ground. It is, as well, rigorous in its use of 19th-century language and attitudes. Even with its combination of actual events, fictional characters, and slightly altered history, it’s more convincing than most historical novels.
Ultimately, The Great Eastern reads like a sprawling 19th-century novel that rollicks with the sense of adventure and mystery that so informs Verne’s best work. It is an engaging tale, a kind of return to what adventurous literature used to be that never loses sight of where literature — and its most complex, unforgettable characters — can still go.
Award-winning writer and translator Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, including A Collapse of Horses, The Warren, Windeye, Immobility, Last Days, and The Open Curtain. He teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.