Ahab did not go down with the Pequod. The Pequod did not even go down. Ahab actually defeated Moby Dick with minimal fuss, the Pequod intact, and years later was shipwrecked in an unknown land. While there he found out a mysterious fruit which encourages longevity, and now, a century and a half since the voyage of the Pequod, after finding a dusty old copy of Moby-Dick in a bookstore back at Nantucket, Ahab sits at a computer keyboard and tries to refute Ishmael’s rather elaborate tale.
This is the kind of far-fetched, inventive premise that Anne Finger comes up with in her most recent short story collection, Call Me Ahab. These nine stories perform a kind of speculative insight by borrowing characters from history and literature, all of whom are linked by a common theme: disability, of one form or another.
Finger casts her net wide, bringing in artists and actors (Vincent Van Gough, Helen Keller, Frida Kahlo), mythological and semi-mythological characters (Goliath, Ned Ludd), and the obscure (a descendent of the Boston Brahmins, a dwarf from a Velázquez painting). These stories are snapshots of their lives, portrayed in original and audacious ways, and all through the prism of contemporary culture. Ahab is aware of the Jim Jones suicides, Van Gough applies for work at McDonalds — it is as if time has been knocked off-balance and the decades are leaking into each other.
Finger’s flamboyant but unflinching style allows for some surreal moments. We see a ravenous Van Gough satiate his hunger with a hamburger, only to discover the chasm between his hungry imagination and the stark reality of fast food:
When you are not eating the food you imagine it is the stuff of dreams… and then there is the reality of the cloying milk and the hamburger that tastes of metal and decay. And the reaction of an empty stomach to food, which forces you to rush down an alley, pull down your pants, and allow the shit to hiss and roil out of you.
This clash of imagination with the cold, hard truth forms a thread through the collection. Later, we are presented with a Goliath that we feel sorry for, a Goliath struggling with gigantism and insecurity. And of course, there is Ahab; plagued with gay feelings for Ishmael, he becomes a self-aware, wry figure, haunted more by the absence of his leg than by his obsession with the White Whale (an obsession greatly exaggerated by his crew). The characters that we are comfortable with, that have been shaped and formed by our imagination, are undermined.
Despite the obvious intrigue of the stories and the undeniable energy of the prose, the narrator’s playful style sometimes gets in the way. Consider the opening of “The Blind Marksman”, which starts with the line “The blindness in this story is not a metaphor.” A frosty beginning to say the least, but are we to take it as the truth or as a double bluff? Later, the stern narrator informs us that “You are now to shed that ironical attitude I have worked so hard to awaken in you during the course of this story. You are to think of that feel of napalm on flesh as you think of the marksman’s blindness and sofa and the subway strap.” Again, where does the reader stand? All too often Finger prevents the story from revealing itself organically.
We are never granted too much intimacy with the characters, always kept at a distance by a sharply ironic tone. Many of the portrayals of disability are refreshing in their honesty and candor, but one does not come away with a significant understanding. A story where things really come together is “Gloucester”, which is narrated by a gay man who is dying of AIDS, and who also happens to be a descendent of the Boston Brahmins. The voice of the character is one of humour and sometimes bitterness, but it unites in this particular situation in a way that proves resonant and gripping, recalling the great Alice Munro with its subtle human insight. When confronted with the question of what he is afraid of, Gloucester replies “death”,
I meant to say it with a certain ironic flip, but I didn’t quite pull it off. Suddenly, there death is — not a man in a black hood from a Bergman movie, not a Day of the Dead figurine brought back from Mexico — but my death, my very own death, my one and only death — hunched naked in the air between us.
Finger can do serious, as shown here (though with pop culture references and sardonic tone intact), and also at the end of “The Artist and the Dwarf”, which morphs into a chilling concentration camp scene. But these moments, for this reader at least, came all too infrequently.
Finger’s voice is one of boldness and obvious literary talent and these stories are worth a read for the gorgeous descriptions alone. However, it is hard to keep Ned Ludd’s mother’s words out of one’s head when she says “Fine words butter no parsnips”. As a stylist, Finger’s approach sometimes feels at odds with the content, forcing disjunctions where there should be unity. In the end we are left with a fascinating glimpse into the varieties of human difference, but it is fleeting and distant.