The Sea Wolf by Jack London
I like Jack London. I really do. But sometimes you gotta wish he paid closer attention to what he was doing.
The Sea Wolf is supposed to be a sea tale, a kind of Moby Dick with the focus on Ahab. And it works, to a point. To a very limited point. This Ahab happens to be "materialist," in the language of the early 20th century--meaning he doesn't care much for deep thought and sentiment and stuff that can't be measured. If Ayn Rand had been to sea she might have come up with this character, Wolf Larsen. As it is, he's disjointed composite of Howard Roark, Gordon Gecko and a poor understanding of Nietzsche's superman. He takes what he can get, kills when he can, cares nothing for convention, for morals, for "sentiment," as he calls it. He is strong and intelligent.
We meet him after the narrator, a literary critic named Humphrey, falls off a ferry and gets rescued by him in his seal-hunting schooner, the Ghost. Of course, a man like Wolf Larsen probably wouldn't rescue anyone just to save a life, but he needs a foil, someone to banter with. Humphrey provides that.
I won't go further with the plot, except to say it is as unbelievable as any you will ever see. I would rather talk about London's peculiar style in this work. Somebody needs to.
There is hardly a page in The Sea Wolf where the author does not botch a decent effect by undermining it with some contrary idea a little later. There is hardly a page where a good description is not negated later by a poorly chosen and mitigating word. I call it inattention.
In Chapter 9, for example, we are told that Mugridge, the Cockney cook, is a coward, shortly later that he is brave. His was “the courage of cowardice,” I kid you not. His intimidation of Humphrey by sharpening a kitchen knife in his presence is "ludicrous"—until a few lines later when it is "serious". He is far too timid to actually use the knife, but this very timidity might prompt him to do it. A paragraph later, when he stabs another man rather than Humphrey, who had been the object of his wrath, his face is livid with fear and so he becomes—I am not making this up—domineering and exultant.
“The psychology of it is sadly tangled,” Humphrey tells us, “and yet I could read the workings of his mind as clearly as though it were a printed book.”
Possibly. But if so, he is the only one.
At one point in Chapter 12, several men are chasing Mugridge so they might seize him up and tow him behind the ship. Mugridge resists by running away. He had little stomach for a dip, we are told, “as the water was frightfully cold, and his was anything but a rugged constitution.” Two lines later he is flashing along the deck with a “nimbleness and speed we did not dream he possessed.”
There then takes place a bit of stage business that demonstrates Mugridge’s agility, though not in the way London probably hoped. Mugridge is being chased by one Harrison, and is springing like a cat to the tops of cabins, shinnying down scuttles, racing through rigging, and in all ways moving like a young and agile ape, to avoid being thrown in the water. Harrison is “at his heels and gaining on him.” Then:
“Mugridge, leaping suddenly, caught the jib-boom-lift. It happened in an instant. Holding his weight by his arms, and in mid-air doubling his body at the hips, he let fly with both feet. The oncoming Harrison caught the kick squarely in the pit of the stomach, groaned involuntarily, and doubled up and sank backward to the deck.”
Now I am as credulous as any reader, but in this case I must crave an explanation for how a man being frantically chased can suddenly grab hold of a line above his head, double at the hips, and kick the man behind him in the stomach. I have run through this action many times in my imagination and can only conclude that 1. Mugridge was a contortionist and could double himself backward or 2. London was eager to finish writing for the day and get drinking.
And as for Harrison groaning involuntarily, well, yes, I imagine he did. I am certain it was involuntary and I’m certain it was more than a groan—more like a bark or a grunt or a shriek—some expostulation more urgent than a groan and entirely beyond the groan category. It was a sound that was punched out of Harrison, kicked out of him, not squshed by slow pressure as a groan would have been. I also don’t wonder that Harrison “doubled up and sank backward” after being kicked in the stomach, though people in that situation more often fly backward than sink. Let that pass. This is a story thick with unusual characters exhibiting unusual behavior. Perhaps this is the proper way to behave aboard the Ghost.
There are many more examples, but we need not continue. I’ll only say I’m glad there is plenty more of London's writing to represent the man. If this were all he would never have gotten out of Oakland.
Monday, June 10, 2013
This week, a new feature: Ask Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Dear Cosmopolitan Magazine: I'm an independent young woman trying to be more sociable. I don't know much about your magazine except that it contains many photographs of extremely beautiful couples who appear to be about to have sex, so I thought you might have some advice. – Unsure
Dear Unsure: We have all kinds of advice for you. We publish 12 issues a year of advice just for you, dear, sweet, upwardly mobile but still insecure Cosmo Girl. Please refer to our special 21-page section in the May issue, called "Understanding Men," which contains such interesting articles as "The Joy of Polarity Sex," which does not involve electrical sockets no matter what it sounds like.
Also read articles such as "The Mysterious Male Ego (Yes, it's Big)," wherein we give you many examples of women having trouble making their men function properly because they, um, because they - well, it's not clear why, but you'll love the snappy graphics.
Also please find the article wherein we discuss the four male personality types - Bad Boy, Good Guy, Brainy Man and Sexy Hunk - based on the four celebrities we happened to have pictures of this month, including, if can believe this, Microsoft President Bill Gates.
This should clear up any insecurities you may have and replace them with entirely new ones.
Dear Cosmo: I'm looking for a way to spruce up my appearance. Any tips? -Feeling Drab
Dear Drab: Fashion and appearance tips are a crucial part of our monthly fare. Any time you need inspiration, please consult our cover photograph, which every month features a beautiful woman constructed mostly of petrochemical products.
Environmental tip: Many of the beauty products advertised in our pages may also be used in home renovation.
For those on a budget: You can save money on fragrances by rubbing the magazine directly against your chest.
Dear Cosmo: What is the biggest challenge to you as a magazine? - Curious
Dear Curious: I would say it's finding two or three hundred different ways to run the same story about breaking up.
Dear Cosmo: What is the most bizarre insecurity you can find to write a story about? - Still Curious
Dear Still Curious: This month it would be the story about dealing with jealous bridesmaids on your wedding day.
Question: What about bizarre advice?
Answer: That would have to be the story on page 166 about how to faint in moments of high emotional drama. This article cautions, however, that you shouldn't attempt to fake faint unless you've practiced at home on a rug.
Question: How many subscriptions did you say you sell?
Answer: So many it's scary, friend.